Francis Ambrose Ridley 1944

Spartacus: A Study in Revolutionary History

Source: Book published in March 1944 by the National Labour Press (Independent Labour Party), 318 Regents Park Road, London N3. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

In reproducing the text, we are aware of the passages in Part II, Chapters III and IV, where Ridley wrote:

Without going quite as far as a dictator, the Senate appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus, surnamed Dives (’the Rich’) from his enormous wealth, a kind of Roman ‘Rothschild’, as praetor, with extraordinary power to supersede even the discredited consuls. Crassus, as the leader of the plutocracy and the richest man in Rome, had more to lose from the victory of the slaves than had anyone else. And had, therefore, every interest in their suppression. It was ‘Rothschild’ versus the revolution...

In such a plutocratic society as was that of the Roman Republic money was power. And just as his modern antitypes, the Rothschilds, used their vast wealth to acquire political influence at the courts and in the parliaments of modern Europe, so did the ancient Dives with regard to that highly susceptible organisation of financial corruption and political jobbery, which, in the first century BC, concealed its nefarious activities behind the high-sounding title of ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

Whilst it is true that the Rothschild banking family did use its great wealth for political purposes, especially during the nineteenth century, when, for example, it provided substantial financial assistance to enable the British government and its Continental allies to defeat France during the Napoleonic Wars, to help Cecil Rhodes establish the British colony of Rhodesia, and to enable Brazil to become independent from Portugal, the Rothschild family has also become the central focus of many lurid and fanciful anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

To our knowledge, Ridley did not subscribe to such theories: one of his last works refers to ‘the anti-Semitic myth of the Elders of Zion’ (Talking of the Devil, London, 1986). It seems that he was attempting to draw an historical parallel – as this book shows in many places, Ridley was fond of drawing historical parallels – in respect of the ownership of wealth and the exercising of political influence. Moreover, his use of the past tense – that the Rothschild family ‘used their vast wealth’ – suggests that he saw the family’s activities in this field as an historical rather than a present-day factor.



Part I: The Social Background of the Ancient World

Chapter I: The Social System of Antiquity

Chapter II: The Rise of Rome to World Power

Chapter III: The Slave Wars of the Ancient World

Part II: Spartacus and the Civil War

Chapter I: The Origins of the Revolt

Chapter II: Early Battles

Chapter III: The Funeral Games of Crixus

Chapter IV: ‘Rothschild’ Versus the Revolution

Chapter V: The Death of Spartacus – And the Appian Way

Part III: The Spartacist Tradition

Chapter I: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Antiquity

Chapter II: Ancient and Modern Revolutions

* * *

Dedicated to the immortal memory of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the German Spartacists of 1919.

The War of Spartacus and the Slaves was the most just war in History; perhaps the only just war in History. – Voltaire


It has now become a truism to state that our current century is, pre-eminently, a century of revolution. Everything vital in our contemporary society strives against the outmoded social structure bequeathed to us by the ‘dead hand’ of the past. Moreover, the contemporary revolutionary movements entertain, despite temporary reverses, the brightest hope of ultimate success. They repeat to themselves that profound saying of Karl Marx, that mankind never seriously undertakes problems which he is incapable of solving in the given era. Or, in other words, that history tends to be on the side of those who are on the side of history. The basis of our contemporary life is dynamic, thanks to the Machine Age and to the scientific permanent revolution that it engenders, sooner or later, the superstructure of society must come into line.

In earlier ages, however, this was not so. In the long era before the industrial revolution transformed the basis of social existence, the scales were heavily, probably hopelessly, weighted against revolutionary change. And, thus, the social revolutions of earlier ages were doomed to failure by the very nature of the social order in which they operated. The long tragedy of social man lies precisely here: in the fact that his dreams of an ideal society, of a heaven on earth, have continually come up against, and been frustrated by his social immaturity and inadequate economic technique.

As Trotsky has profoundly observed, the greatest literary masterpiece of antiquity, the tragic drama of classical Greece, derived its terrific intensity precisely from the glaring social tension between the powerful intellectual grasp of its creators, the most gifted race in antiquity, and the inadequate social technique which they shared with their epoch. ‘Fate is the voice of technical limitation and immobility; the voice of blood, of sickness, of death, of all that limits man and prevents him from becoming arrogant’, wrote Trotsky in his Literature and Revolution. [1]

The history of social revolution in and throughout all ages prior to the capitalist era is the history of the frustration of ideals by social inadequacy. Again and again men rose in revolt against the harsh fate that doomed them to lifelong slavery and to endless enforced toil. But all their efforts, despite much heroism and the inherent ‘justice’ of their claims, failed and failed bloodily and completely. And they failed precisely because inequality and slavery lay in the nature of the times; because ‘justice cannot be in advance of economic conditions’, because, ultimately, in a pre-machine age, human servitude is a slavery not to man but to Nature, to the hopeless inadequacy of man’s social means to ensure the social well-being of all.

