Posted by Barry Strauss under on March 5, 2009

“Spartacus, a Thracian man, once served as a soldier with the Romans, but as a consequence of being captured and sold, he ended up among the gladiators. He persuaded about seventy of them to fight for freedom and not for show at the games. After they overpowered the guards he ran off with them” (Appian, Civil Wars 1.116.539).

So one ancient writer, the historian Appian, explains the start of Spartacus’s rebellion. Just what “as a consequence of being captured and sold” means is unclear. Another Roman writer says that Spartacus had been punished unjustly. So Appian might mean that the Romans cynically bought one of their former allied soldiers from a slave-trader and then sentenced him to the short and brutal life of a gladiator.

An educated guess, but it takes no guesswork to understand why, according to Appian, Spartacus began his revolt. Spartacus wanted freedom. He proposed fighting for a higher purpose than entertainment.

If Appian is right, Spartacus’s revolt had a spiritual cause. Other motives, such as looting and revenge, would play a part in the two-and-a-half-year-long war that followed. At its heart, though, the rebellion aimed at something simple and pure: freedom from captivity. It began with about seventy gladiators; before the war was over, tens of thousands of slaves had escaped their chains.

There is reason to think that Appian was right. Other ancient sources emphasize Spartacus’s nobility; his devotion to the god of freedom, Dionysus; even his “rather Greek” character – and freedom was fundamental to Greeks. One Roman, writing about Spartacus, concedes that even slaves can learn to enjoy the benefits of Roman liberty.

Over the years, the story of Spartacus has meant many things to many people. And so it should, but to me it means one thing above all: fighting to be free. Two thousand years after Spartacus broke out of slavery, that still fires the blood.

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