Spartacus: The Leader of the Roman Slaves. Francis Ambrose Ridley 1962
The servile revolt under Spartacus was the great revolution of classical times. No other slave revolt, so far as we can judge from our surviving records, caused such profound and lasting alarm amongst the ruling classes of ancient times. When we learn – of course, from sources bitterly opposed to the slave revolutions – that, long after the suppression of the insurrection, the mothers of the ruling class used to frighten their refractory children by telling them that the bogey-man, Spartacus, was coming, such an apparently trivial detail speaks volumes for both the profound alarm that the slave revolution had caused amongst the ruling classes and for the narrow margin by which it missed success. Indeed, even now a bare recital of the Spartacist campaigns demonstrates the narrow margin by which the slaves fell short of victory. Had they only held together under the military genius who commanded them, who knows what would have happened?
It cannot be stated dogmatically that military success for the slaves was necessarily impossible. As far as we can see, they could have scored a decisive military success had their luck not been so adverse. Indeed, if the study of universal history teaches us anything, it is that the word ‘inevitable’ must always be used with the very greatest caution in relation to historical phenomena. Nothing, indeed, seems ‘inevitable’, except death – and death is not a thing but the negation of a thing! Certainly, on the evidence at our disposal, we do not appear to be justified in asserting that the revolt of the slaves under Spartacus could not conceivably have been successful.
A revolt, however, is not a revolution, at least not in any scientific usage of the last-named term. Whilst a revolt only changes the political appearances of society, a revolution changes its underlying realities. A revolution creates not only or principally a new governing apparatus, but, ultimately, a new social order. The servile insurrections of antiquity, of which that of Spartacus was the climax, were certainly revolts, but whether they are entitled to be called revolutions is a much more complicated and doubtful question.
The scientific conception of revolution, as used in modern times, presupposes the existence of social and economic forces latent in a decaying society and waiting to be released from an outmoded social structure by the dynamic energy of a rising and historically progressive revolutionary class. Such revolutionary classes in modern society have been represented on the stage of world history by the capitalist class in the era of the Reformation and the French Revolution, and by the modern proletariat in our own era of social revolution. In both cases, the victory of the new rising class over the old order liberated new progressive forces from the womb of an obsolete and decadent social order and, by their instrumentality, created new social orders different from, and superior to, the old.
Thus, the victory of the sequential chain of bourgeois revolutions between the Reformation and the French Revolution ended not only the feudal class, but, equally, the feudal social order. And whatever one may think of the capitalist order which replaced it, it is at least historically undeniable that, with all its crimes and shortcomings, it released the potential forces latent in science and technology on a scale undreamt of by the old feudal order. Thus, it was a revolutionary force, which transformed contemporary society from top to bottom, so making for human progress and for human betterment in the current state of society.
As Marx and Engels pointed out, once for all, in the Communist Manifesto, whatever counter-revolutionary role the now decadent capitalist class may adopt today, nothing can deprive it of its historic claim to be the most revolutionary class in all history prior to the rise of the modern proletariat. The contemporary colossal forces of production, when compared with the meagre social production at the disposal of ancient and medieval society, constitute the convincing testimony to the thoroughgoing social revolution which the bourgeoisie have carried triumphantly through between the Reformation and our own day.
Similarly, the modern proletariat, as yet incompletely victorious, but moving forward in stages to the world revolution which is their historical goal, likewise have a still more far-reaching plan than their bourgeois predecessors. They aim at nothing less than world unity and universal well-being, to be achieved by internationalism and the world-wide substitution of production for use in place of production for profit. By the agency of this profound social transformation the vast reservoirs of social productive power will be released from capitalist bonds and from their limiting property relations, and will bring into being social achievements and potentialities that will far surpass the highest and most far-reaching achievements of the preceding bourgeois order.
The modern age, therefore, is a revolutionary age. It has been transformed beyond all recognition by the dynamic agency of revolutionary social forces, which have expressed themselves historically in the revolutionary victories of the class struggle against, successively, feudalism and capitalism.
