The Shadow of the Gladiator


The year is 73 BC and Rome is still a Republic. In two decades time the Republic will come to an end when Julius Caesar makes himself a dictator. At the moment, Rome and its large empire is controlled by a relatively small number of aristocrats and a tiny percentage - some 2% - of the population; i.e. those few who are rich. The gladiators who fight in the Circus in order to entertain the masses are mostly slaves. Spartacus leads a small rebellion of these gladiators who then rampage across Italy trying to recruit other slaves in order to help them fight against Rome.  

Gladiators, slaves, and even the Roman soldiers themselves (i.e. men mostly) could be killed by their overlords with impunity - by the thousand. 

That midsummer of 73 there was a breakout from a gladiatorial school in Campania. Like shellfish and luxury accommodation, such schools had become increasingly big business in the region. Gladiators were very much a home-grown speciality. Long before the arrival of Rome on the scene, tombs across Campania and Samnium had been the settings for duels between armed warriors, staged in honour of the spirits of the ever-thirsty dead.

Even as the rituals of blood-spilling began to be commercialised by a growing Roman interest in them, gladiators continued to dress in the style of Samnite warriors - complete with brimmed helmets and ungainly, bobbing crests. As time went by, and Samnite independence faded into history, so the appearance of these fighters came to seem ever more exotic - like that of animals preserved from extinction in a zoo.

To the Romans themselves, the whiff of the foreign that clung to gladiatorial combat was always a crucial part of its appeal. As the Republic's wars became ever more distant from Italy, so it was feared that the martial character of the people might start to fade.

In 105 BC the consuls who laid on Rome's first publicly sponsored games did so with the specific aim of giving the mob a taste of barbarian combat. This was why gladiators were never armed like legionaries, but always in the grotesque manner of the Republic's enemies - if not Samnites, then Thracians or Gauls.

Yet this spectacle of savagery, staged in the Forum, the very heart of Rome, inspired emotions of admiration as well as loathing and contempt.

The upper classes might like to pretend that the games existed for the benefit of the plebs, but the example of a gladiator's courage could affect anyone. 'Even when they have been felled, let alone when they are still standing and fighting, they never disgrace themselves,' enthused the sophisticated Cicero. 'And suppose a gladiator has been brought to the ground, when do you ever see one twist his neck away after he has been ordered to extend it for the deathblow?'

Here, in the gesture of a vanquished foreign slave, was the embodiment of everything that the Romans most admired.

Distorted though the reflection may have been, the gladiator held up a mirror to the watching crowd. He enabled the Romans to witness the consequence of their addiction to glory in its rawest, most extreme and most debased form.

The difference between a senator campaigning for the consulship and a gladiator fighting for his life was only one of degree.

A Roman was brought up to thrill to the spectacle of both.

In a society such as the Republic, fascination with the violence of the arena came naturally. The more excessive its gore-spattered theatricality, the more the Romans found themselves craving it. But the carnage also served them as a deadly warning. Gladiatorial combat was evidence of what might happen once the spirit of competition was given free rein, once men started to fight each other not as Romans, bound by the restraints of custom and obligation, but as brutes. Blood on the sand, corpses dragged away on hooks.

Should the frameworks of the Republic collapse, as they had almost done during the years of civil war, then such might be the fate of everyone, citizen as well as slave.

Here, then, was another reason why the training schools tended to be concentrated in Campania, at a safe distance from, Rome. The Romans could recognise the savagery in the soul of the gladiator and feared to have it harboured it in their midst.

In the summer of 73, even though the number of gladiators on the run was well below a hundred, the Romans still sent a praetor to deal with them, along with an army of three thousand men.

The fugitives having taken refuge on the slopes of Vesuvius, the Romans settled down to starve them out.

Gladiators, however, knew all about lunging at an opponent's weak spot. Finding the slopes of the volcano covered with wild vines, they wove ladders out of the tendrils, then descended a precipice and attacked the Romans in the rear. The camp was captured, the legionaries routed. The gladiators were immediately joined by further runaways. Leg irons were melted down and forged into swords. Wild horses were captured and trained, a cavalry unit formed.

Spilling out across Campania, the slaves began to pillage a region only just starting to recover from Sulla's depredations. [Sulla had recently crushed many unhappy 'Italian' tribes.] Nola was besieged yet again, and looted. Two further Roman armies were routed. Another praetor's camp was stormed. His fasces [his symbols of authority] were captured, and even his horse.

