71 B.C.E.: The followers of Spartacus

1 comment May 15th, 2010 Headsman

… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.

-Plutarch, The Life of Crassus

On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.

The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.

His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.

Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.

The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”

Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.

But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.


Cursed field. The place of execution in ancient Rome. Crucified slave. (Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878)

He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)

Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”

The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.

This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.

* Okay, still a republic, if you like. But those days were fast coming to a close.

** Especially for modern leftist radicals; Marx and Che Guevara were both big fans; German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named their movement for Spartacus, and it was during Berlin’s “Spartacus Week” that they were murdered.

A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.

A few books about Spartacus

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30 B.C.E: Caesarion, “Little Caesar”

10 comments August 27th, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Like father like son … unfortunately, in this case.

It was around this date that Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, “Caesarion” to his pals, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, was put to death by orders of the autocratic Octavian.

Cleopatra and Caesarion walk like Egyptians at the temple of Dendera, Egypt.

Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) was the only known son of Julius Caesar. Octavian, whose claim to power proceeded from his status as Caesar’s adoptive son, became the Emperor Augustus after eliminating the dangerous rivalry of his “brother”.

While most of us at the age of three were putting Matchbox cars in our mouths and eating macaroni and cheese, little Ptolemy XV was co-ruler of Egypt with his famous mom. King in name only, he must have seen his mother still grieving because of Caesar’s assassination March 15, 44 B.C.

The little tyke, though born in Egypt, spent the first couple of years in Rome with Caesar and his mother. Then his dad was stabbed, repeatedly, and Cleopatra took the boy home to Egypt. Proclaimed “King of Kings,” little Caesarion couldn’t realize at his young age the power struggles roiling around him and his mother.

Indeed, things were a little tense outside the family home. (And inside.)

There was some wrestling going on, and not Greco-Roman. No, there were men who wanted power. Lots of power.

There was Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover and a Roman General. He was Julius Caesar’s second cousin.

There was the patrician Marcus Lepidus, Caesar’s, for lack of a better word, deputy dictator.

Then, the aforementioned Octavian (Julius Caesar was his great uncle).

Together, the three were the Second Triumvirate, a dream team of Roman political heavyweights. Supreme rule they had. Ambition, sometimes, makes a mess of things. Only one of the three would stand victorious at the end, and there’d be casualties, like Caesarion.

Lepidus was driven into exile to Circeii. At least he died peacefully years later, securely ensconced as the Triumvir You’re Most Likely To Forget.

Conflict between Octavian and Antony climaxed at the Battle of Actium, one of history’s signal events.* (Its anniversary is next week, September 2.)

Octavian won the battle.

Antony escaped to Egypt, but as Octavian’s legions closed in the following year, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. He died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra’s arms would be cold with death soon after when she committed her famous (supposed) suicide-by-asp on August 12, 30 B.C.


“Death of Cleopatra”, by Edmonia Lewis. (Commentary.)

Before the Queen died, she sent her son Caesarion away from the political tumult.

Now 17, Caesarion bolted to the Red Sea port city of Berenice. Things were looking bleak for the young man. Octavian controlled Alexandria in early August, annexing Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony died. His mother died. His father had been dead most of his young life. And now Octavian — making an offer he couldn’t refuse — was asking for the lad, the closest living blood relation to Caesar, to come to Alexandria. He was to be spared. There was nothing to fear. Mercy would be heaped upon Caesarion.

It was not to be. “Two Caesars are too many,” Octavian declared … so Caesarion was subtracted. No documentation has been discovered about his death; because of his young age, it is thought he died of strangulation.

Octavian assumed absolute power, became known as Augustus, and died of illness August 19, AD 14. While Augustus, during his reign, was proclaimed a god by the Senate, Caesar’s only known son became a footnote in history, long dead and buried.

* More on the Battle of Actium here and here, and at this episode from the highly recommended The History of Rome podcast. -ed.

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46 B.C.E.: Vercingetorix the Gaul

2 comments September 19th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date around this time — sort of — in 46 B.C.E., the Gallic chief Vercingetorix was marched as Julius Caesar’s star captive in Rome, then strangled in prison.

