A Valentine from Spartacus

In Spartacus by Barry Strauss6 Comments

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.


Barry StraussA Valentine from Spartacus


  1. Bindi

    Great to know that the real Spartacus had a lover!
    Was the Thracian Lady there till the bitter end, like Jean Simmons tugging on Spartacus’s toe? I’m looking forward to reading the book to find out!

  2. Barry

    It’s fun to remember that before she was tugging Spartacus’s toe, Jean Simmons played Salvation Army Sarah in “Guys and Dolls,” where she sang that if she were a bell she’d go ding-dong, ding-dong, ding! From Dionysus to the Salvation Army and back again!

  3. Barry

    @ Arthur K
    Fustian! Now there’s a word for Spartacus. As a metaphor it means pompous or inflated writing but it originally referred to a coarse fabric. Mainly used for workers’ clothes, fustian became a class statement in nineteenth-century Britain, when fustian jackets were to radicals what blue jeans were to American teenage rebels of the 1950s. From bombast to solidarity: so it goes.

  4. Barry Strauss

    @ IreneH
    McCullough writes about Spartacus and his revolt towards the end of her big book, Fortune’s Favorites. She shows an impressive knowledge of history but she also lets her imagination roam freely. For instance, she makes Spartacus an Italian who had Roman citizenship and was an officer in the legions. After being unjustly tried and convicted for insubordination, he was condemned to be a gladiator. As a gladiator, he fought in the Thracian style. He was a “Thracian” only in the way a major-league baseball player in the Bronx is a “Yankee.” Spartacus meets and falls in love with the Thracian Lady — McCullough calls her Aluso — who joins him in organizing the revolt. And so on and so forth. I enjoyed McCullough’s account but remember: it is in large part fiction.

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