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Why is the (hi)story of Spartacus so fascinating?

The short answer to the question, why the story of Spartacus has fascinated people for centuries, is that it is a story of the endless quest for freedom on the part of humankind. Why endless, one may object — has history not “ended’, normatively speaking, when liberal, capitalist democracy appeared to triumph conclusively at the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Francis Fukuyama would have it? Or is there still truth to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous words at the beginning of The Social Contract, that “humanity was born free, but is everywhere in chains”?

I believe that today humanity stands at a crossroads again in its history, where many people are, as many times before, already fighting for their freedom, despite the popular belief, that we are “free”. It is not only in a political dictatorship that one is unfree. But let us return to the history of Spartacus first.

Spartacus — who has been immortalised in novels, films, television programmes (the most recent of which is the popular series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand), sculpture, painting, even in music and ballet — lived during the time of the Roman Empire, and led a slave revolt against Rome around 73-72 BCE. This was no ordinary revolt, and because of the military successes of Spartacus and his fellow (erstwhile) slaves — among whom the gladiators trained the others to handle weapons — it took several Roman armies or legions to crush the revolt, the last six legions (about 50 000 trained soldiers) of which were commanded by Crassus, the richest man in Rome.

Spartacus exemplifies the person who reaches the point where he or she has to decide to act, in the face of the imperative, “freedom or death” — what Lacan calls the “revolutionary’s choice” — because their existence has become intolerable. It seems easy to understand that someone who is compelled to fight in the arena to the point of death, for the amusement of others, could reach this point, unless one keeps in mind the way that gladiators were motivated to fight in the arena by their vaunted reputation as fighters — something carefully cultivated by their Roman masters as that which brought them fame. In the TV series referred to earlier — Spartacus: Blood and Sand — this aspect of the lives of gladiators is well developed and portrayed as a way to ensure that gladiators did not rebel against their masters.

Spartacus was evidently different, but because the exact circumstances within which he took the lead in the insurrection are not known — several Roman historians, including Plutarch, Appian and Florus, wrote accounts of the slave revolt, which differ in some respects — the novels and films celebrating him as a folk hero could take the poetic liberty of speculating about his motives. In Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it is conjectured, for example, that the lanista or gladiator school owner, Batiatus, betrayed Spartacus by first searching for, and finding his enslaved wife, and then having her killed to assure himself of Spartacus’s undivided gladiatorial concentration on remaining the champion. When Spartacus discovered this treachery, it was enough to convince him that gladiators’ only true enemies were the Romans, and not other gladiators; hence his orchestrated revolt.

In the novel by Howard Fast, and the films based on this novel (the best known one by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas in the title role), his motives are construed differently, centring on the sacrificial death of a fellow (African) gladiator at the hands of the Romans, after he refused to kill Spartacus, despite having the opportunity, in the arena, and choosing to turn on his Roman masters instead. But whatever the motives behind Spartacus’s revolt, the fact remains that he chose freedom, or death, rather than to live as an “instrument with a voice” (the Roman conception of a slave).

And although the people who serve the dominant system — liberal capitalism — today, no longer literally have to fight in the arena for the amusement of the elites, there is good reason to resist the kind of violent oppression that exists today, too, and has existed, in some form or another, since the time of Spartacus. This, I believe, is the reason for people’s enduring interest in, and being drawn to, this tale of rebellion against a dominant system which, although it was a “civilising” force in one respect, maintained the Pax Romana through merciless oppression in the face of the slightest resistance. As Hardt and Negri point out in Empire, today’s global “imperial” forces — which include all the interconnected capitalist states, with their combined military, technological, political, scientific, cultural and diplomatic power — are also, on the one hand, a force that maintains peace, but whose hands are bathed in blood, on the other. Just think of Iraq as an example of this.

But here I would like to turn to someone else to validate my claim that the present is, no less than the time of the Roman hegemony on earth, a time of a certain kind of “oppression”, or — in his terms — of a certain kind of “systemic violence” which no one can escape. I am talking about (as the very knowledgeable Master Bates will no doubt realise even before I mention his name) Slavoj Zizek, of course — the best known philosopher on earth today, and a media phenomenon as well as an outstanding intellectual; a colossus in global intellectual circles, in fact. Zizek has been described as the “Elvis of cultural theory” — a metaphorical description that captures neatly the way that his intellectual work transgresses all conventional boundaries. But don’t be fooled by his “popularity”, or icon status. He is a rigorous thinker who knows his Plato as well as his Hegel and Nietzsche, or his Marx as well as his Freud and Lacan. In fact, there is no better way to learn about Lacan than by reading Zizek (to begin with).

