Spartacus

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Aldo Schiavone

In 73BC a small group of Gladiator slaves revolted and escaped from a gladiator training prison in the Roman city of Capua, within the space of just over two years the rebellion was joined by up to 70,000 slaves.

This cauldron of revolt defeated an army led by Roman counsels and at one point threatened Rome itself. Ultimately however the slave army moved to the south of Italy, hoping to sail to Sicily, parts of which had been defiant of Roman domination for a number of years.

Betrayed by pirates who had promised them boats the slave army, who initially tried to make good this set back by building rafts to make the short crossing, had no choice but to turn north to avoid being hemmed in and trapped. Eventually however they suffered a crushing defeat.

The victorious Romans held no quarter in their savage vengeance. Six thousand rebels were 'crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome ... never before had there been such mass executions in the Roman world'. It has been estimated that over 100,000 slaves died in crushing the revolt.

At the head of the slave rebellion stood a Thracian born Gladiator name Spartacus - his name and the rebellion that he led would inspire champions of the oppressed for two millennia, Karl Marx would list him as one of favourite historical figures, and the German revolutionaries led by Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 called themselves the Spartakusbund.

Aldo Schiavone's short but highly readable book is an attempt to build an accurate picture of the man, of the time in which he lived in and the actual events that took place. A sound piece of narrative history that should allow him to then inquire why events occurred when they did and how they did.

And yet it is here that Schiavone largely materialist account goes wantonly awry. After building a convincing picture of a hugely expanding Roman empire built on the pauperisation of much of its own population, of ruling elites made stupendously wealthy by years of imperial war and plunder that in turn fuelled the massive expansion of a slave based agricultural economy, i.e a class based society, Schiavone writes:

"I believe therefore that the arbitrary spread of the paradigm of 'classes' and their (eventual) forms of consciousness, to the point of becoming a kind of universal key for historic interpretation, has been (and still is today) one of the worst ways in which our knowledge of the past has been muddled by European culture since the 19th century ... the class struggle, a grand and generative element of western modernity ... applies to a specific model of conflict and collective subjectivity, the scheme of which cannot be transposed out of its historic age, neither backward in time to explain Rome or Greece nor forward , into our post industrial present - as has been coming very clear to us in recent years".

This is quite simply wrong and makes nonsense of his book, as Marx and Engels famously stated in the Communist Manifesto of 1848: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed..."

Or as the great classical historian G E M de Ste. Croix argued: "Class as a general concept is essentially a relationship ... the social relations into which men enter in the process of production ... In antiquity ... the propertied class exploit the rest of the population: that is to say, appropriate a surplus out of their labour".

Spartacus is published by Harvard University Press, £'14.95