When Karl Marx’s daughter asked him who his favourite character from history was he told her it was the slave who led a revolt of nearly three years against the Roman Empire, Spartacus. This book shows why Spartacus has remained an inspiration to the left for centuries.
Theresa Urbainczyk’s account is a refreshing change from most history books which focus on the so called ‘achievements’ of characters from the ruling class. Urbainczyk not only covers Spartacus’s slave rebellion in detail, but she explores the virtually unknown slave revolts that came before it in an attempt to explain why Spartacus’s revolt happened. In doing so, Urbainczyk reveals exciting examples of slaves refusing to accept their lot throughout the ages, such as Drimakos of Ancient Greece who led a ‘permanent and autonomous group’ of runaway slaves that looted the homes of nearby masters. Like many rebel leaders Drimakos was compelled to compromise with the wealthy, but it is delightful to discover that this was only an agreement ‘that the slaves would not steal more than a certain amount’!
Although this is a relatively short book, Urbainczyk explores in some depth Spartacus’s leadership style, tactics and the repercussions of defeating one of the most powerful empires. She challenges the reactionary argument that slave revolts should not be celebrated as revolts for equality, because rebelling slaves did not appear to be fighting for social revolution, by arguing that ‘even the Russian Revolution of 1917 started out demanding bread, peace and land rather than socialism’.
Urbainczyk’s book is compelling because it celebrates the slave revolts and shows how it has inspired others from Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slave who led a revolution in 18th century Saint Domingue, to Rosa Luxemburg who helped to establish the revolutionary Spartakusbund (Spartacist League).
The book also looks at the politics of the famous Spartacus film starring Kirk Douglas, which was the first film to credit a blacklisted writer (Dalton Trumbo, a Communist Party member who had been imprisoned for refusing to supply names of others with ‘un-American’ ideas to Congress). Criticising the film for its ultimately defeatist message (it closes with the crucifixion of all the rebels), Urbainczyk steadfastly defends Spartacus as someone who was right to fight back and who never surrendered and, therefore, ultimately triumphed.
Urbainczyk’s Spartacus is not the defeated hero of the Douglas film, but the spirit of rebellions against oppression that lives on today and makes the powerful tremble. Her conclusion is an inspiring message for anti-imperialists all over the world when she quotes the screenplay which gives Spartacus the words, ‘When even one man says, “No, I won’t,” Rome begins to fear.’ Urbainczyk comments, ‘To take just two examples, George Bush and Tony Blair have probably felt a little of that fear themselves.’
Urbainczyk presents us with a Spartacus who enacts Marx’s call that ‘the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains’.
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