Here I shall treat readers with just a smidgen of Zizek’s thought, given space constraints. In one of his recent books (he has written so many that one cannot keep count), called Violence (2008), he distinguishes among three kinds of violence: subjective violence (the most visible kind, that involves clearly identifiable agents), symbolic violence (the kind inherent in language, in so far as it tends to impose a certain “universe of meaning”, more fundamentally even than more obvious kinds of linguistic violence, such as incitement or hate speech), and then, objective or systemic violence (that of political and economic systems, which tends to be in the background, invisible to most people, but often with catastrophic effects on the lives of ordinary people).

But why call the latter a kind of violence? Isn’t it people who are violent, while economic systems simply structure social reality “economically”? Zizek’s explanation, which I can only present in ruthlessly truncated form here, leaves no doubt that such violence is indeed felt in social reality. He leans on the work of philosopher Etienne Balibar in this respect, and says the following (pp12-13):
“Balibar [who] distinguishes two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism, which involve the ‘automatic’ creation of excluded and dispensable individuals from the homeless to the unemployed, and the ‘ultra-subjective’ violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in short racist, ‘fundamentalisms’ … Our blindness to the results of systemic violence is perhaps most clearly perceptible in debates about communist crimes. Responsibility for communist crimes is easy to allocate: we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did wrong. We can even identify the ideological sources of the crimes — totalitarian ideology, The Communist Manifesto, Rousseau, even Plato. But when one draws attention to the millions who died as a result of capitalist globalisation, from the tragedy of Mexico in the sixteenth century through to the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, responsibility is largely denied. All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed and for which there was no ‘Capitalist Manifesto’. (The one who came closest to writing it was Ayn Rand.)”

Lest anyone charge me with using Zizek to refer to the extremes of human suffering that resulted from the ruthless economic exploitation, by Western powers, of the natural resources of colonised countries, and that, today, we live in a far more civilised world, let me hasten to disabuse them of this illusion.

Zizek reminds his readers that one cannot simply dismiss the claims regarding the systemic, structural violence of capitalism by claiming that “capital”, the force at the basis of this process, is just an “ideological abstraction”, and that we should rather look at the actions of capitalists, many of whom admittedly support worthy humanitarian causes. This supposed “abstraction”, he remarks, may not be part and parcel of the social reality perceived by the senses, but it nevertheless determines what goes on at the level of concrete, material processes (p 11):

“ … the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality.”

In fact, he argues, one cannot grasp the social reality of concrete economic activity and production unless one grasps the other level, of capital as really “running the show”, albeit “behind the scenes”, as it were, from where it determines real-life happenings, including economic and hence, social, catastrophes.

“Therein” [he says; p 11] resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective, systemic, anonymous”.

This explains why people are dumbstruck when one criticises capitalism as a system — they see only the concrete productive process and the wealth it produces for some individuals. But they do not grasp what Zizek explains so well here, that it is the process of capital itself, which is entirely abstract, that has far-reaching, violently disruptive effects on the lives of ordinary people. Americans are still losing homes today, for instance, as a result of the financial crisis that erupted in 2008, despite the fact that “all that happened”, occurred at the level of abstract financial transactions, which went horribly wrong.

Hence, in a certain sense, if one wishes to oppose such an inhuman, abstract system today in the name of human freedom, it is much more difficult to do so than it was for Spartacus and his fellow slaves to oppose the might of Rome (which required great courage, of course). Difficult, because to convince people at all, to begin with, that we are not really free, is almost impossible, given the likely response: “Of course we are free! Aren’t you free? To say these things, to go where you like, to live where you like, to buy what you like … ?”

My answer would be that our vaunted freedom is very circumscribed — sure, we are “relatively” free. BUT, one cannot simply go where one likes (who has filled in a visa form for, say, Canada, recently?). And one cannot simply live where, or buy what one likes, unless your name is Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. And even our freedom of speech is not guaranteed, despite our progressive constitution …

But to participate with thinking individuals like Zizek, Hardt and Negri, Foucault, Immanuel Wallerstein, Peter Joseph, Julia Kristeva, David Harvey, Renata Salecl, Chris Norris, Ian Parker, Naomi Klein, Joel Kovel and many others, in the intellectual revolt against capitalism, is possible, and is also an instance of the revolutionary’s choice.