A nobleman who in the course of things would have been destined for that class of domestic elites bought off by Rome for orderly management of conquered provinces, Vercingetorix instead mounted a massive and effective semi-guerrilla resistance. A few months after Caesar had declared “Mission Accomplished” and Gaul at peace, it rose in arms … and, as Vercingetorix rolled out a scorched-earth defense, in flames.

Julius Caesar, then serving a long and lucrative career as Governor of Gaul, managed only with difficulty — and staggering bloodshed — to pacify the province at the Battle of Alesia. It was a signal military engagement in the development of the Roman Empire, cementing Roman power in Gaul for centuries to come.

The wily barbarian’s revolt and the very serious danger it posed to Caesar’s ambitions are the subject of a five-part BBC documentary.

Vercingetorix’s allegedly theatrical surrender to Caesar essentially ended the Gauls stubborn, centuries-long resistance to Roman dominion.


Reddition de Vercingétorix à Alésia – Christophe Lambert
Uploaded by EvivaEuropa

Yes, that’s the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, playing the French Braveheart version of barbarian heroism in Druids. HBO’s series Rome went with a less romantic version:

Either way, the once-intractable province became the bastion from which Caesar would overthrow the foundering Roman Republic.

Political rivals in the capital for whom Caesar’s Gallic campaign was nothing to celebrate denied Caesar a ceremonial Triumph and maneuvered to check the ambitious general. When the conflict came to a head in 49 B.C.E., Caesar’s bold move from the provincial borders of Gaul into Italy — crossing the Rubicon — ignited civil war in Rome.

Vercingetorix languished in Roman chains all along, until Caesar finally mopped up his enemies in the field and returned to Rome, where he celebrated an extravagant quadruple Triumph for his various military achievements.

As described by Appian,

when he returned to Rome he had four triumphs together: one for his Gallic wars, in which he had added many great nations to the Roman sway and subdued others that had revolted; one for the Pontic war against Pharnaces;* one for the war in Africa against the African allies of L. Scipio, in which the historian Juba (the son of King Juba), then an infant, was led a captive. Between the Gallic and the Pontic triumphs he introduced a kind of Egyptian triumph, in which he led some captives taken in the naval engagement on the Nile.** Although he took care not to inscribe any Roman names in his triumph (as it would have been unseemly in his eyes and base and inauspicious in those of the Roman people to triumph over fellow-citizens), yet all these misfortunes were represented in the processions and the men also by various images and pictures, all except Pompey, whom alone he did not venture to exhibit, since he was still greatly regretted by all. The people, although restrained by fear, groaned over their domestic ills, especially when they saw the picture of Lucius Scipio, the general-in-chief, wounded in the breast by his own hand, casting himself into the sea, and Petreius committing self-destruction at the banquet, and Cato torn apart by himself like a wild beast. They applauded the death of Achillas and Pothinus, and laughed at the flight of Pharnaces.

It is said that money to the amount of 60,500 silver talents was borne in the procession and 2822 crowns of gold weighing 20,414 pounds, from which wealth Caesar made apportionments immediately after the triumph, paying the army all that he had promised and more. Each soldier received 5000 Attic drachmas, each centurion double, and each tribune of infantry and perfect of cavalry fourfold that sum. To each plebeian citizen also was given an Attic mina. He gave also various spectacles with horses and music, a combat of foot-soldiers, 1000 on each side, and a cavalry fight of 200 on each side. There was also another combat of horse and foot together. There was a combat of elephants, twenty against twenty, and a naval engagement of 4000 oarsmen, where 1000 fighting men contended on each side. He erected the temple to Venus, his ancestress, as he had vowed to do when he was about to begin the Battle of Pharsalus, and he laid out ground around the temple which he intended to be a forum for the Roman people, not for buying and selling, but a meeting-place for the transaction of public business, like the public squares of the Persians, where the people assemble to seek justice or to learn the laws. He placed a beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess, which stands there to this day. He caused an enumeration of the people to be made, and it is said that it was found to be only one half of the number existing before this war.

War is hell.

At the Gallic triumph, Vercingetorix — by far the most fearsome enemy Caesar had to display vis-a-vis a five-year-old child and the sister of his lover — was at last the center of attention again for a day. Still defiant, he was marched through the Eternal City, then strangled at the Tullianum, or Mamertine Prison.

