Anything can be the stuff of romance when Hollywood gets its hands on it. Take Spartacus’s revolt, the slave uprising that shook Rome. The 1960 film classic Spartacus gave the rebel gladiator (Kirk Douglas) a love interest, Varinia (Jean Simmons), invented in turn by Howard Fast in his 1951 novel of the same name. Aram Khachaturian’s 1952 ballet, Spartacus also gave Spartacus a girlfriend, this time named Phrygia. Varinia and Phrygia are both fiction but the story doesn’t end there. Spartacus really did have a wife or at least a female companion. Her name does not survive but her nationality does. Like Spartacus, she came from Thrace (roughly, modern Bulgaria), not Phrygia (in modern Turkey) or Germany (Varinia’s supposed homeland in the novel; the film makes her a native of Britain). I call her the Thracian Lady.
Her story survives in Plutarch. She was enchanting – literally. A worshipper of Dionysus, the Thracian Lady went into trances and issued prophecies. Dionysus, also called Bacchus, is known today as the god of wine, but he was also the god of liberation, which suited him for a slave revolt. Dionysus served as well as the national god of Thrace, which no doubt added to the Thracian Lady’s credibility as his mouthpiece.
She was with Spartacus from the beginning of the revolt. The Thracian Lady had a vision of Spartacus and a snake, symbol of Dionysus. She proclaimed that he would attain great and even frightening power. Since Dionysus was a symbol of hope to slaves throughout southern Italy, which was the center of the revolt, the Thracian Lady might have helped draw followers to Spartacus’s side. If so, it would not be the last time that religion fueled an insurgency.
We have no idea what she looked like. Was the Thracian Lady as radiant as Jean Simmons? Did her presence inspire the haunting adagio of Khachaturian’s dance of Phrygia and Spartacus? Only Clio, the muse of history knows, and she’s not telling. But we shouldn’t complain. Practically no information survives about the lives of ancient slaves. To know that Spartacus had a lady love is in itself a valentine from the ancient world.