Did Spartacus Torture?

Posted by Barry Strauss under on April 17, 2009

The question of whether the Bush Administration engaged in torture is in the news again. While others consider the matter, I found myself wondering whether Spartacus engaged in torture.

Certainly, he tried to protect civilians. On an autumn day in 73 B.C., his troops fell on a farming town in an upland valley of southern Italy. The Thracian ordered his followers not to burn down houses and not to rape, wound or kill civilians. They ignored him, though, and a massacre ensued.

That was Spartacus the Good. Spartacus the Bad showed no such reticence when it came to Roman prisoners. On one occasion he marked the death of his comrade Crixus by forcing 300 Roman prisoners to fight each other as gladiators.

An even more dramatic moment came when the rebels were penned in beyond Roman fortifications in the “toe” of the Italian “boot” in winter, 71 B.C. To remind his men what lay ahead if they lost, he crucified a Roman prisoner in the no-man’s land between his army and the enemy. This would not accord with the Geneva Convention, but neither would Rome’s treatment of runaway slaves: they were crucified. But slavery would hardly fit the Geneva Convention either.

Historical analogies help us to think about the issues of our own day. Applying modern standards to ancient history, however, is much more difficult. Spartacus engaged in torture, but some might consider that justified reprisal, especially given his attempts to protect civilians. The Romans were often far less scrupulous when it came to their treatment of innocent Thracians, Celts or Germans (among others).

Was Spartacus a tarnished hero or a man who sometimes rose above the tenor of his times?

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