But which day? The bare fact is that we just don’t know, but this one has more than the typical imprecision that characterizes dating ancient events. This footnote on a page about Egyptian royalty grapples with the timing.

Suetonius gives us that his Triumphs were celebrated

four times in one month, each Triumph succeeding the former by an interval of a few days.

Since Cassius Dio claims that Caesar dedicated the Temple of Venus (datable to late September of 46) on the last day of the last Triumph, that presumably makes September the “one month” of the various celebrations.

That’s about as close as it gets, but even “September” comes with a caveat. During his few months in Rome between campaigns, Caesar accomplished a frenetic civil agenda (it helps to be dictator). Perhaps none is of such recognizable consequence for posterity as reform of the wacky solar-lunar hybrid Roman calendar — and 46 B.C.E. was the very year he implemented it.

Disdaining incrementalism, Caesar tackled the mess the Roman calendar had become at once, by stuffing the year 46 up to 445 days. As a result, 365 days after the execution of Vercingetorix was not September of 45, but July (or possibly June) — and those months are sometimes given for the dates of Caesar’s Triumphs on this basis. Since Caesar actually won his decisive battle in April of 46 B.C.E. and returned to Rome that July, the potential for confusion multiplies: if you’re not accounting for the exceptional calendar, July Triumphs appear initially plausible.

It is here that one beholds the essential subjectivity behind a putatively mechanistic device like a calendar: if Vercingetorix was executed in spring or summer, was he executed in September?

Whenever it was that he was throttled in the Mamertine, Vercingetorix did not go quietly. If his cause of resistance to Roman authority was doomed for the time being, the eternal allure of rebellion — and, as the Gallic lands later germinated France, the proto-nationalism of his cause — secured him his own symbolic immortality.


Napoleon III, with his complex relationship to the Gallic and Italic dreams of another age, was just the man to put up this statue of Vercingetorix where the barbarian was thought to have made his last stand. Its inscription reads:

La Gaule unie
Formant une seule nation
Animée d’un même esprit,
Peut défier l’Univers.

* The speedily resolved Pontic War gave us Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”.

** It was at the Egyptian triumph that Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe was marched, though she was not executed afterwards.

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63 B.C.E.: Publius Cornelius Lentulus

6 comments December 5th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 63 B.C.E., Publius Cornelius Lentulus was executed by strangulation in Rome’s Tullianum for conspiring to overthrow the Roman Republic.

He was one of the key figures in the Catiline conspiracy, a political intrigue set against a ruinous social crisis that pushed the country to the precipice of civil war.

Roman had fought Roman intermittently over much of the preceding 70 years in episodes underpinned by a class conflict pitting wealthy landowners (politically represented by the Senate) against the growing populations of plantation slaves who tilled their fields and urban plebeians displaced from independent farming on the other. Debt was choking the Roman economy.

Catiline, an ambitious politician from a fading patrician family, had sought the consulship on a populist platform of debt forgiveness; failing to win the office through legal channels, he maneuvered to take it by force. The affair is known mostly through the testimony of its enemies, so it is difficult to gauge the true mixture of opportunism and conviction that informed the conspirators.

A cliffhanger sequence of moves and countermoves against the consul Cicero ensued, highlighted most spectacularly by one of Cicero’s famous orations driving every Senator to seat himself away from Catiline — who nevertheless rose passionately in his own defense.

Catiline left Rome to raise an army in the countryside, leaving Lentulus (himself a former consul) to manage the intrigue within Rome.

Lentulus made the least of the moment, dilating when he could have acted and exposing the plot by dint of a ham-handed attempt to involve visiting Gauls with grievances of their own.

The arrested conspirators’ fate was debated in the Senate this very morning. The young Gaius Julius Caesar, then conducting an affair with Cicero’s Cato’s [correction] sister, stood against (illegal) summary execution, but the victories he would enjoy over Cicero yet lay some years into the future; fearing an attempted rescue, the Senate’s grim sentence was carried out immediately. Cicero personally escorted Lentulus to his death.

Lentulus’ failure likewise doomed Catiline, whose army shrunk from desertions before its commander hurled it into martyrdom with a stirring speech that recalled in passing “how severe a penalty the inactivity and cowardice of Lentulus has brought upon himself and us.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Fall of the Roman Republic.

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