Must we then suppose that because social revolution was virtually hopeless throughout the long pre-industrial era, therefore, it must be condemned and dismissed as mere quixotic romanticism? By no means! Mankind thrives ultimately by virtue of his failures as much as by his successes. In fact, one could reasonably defend the paradox that failure is as necessary as success to social evolution. It is not only in matters of religion that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. Oscar Wilde expressed a permanent social truth when he wrote that it is a sorry map of the world which contains no island of Utopia! The story of human revolution, of ‘moral man’ against ‘immoral society’, is a permanent incentive to human effort, a permanent memorial to the moral grandeur which constitutes man as truly human, as distinct from ‘the beasts that perish’.

In the scientific history of a communist future, which is, we hope, not indefinitely remote, the great revolutionary heroes and martyrs of the long pre-capitalist era will rank among the greatest in the immortal pantheon sacred to the benefactors of the race. All mankind is an army, united across the ages by the solid links of a common humanity. Its past is embodied in its present: its present stretches forward into the future. The failures of yesterday lead to the partial successes of today, and these last, in their turn, presage the decisive victories of tomorrow!

In the long revolutionary sequence that constitutes man’s permanent protest against the hell on earth which has, thus far, been the unvarying lot of the masses in all ‘civilised’ societies based on class rule and the enforced exploitation of human labour, the name and fame of Spartacus stands out as, so to speak, the pre-eminent symbol of human revolt against the ‘exploitation of man by man’. What the outstanding names of Marx and Lenin signify in our contemporary era, that the name of Spartacus signifies for earlier epochs.

And, despite the considerable differences between antiquity with its usury and predominantly agrarian background, and the social atmosphere engendered by modern capitalism today, the revolutionary movements of our own age have recognised in the heroic Thracian gladiator and his fellow slaves, the recognisably similar forerunner of their own movements of social protest culminating in social revolution. Have we not, in our own day and generation, seen the greatest tragedy of our times played out in the name of ‘Spartacus’: the heroic German revolution of 1919, for ever associated with the glorious names of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and their immortal band of ‘Spartacists’, the revolutionary victory of whom would have saved humanity from this present orgy of slaughter and ‘total’ cultural ruin, by making an end of the imperialist capitalism which is its primary cause?

The following pages seek to deal with the great slave revolution of antiquity not solely in and for itself, but, rather, as a sequential chapter in social history and against its historic background. The study of revolutionary history is an obligatory study for all serious revolutionary students. Without the past there is no present; without the present there is no future. It is a sorry consequence of the grip of the ruling class upon current education that the entire history of social revolution has been consistently distorted, and, where possible, ignored. Truly, a giant stride forward will have been accomplished in human enlightenment when the names and deeds of the great heroes and leaders of social emancipation, from Nabis, Eunus and Spartacus, to Thomas Münzer, Jan of Leyden, John Ball and Jerrard Winstanley, supersede the voluminous pages in ruling-class ‘history’ devoted exclusively to the endless crimes, slimy intrigues and sterile stupidities of the monstrous regiment of kings, of their professional sycophants, and of their infinite brood of bastards!

The servile insurrection, which goes by the name of its leader Spartacus, was the greatest of all the numerous revolts of the dispossessed which run like a crimson thread through the tangled skein of ancient society. So much can be gathered even from the nervous hints and obvious distress of the decadent and reactionary ruling-class ‘historians’ who alone describe its course. We must, of course, always remember that we know virtually nothing of the deeper causes and genuine character of these earlier landmarks in the ‘evolution of revolution'!

For their ‘historians’ have been usually their deadly enemies, and even if that were not so, yet all classical literature that has survived cannot be said to have done so on its merits, but as the result of a highly selective process: to survive at all, it had to run the gauntlet not only of the barbarian invasions that eventually submerged the classical civilisation, and the obvious accidents to which the incidence of wind and weather exposed an exclusively hand-written literature, but, even more so, in this instance, every document that records social revolution had to face the tireless scrutiny of a thousand years of medieval bigotry, and several centuries of modern class censorship, upon both of which, successively, the survival of all ancient literature depended.

The ‘subversive’ document that could survive all this must, indeed, be subtle! For that matter, even in our own age, so vastly superior in all resources for the technical diffusion and preservation of knowledge, how much would we know of such great revolutionary upheavals as the Paris ‘Commune’, or the Russian Revolution, if we had only the prejudiced scribes of the Carlton Club, or our (ubiquitous!) ‘correspondent in Riga’, to depend on, without any independent sources wherewith to check their prejudiced narrative and hopelessly biased sources?