What had begun as a makeshift guerrilla force was now forming itself into a huge and disciplined army of some 120,000 men.

Credit for this belonged to the leader of the original break-out, a Thracian named Spartacus.

Before his enslavement he had served the Romans as a mercenary, and combined the physique of a gladiator with shrewdness and sophistication. He recognised that if the rebels stayed in Italy, it would be only a matter of time before their outraged masters annihilated them, so in the spring of 72 he and his army began to head for the Alps.

They were pursued by Gellius Publicola, who had just been elected to the consulship. Before he could engage with Spartacus, however, the slaves met with the Roman forces stationed to guard the northern frontier, and destroyed them. The route over the Alps, and to freedom, now stood wide open. But the slaves refused to take it.

Instead, meeting and brushing aside Gellius' army, they retraced their steps southwards, back towards the heartlands of their masters and everything they had previously been attempting to escape.

The Romans were perplexed by this volte face. One explanation they offered for it was overconfidence: 'the slaves were stupid, and foolishly laid too much confidence in the huge numbers who were flocking to join their force'.

In fact, it would have been hard for the rebels not to have been overwhelmed by the discovery of just how many other slaves there were in Italy.

Human beings were not the least significant portion of the wealth to have been plundered by the Republic during its wars of conquest.

The single market established by Roman supremacy had enabled captives to be moved around the Mediterranean as easily as any other form of merchandise, and the result had been a vast boom in the slave trade, a transplanting of populations without precedent in history.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, had been uprooted from their homelands and brought to the centre of the empire, there to toil for their new masters. Even the poorest citizen might own a slave.

In rich households the labour glut obliged slave-owners to think up ever more exotic jobs for their purchases to specialise in; whether dusting portrait busts, writing invitations or attending to purple clothes.

By their very nature, of course, such tasks were recherche.

The work of most slaves was infinitely more crushing.

This was particularly the case in the countryside, where conditions were at their worst. Gangs were bought wholesale, branded and shackled, then set to labour from dawn until dusk. At night they would be locked up in huge, crowded barracks. Not a shred of privacy or dignity was permitted them. They were fed the barest minimum required to keep them alive. Exhaustion was remedied by the whip, while insubordination would be handled by private contractors who specialised in the torture - and sometimes execution - of uppity slaves.

The crippled or prematurely aged could expect to be cast aside, like diseased cattle or shattered wine jars. It hardly mattered to their masters whether they survived or starved. After all, as Roman agriculturalists liked to remind their readers, there was no point in wasting money on useless tools.

This exploitation was what underpinned everything that was noblest about the Republic - its culture of citizenship, its passion for freedom, its dread of disgrace and shame.

It was not merely that the leisure which enabled a citizen to devote himself to the Republic was dependent upon the forced labour of others. Slaves also satisfied a subtler, more baneful need. 'Gain cannot be made without loss to someone else': so every Roman took for granted.

All status was relative.

What value would freedom have in a world where everyone was free?

Even the poorest citizen could know himself to be immeasurably the superior of even the best-treated slave. Death was preferable to a life without liberty: so the entire history of the Republic had gloriously served to prove.

If a man permitted himself to be enslaved, then he thoroughly deserved his fate. Such was the harsh logic that prevented anyone from even questioning the cruelties the slaves suffered, let alone the legitimacy of slavery itself.

It was a logic that slaves accepted too. No one ever objected to the hierarchy of free and un-free, merely his own position within it. What the rebels wanted was not to destroy slavery as an institution, but to win the privileges of their former masters.

So it was that they would sometimes force their Roman prisoners to fight as gladiators: 'Those who had once been the spectacle became the spectators.''

Only Spartacus himself appears to have fought for a genuine ideal.

Uniquely among the leaders of slave revolts in the ancient world, he attempted to impose a form of egalitarianism on his followers, banning them from holding gold and silver and sharing out their loot on an equal basis. If this was an attempt at Utopia, however, it failed. The opportunities for violent freebooting were simply too tempting for most of the rebels to resist. Here, the Romans believed, was another explanation for the slaves' failure to escape while they had the chance.

What were the bogs and forests of their homelands compared to the temptations of Italy?

The rebels' dreams of freedom came a poor second to their greed for plunder. To the Romans, this was conclusive evidence of their servile nature.