Ancient society, contrarily, knew no such movements of social transformation and revolutionary renewal. For these historic results could, in the given conditions, have been achieved only by a revolutionary class utilising the latent possibilities of an industrial revolution; but, as we have seen, these technical possibilities were never translated from potentiality to fact at any point in the evolution of classical society, which remained to the end a complete stranger to the dynamic and all-transforming power of the scientific industrial revolution and of its offspring, the Machine Age. As for the revolutionary class, this could be none other than the slave class, of which Spartacus was the ‘Trotsky’, to employ a modern analogy. And the slave class never succeeded, under either Eunus, Aristonicus or Spartacus, in accomplishing the revolutionary overturn of the ancient slave-owning society, the ‘executive committee’ of which, its governmental apparatus, was the Roman Empire.
We cannot, therefore, say whether a slave revolt, had it been successful, could have become transformed into a revolution which would have been capable of effecting fundamental social changes in the composition of Roman society and of the Mediterranean world in general.
The answer to this speculative question is probably in the negative. Had Spartacus won, probably all that would have transpired would have been that the Romans would have become slaves, and the slaves Romans! Spartacus and Caesar would have merely changed places! The destruction of its centralised Roman government might have actually led to the decline of ancient society into a patchwork of rustic societies of a more primitive kind, such as later arose, after the fall of Rome, in the Dark and Middle Ages, between AD 500 and 1000. In this eventuality, the victory of the slaves would have been retrogressive in place of revolutionary, and Crassus and his legions would have actually been the saviours of civilisation from barbaric regression!
There was, however, another possible outcome to a victorious slave insurrection. Classical society had reached a very high cultural and administrative level by the first century BC, probably as high a level, in general, as was reached anywhere prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began about 1750. Many of the prerequisites for such a technical revolution existed in classical society. What held back such a scientific revolution seems to have been chiefly the basic institution of slavery, at all times and places so wasteful economically and so inimical to both scientific and economic development. If the victorious Spartacus had abolished slavery, under the influence of the ‘Sun State’, even for a short time, it is possible, though not very likely, that an industrial revolution might have followed.
In which case, the whole history of the Western world would have been entirely different. The ancient civilisation need not have sunk into decay, and its religious and ethical legacy to succeeding ages, one that has been so vastly influential, would have been entirely dissimilar. Indeed, if one elects to pursue the theme further, the ancient proletariat might have been transformed into a modern one without the retrogressive interregnum of the Dark and Middle Ages; and socialism might have found its ‘Marx’ in antiquity and made its historic appearance in the classical world. Had this been the case, our modern professors of mechanical ‘inevitability’ would have inevitably proved how inevitable the whole process was!
However, these are merely speculative might-have-beens. In actual history, unsuccessful revolutions do not lead generally to further revolutions, but to counter-revolutions. In our own day, we have seen the failure of the Russian Revolution to spread to the West in the years immediately after 1917 lead not to further revolutions, but to the victorious counter-revolutions of Fascism under Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and others. Similarly, the failure of the great servile insurrection of antiquity led to the counter-revolutionary regime of the Caesars, that era of permanent dictatorship and permanent counter-revolution that survived until the end of antiquity: a regime of despotism and iron repression which found its congruous figureheads in such monstrous figures as Nero and Caligula, and which exalted the worship of the Emperor, the personification of itself, because it had nothing else to offer mankind! That ancient regime undoubtedly presents impressive parallels with our modern Fascist regimes, which have similarly followed upon the failure of modern revolutionary movements. (Julius Caesar actually used the words ‘New Order’ in a speech!)
It cannot reasonably be doubted that the formidable slave insurrection of Spartacus gave a tremendous impetus to the tendencies towards dictatorship which already existed in the time of Crassus. Spartacus, therefore, can be ranked as one of the formative causes of the Empire of the Caesars, which was set up under Julius and Augustus Caesar, a generation after the death of Spartacus, by the ruling classes of the Mediterranean world in order to ensure their decaying society against both the internal consequences of its own decay and the recurrence of slave insurrections.
In both these aims, Caesarism was entirely successful. There were no more servile insurrections, and the Caesars avoided dissolution by stabilising decay. It is well known that for many centuries ‘the decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ dragged on its weary way, long after all its creative sap of life had departed. Without any social dynamic to urge it on, the revolution that alone might have saved classical society from the otherwise unavoidable consequences of its own decay remained in the limbo of the unborn. Henceforth the ‘Sign of the Beast’, the dead hand of the Caesars, presided over the antique world.
