What is Revolution? An Ancient Answer

In this essay, R. Idrissa contends that the rising of Spartacus was not just a slave revolt, it came close to being a revolution. This is no newfangled contention. The Spartakist revolutionaries of Germany 1918 built their name on that idea. However, Idrissa uses this ancient event seen in this unfamiliar angle to shed light on what a revolution truly is.




In 73 BCE, the Senate and People of Rome ruled, from their fractious polity, a large empire that ran along Europe’s Mediterranean coastlines, including its three peninsula (Spain, Italy and Greece), and stretched across the thus-called Interior Sea on a piece of North African seaboard acquired from the destruction of Carthaginian power some decades before. That’s the year when a slave army rose up under the command of Spartacus and aimed at seizing Rome. We have no direct reference on the agenda of Spartacus, and most of the hearsay accounts that reached us indicate that his initial idea was only to escape out of Italy into the then-unconquered Gaul, in order to live free “rather than,” in the words of Appian (The Civil Wars, I, XIV), “for the amusement of spectators.” Spartacus was joined in this attempt by thousands of Roman-held slaves, and so Rome mounted a police operation against him. The operation failed but cut off Spartacus’ escape route. He then decided to attack the city of Rome itself and was defeated only after a three-year-long all-out war.

From the different versions of this famous story that can be pieced together, it is obvious that Spartacus’ effort had been a failed revolution. I am not saying that this is what he wanted to do at first, and it is very unlikely that he had revolted with the project of ending the wrongs of the Roman social system or anything of the sort we generally mean today by revolution. However, if we cannot speculate on his ideas, which we do not know firsthand, we can speculate on the events themselves, on which there is a high degree of consensus (and only minor contradictions) among the ancient sources. Three things inform us on Spartacus’ ambition in these events: first, his rebellion was not in fact simply and wholly a “slave rebellion”, the final episode in the Roman historical serial of the “servile wars”. All sources indicate that his army was joined, besides slaves, by many proletarians, and even deserters of the Roman legions came in, though, according to Appian, these were not accepted. Second, this success was clearly based on the personality of Spartacus. Plutarch, a Greek middle class intellectual supportive of Roman rule in his country, speaks highly of his charisma – though he ascribes some of his qualities to an education in Greek culture. Since Plutarch strongly believed in the superiority of Greek culture over all others, we may be tempted to dismiss this point as ethnocentric. But Plutarch uses it to underline Spartacus’ “sagacity”, that is, a quality of deliberation and thinking through one’s actions which is clearly observable in all his leadership moves – the details of which come out most forcefully in Appian’s account. Third, he attempted a newfangled kind of civic organization in the small town of Thurii, where he stationed his troops to prepare for an attack on the city of Rome.

Now, and here is the speculation: suppose, knowing these three facts, that Spartacus has actually overcome Roman armies and taken over the city of Rome. Would this have merely ended in an orgy of plunder and dilapidations, with the ultimate outcome perhaps being the kind of fate Rome itself inflicted on Carthage: annihilation? Or would it have been a re-founding of Rome on different bases, ones that would in a good deal seek to be the reverse of the previous ruling order of the city? In the event of a Spartacus victory, it could have been either one route or the other. [1] If we rather think it would have been the former scenario, then we would have concluded that the three elements I sorted out above had no distinct bearing on the events. If, however, we admit that they are central to what happened, then something in the shape of the latter outcome would have been entirely possible. And that outcome is revolution.

It didn’t happen, since Spartacus failed, and in a quest of the meaning of revolution, it is not fruitless to wonder why. I think there are at least two worthwhile lines of explanation for the event. One of these has been recently propounded by Michael Parenti in a short chapter in an edited volume.[2] Parenti explains Spartacus’ failure by highlighting the differences between slaves and citizens in Rome’s civil order which made it so that the revolt could not be joined by Rome’s many paupers, a development which would have rendered it irresistible. This sounds convincing, since Spartacus’ revolt was the revolt of a subject of the Roman people – more specifically, it was a revolt against the order of things which gave vital value to the title of a “Roman citizen”, rich or poor. The set phrase “I am a Roman citizen” was thought the greatest protection against injustice and abuse in Spartacus’ world, as was for instance abundantly made clear by Cicero’s oratory in The Verrines; while at the same time the quality of slave was the condition which laid one vulnerable to the most wanton injustice. The pathos of large tracts of The Verrines revolved around the outrageous ways in which the talismanic phrase failed to protect citizens in Sicily, even as “it has often brought to many, in the most distant countries, relief and assistance.” The barbarity with which the governor of Sicily, Verres, treated Roman citizens would be acceptable only when applied to slaves: “I will produce”, intoned Cicero, “citizens of Cosa, his fellow citizens and relations, who shall teach you… that that Publius Gavius whom you crucified was a Roman citizen, and a citizen of the municipality of Cosa, not a spy of runaway slaves.” (Verrines, Second Action, Book V, § 165). The claim was all the viler if we remember that Verres thought nothing of crucifying slaves, whom he would falsely accuse of having supported Spartacus’ revolt, in order to blackmail wealthy slaveholders for bribes. In the instance, it was the blackmail of citizens that shocked Cicero, not the crucifixion of blameless slaves. Slavery was a key product of the Roman Empire, which itself was a political enterprise built for the overarching profit of Rome’s magnates, but also more generally for the rights and privileges of all Rome’s citizens. A slave revolt was thus a revolt against the very framework of Roman ambition – and perhaps of Roman existence, since Roman existence had come to be defined by Roman ambition.[3] Revolts of plebeians or conspiracies among the mighty and wealthy of the state were squabbles about the sharing of the spoils of empire; but a revolt of slaves was a threat to empire itself. In this way, Spartacus’ failure followed from a set of internal impossibilities.