In fact, the slaves were only aiming to live as their masters did, off the produce and labour of others. Even on the rampage they continued to hold a mirror up to Roman ideals.

It was no wonder that the Romans themselves, who could recognise efficient looting when they saw it, should have begun to panic.

With the defeat of Gellius' army, and the Republic's other legions all serving abroad, the capital suddenly found itself perilously exposed.

Crassus, who had not boasted of being rich enough to raise his own army for nothing, now made his move. His supporters in the Senate were mobilised.

After a furious debate the consuls were stripped of their two legions, and Crassus was awarded sole command.

The new generalissimo immediately launched a recruiting drive, quadrupling the size of the forces at his disposal. Having won the chance to establish himself as the saviour of the Republic, he did not intend to waste it.

When two of his legions, in direct contradiction of his orders, engaged with Spartacus and suffered yet another defeat, Crassus' response was to resurrect the ancient and terrible punishment of decimation.

Every tenth man was beaten to death, the obedient along with the disobedient, the brave along with the cowardly, while their fellows were forced to watch.

Military discipline was re-imposed.

At the same time, a warning was sent to any slaves tempted to join Spartacus that they could expect no mercy from a general prepared to impose such sanctions upon his own men.

Ruthless as Crassus was, he never did anything without a fine calculation of its effect. At a single brutal stroke the property-grubbing millionaire had transformed his image into that of the stern upholder of old-fashioned values. As Crassus would have been perfectly aware, the traditions of Roman discipline always played well with the voters.

With his authority now firmly established, Crassus moved to ring-fence the capital.

Spartacus responded by retreating further south. He knew that this was where he was most likely to find new recruits. Leaving behind the town-dotted prosperity of central Italy, his army began to pass through a dreary succession of vast estates. On the plains all was desolate save for toiling chain-gangs, while across the uplands there was no one to be met with save for the occasional foreign slave driving huge flocks or herds across otherwise empty ranches. What had once been a landscape of flourishing towns and villages was now 'ltaliae solitudo' - 'the wilderness of Italy'.

Driving the rebels further southwards through this desolation, and away from Rome, Crassus finally succeeded in penning them in the very heel of the peninsula.

By now winter was starting to close in, and to ensure that his quarry could not escape, Crassus raised a barricade stretching from shore to shore. Spartacus found himself trapped. Two despairing attempts were made to storm the legionaries' ditch and wall. Both were repulsed, to Crassus' immense relief, for he, like his quarry, was starting to grow desperate. Time was running out. An enemy far more threatening than Spartacus was looming on the horizon. After five years in Spain, Pompey was on his way home. [Pompey was a political rival as far as Crassus was concerned.]

When Spartacus learned of this he attempted to capitalise on Crassus' discomfiture by offering to negotiate. Crassus contemptuously refused. Spartacus responded by crucifying a Roman prisoner in full view of the barricades. All day long the screams of the dying man were borne on the icy wind to his fellow citizens. Then, as evening darkened and snow began to gust, Spartacus made a third attempt to force the barricades. This time he broke free. Fleeing Crassus, he began to zigzag northwards.

Crassus, with one eye on the rebels and the other on the ever-nearing Pompey, followed him at a frantic speed, picking off stragglers in a series of escalating clashes.

At last the rebels were cornered again, and Spartacus turned and prepared to fight.

Ahead of his marshalled men, he stabbed his horse, spurning the possibility of further retreat, pledging himself to victory or death. Then the slaves advanced into battle. Spartacus himself led a desperate charge against Crassus' headquarters, but was killed before he could reach it. The vast bulk of the rebels' army perished alongside their general. The great slave uprising was over. Crassus had saved the Republic.

Except that, at the very last minute, his glory was snatched from him.

As Pompey headed south with his legions towards Rome he met with five thousand of the rebels, fugitives from Spartacus' final defeat. With brisk efficiency he slaughtered every last one, then wrote to the Senate, boasting of his achievement in finishing off the revolt.

Crassus' feelings can only be imagined. In an attempt to counteract Pompey's glory-hogging he ordered all the prisoners he had captured to be crucified along the Appian Way.

For over a hundred miles, along Italy's busiest road, a cross with the body of a slave nailed to it stood every forty yards, gruesome billboards advertising Crassus' victory.

taken from Rubicon by Tom Holland - a really, really good read! 

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