The huge stagnant state machine of the Caesars, with its ubiquitous state absolutism, expressed in megalomaniac emperor-worship, an all-pervading spy system, and a totalitarian military-bureaucratic structure, bore a very remarkable resemblance to the total states of modern Fascism. After its final consolidation under the Emperor Diocletian (AD 283-306), the transformation of the originally popular ‘middle-class’ dictatorship of the early Caesars into an oppressive totalitarian despotism became complete. Only the use of the radio was denied to the ancient ‘Fascist’ state, which, otherwise, possessed a complete machinery of repression. Let us recall the trenchant – and truthful! – epigram of the early Christian writer Tertullian (c AD 200): ‘It is more dangerous to swear falsely by the genius of Caesar than by that of all the gods put together.’ The ‘total state’ in a sentence!
A modern academic critic of an earlier book by this author, Julian the Apostate and the Rise of Christianity,  criticised my use of the term ‘fascist’ in reference to the classical empire of the Caesars, but the originator of modern Fascism, Mussolini – that outspoken admirer of Julius Caesar, the founder of the empire – knew better. When he called his newly-founded movement Fascism, and thus named it after the emblematic lictors’ rods carried before the magistrates of ancient Rome, he knew very well what he was doing – even if modern bourgeois professors fail to grasp its essential meaning.
The regime of the Caesars, as founded by those demagogic geniuses, those classical Mussolinis and Hitlers – Julius and Augustus Caesar – accomplished successfully the task which Fascism in the modern world unsuccessfully attempted by the same mixture of demagogy and terrorism. Classical Fascism succeeded in suppressing social revolution permanently in its contemporary society. After Julius Caesar there were no more servile risings in the ancient world. At least, if another revolt ever did occur, we know nothing of its existence.
Had the modern social order been technically stagnant like ancient Rome, no doubt the ultimate upshot would have been similar and the modern Fascist regimes would have succeeded in lasting as long as did that Roman Empire, whose long and lugubrious decline and fall has been narrated by Gibbon in his famous history. If Spartacus was an unsuccessful Carnot, the difference between these two great revolutionaries lay not in their individual genius but in their times.
As for the slaves, they sank into a deep mental coma of hopelessness and chronic despair – ‘without hope in this world’, as an early Christian writer phrased it in the first days of the Caesars. It is true that, as the Roman expansion slowed down and slaves became correspondingly scarce, some check was necessarily put upon the reckless cruelty with which they had been treated in the days of the great Roman land-ramps, when the supply exceeded the demand. As the decline of the Empire wore on, and the state passed to the permanent military defensive, the slaves acquired a certain ‘scarcity value’ and became the object of ‘humane’ legislative protection under the later Caesars! But the canker of slavery remained at the basis of ancient society, poisoning its roots and infecting incurably the whole social body.
An immense hopelessness seized upon the doomed class. Beaten in this world, it turned to another – to Heaven, the only ‘fatherland’ of the slave and the outcast. It was no accident, but was in the nature of social evolution, that, barely a century after the final defeat of the slaves, there appeared in the Roman Empire the first great slave religion, the divine symbol of which was the self-same cross upon which the last slave warriors of Spartacus had gasped out their lives in agony; that cross upon which, a century after Spartacus, the titular founder of Christianity, also, was supposed to have been suspended for treasonable revolutionary activities against the Roman Empire. It is not perhaps an accident that the Roman regime always regarded early Christians as revolutionaries.
The rulers of the Roman world were tranquil. They had crushed the slaves and then put their own administrative house in order. ‘All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ Men so fortunately placed as those proud and powerful men needed no assistance, not even Divine. ‘Let the gods attend to their own affairs’, proudly declared the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37); and he, no doubt, spoke out aloud the thoughts of the class to which he belonged.
Such, however, were not the thoughts of the innumerable slaves, serfs and paupers, upon whose ruthless exploitation ‘the grandeur that was Rome’ was built up and maintained. For them there was no hope, no future, and no peace – except the peace of the grave. Only God could help these abject beings, who were so effectively precluded from helping themselves.
And, gradually, the idea arose that God had attended, had come from Heaven to help those who were without human help; had lived their life and had died their death on the cross.
A century after the death of Spartacus such ideas began to be preached, first in an obscure eastern province of the Roman Empire, and then universally, by a band of fishermen, slaves and artisans, with a weaver of rugs from Tarsus at their head, in the closing years of Tiberius Caesar.
1. FA Ridley, Julian the Apostate and the Rise of Christianity (Watts, London, 1937).