Yet such are our main literary sources for all the slave risings of antiquity, including that of Spartacus, the greatest of them all. If any sympathetic account existed of those ancient ‘enemies of society’, the revolting slaves, it has not survived either those ruthless monastic mice which nibbled up so many classical manuscripts during the Middle Ages, or the still more ruthless ‘moral’ censorship, the age-long ‘law against dangerous thoughts’, which interdicts all searching social criticism of the basis of every class society which has, by its very nature, a vested interest in the maintenance of exploitation.

This being so, the detailed reconstruction of the Spartacus insurrection must be very largely a matter of conjecture and even of imaginative reconstruction since we have virtually no data beyond a barren (and sometimes conflicting) list of names of places, battles and personalities. And even these last are far from impeccable. It is the considered opinion of an erudite modern military historian that, for example, the recorded details of the military operations in the Servile War, as recorded by such ancient ‘authorities’ as Plutarch and Annaeus Florus, are completely worthless: for not only are the ancient authors who dealt with the Spartacus rising hopelessly prejudiced, as is obvious in every line, but they are, equally, unreliable as sources, being separated by centuries from the events they describe – both Plutarch and Annaeus Florus, our two chief sources, belong to the second century AD and are entirely without that critical scientific spirit, which, to be sure, was all but unknown throughout antiquity, and is none too common even in modern times.

Thus any modern account of the Spartacus episode can only adequately deal with its subject by the method of reconstruction. As such, we shall seek to present the great slave revolution of antiquity. Our procedure being as follows.

First, we shall sketch the historic background both of ancient society and of the sequence of social revolutions which sought to overthrow that society. In the second part, we shall briefly reconstruct what can be known with certainty of the course of the revolution itself. And in the final part, we shall endeavour to strip this ancient ‘Bolshevism’ of the mists of prejudice and legend which have for so long veiled this major event in determining the final evolution of classical civilisation and of the Roman Empire which was its ultimate custodian; and thus reveal what were its permanent effects upon the subsequent course of social history, for we believe that they were profound in both the political and the religious spheres.

Nor, in this last connection, can we avoid a glance at the honoured place which, in more modern times, the name and fame of Spartacus has enjoyed in movements of a revolutionary character. This ‘Spartacist’ tradition will, also, engage our attention.

We thus hope in this modest publication to do something to tear away the veil, to break ‘the conspiracy of silence’ which has so long obscured one of the greatest of revolutions and of revolutionaries. What Lenin, more fortunate in the time of his historic appearance, has been to the modern social revolution, that was Spartacus in the revolutionary tradition of pre-capitalist times. Indeed, alone amongst the leaders of the older revolutionary tradition, his name and fame have come down to us from the mists of the past.

To give ‘a local habitation’ to that name, and, in so doing, to write a chapter in revolutionary history, is the object both of the ILP in issuing this monograph and of the writer of these present lines.

Bibliographical Note: It is an ironic commentary on the way that ‘history’ is written in a class society when we find that the name of the greatest revolutionary leader in antiquity, the author of a movement that evidently shook classical civilisation to its foundations, is commemorated in the greatest library of which capitalist civilisation can boast by precisely two entries: under the heading ‘Spartacus’, in the Library of the British Museum, we find mentioned only Spartacus: A Roman Tale by Susannah Strickland (1822), [2] and an untranslated (and absolutely unreadable!) French eighteenth-century tragedy, by a long-forgotten author, BJ Saurin! [3]

To make some literary reparation for this age-long neglect, two fine novels on the Spartacus rising have appeared in recent years: Spartacus by (the late) J Leslie Mitchell, [4] and The Gladiators by Arthur Koestler. [5] The first, a dramatically powerful narrative of imaginative reconstruction; the second, a less poignant but admirably detailed reconstruction of the rising against its contemporary background. Of serious history, precisely nothing! Such, no doubt, would be the fate of modern socialist leaders if a millennium of reaction supervened! Only revolutions perpetuate revolutionary traditions!


1. LD Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (International Publishers, New York, 1925), Chapter V [available on the MIA at < >].

2. Susannah Strickland, Spartacus: A Roman Tale (Newman, London, 1822).

3. Bernard-Joseph Saurin’s tragedy Spartacus was first staged in the Comédie-Française theatre in Paris in 1760. It appeared in print as Spartacus: tragédie en cinq actes et en vers (Didot, Paris, 1778) – MIA.

4. James Leslie Mitchell, Spartacus (Jarrolds, London, 1933) [Mitchell usually wrote under the pen-name Lewis Grassic Gibbon – MIA].

5. Arthur Koestler, The Gladiators (Jonathan Cape, London, 1939).