The other explanation was concisely given by the ancient historian Appian, when he writes that Spartacus did not attack Rome because “his whole force was not suitably armed, for no city had joined him.” It seems that power could not be overturned in Rome through an internal rising. Much as Parenti’s explanation is convincing, it is not sure that Roman paupers would have risen up had Spartacus been a Roman nobleman instead of a Thracian gladiator. They did not unite behind the Gracchi leadership, despite its social respectability and constitutional accoutrements. Parenti convincingly argues, in another book,[4] that the much-defamed Catiline was a democratic (in the classical sense of the word) militant, defeated by patrician intrigue – but also, we must stress, by popular apathy in Rome. According to Parenti – and also an imposing luminary of Roman historiography, Mommsen – Caesar was the champion of democracy, and in this view, one would expect that when he crossed the Rubicon to descend on Rome, excited plebeians in the city would have tried to help in his progress by attacking the frightened oligarchs. Instead, they let them pack up and trundle off, with gold, books and other valuables, to the nearest safe port: as if the sans-culottes had patiently watched the ancient regime dukes carry their golden louis and Tintoretto off to Calais. In this instance, the fact was that the Roman commoner did not see Pompey as the man who sucked on on him (which was how French peasants saw, for instance, the Duke of Bourbon), but rather as the man on whom he depended for his access to the ancient version of the good life. Pompey, and other men of his class, had cleaned up the seas of pirates, brought to Rome the wealth of the world, and had loyal forces that controlled the food supplies from the East that sustained, at cut-rate prices, Roman alimentation. Moreover, he was a prestigious general with the command of legions. Caesar, too, was a powerful general with an even greater armed force about him, with which to break Pompey’s grip on the corn lands of the East. The problem with Spartacus was that he was not in any moment in such a position, and he knew it. We have echoes of his feverish attempts at crafting a Roman-style army out of his followers, but he had to do it fast, and to be sufficiently successful in this task to attract the alliance of other Italian cities. Command an army and secure alliances among the city-states: that was how campaigns were waged in Italy. That was what Hannibal tried over a century before Spartacus’ uprising, and that was in essence what Caesar himself did in the first stages of his war against the Pompeians, three decades later. Spartacus couldn’t do it, and he was crushed. The general external context in which Roman politics were embedded did not favor his action, and in fact, this “external” line of explanation is probably more crucial than the “internal” one, even though both certainly played a role in the fate of the adventure.

So, back to our speculation: suppose Spartacus was able to craft a disciplined army, secure the alliance of surrounding city-states and capture Rome. Suppose, furthermore, that he was able to defeat the competent Roman generals who had come back to rescue their city, or maybe the galleys of some of them capsized somewhere on the Interior Sea. In that case, a new city of Rome would have emerged, one so very different from the “Senate and People of Rome” which has historically survived Spartacus’ attack that we cannot imagine it. The forces that would have been unleashed by the event not only would have destroyed the ruling regime, but also the very civil order of Rome, because they would have burst forth from the most marginalized and suppressed areas of that civil order – slavedom and empire, both foreign and Italian. To accommodate such forces – including the foreign elements – the structures of Roman society would have had to be thoroughly transformed, and the supporting political economy of the state, radically changed. A groundswell of alternative values, preferences and interests would have remade the city. Although it is not likely that slavery would have been abolished outright, it could not have remained the central element in the political economy of the state: the growth of slaveholding was an economic weapon used by Rome’s magnates to establish and extend their latifundia at the expense of the ager publicus (public domain) and of the small freeholds of the early ages of the Roman republic. With the magnates gone, slavery would have receded to anecdotal levels, as was once the case in Italy, and the new structures would have favored the emergence of a peasantry, something which seems so utterly foreign to the imperial civilization of Rome.[5] Similarly, it is unlikely that the empire would have survived, since it was the fruit of the ambitions of the “Senate and People,” and the blossoming Roman Empire would have known the fate of the miscarried Athenian and Carthagenian imperial ambitions. The change would also have affected Roman culture, artistic expressions and language in ways that we cannot easily imagine.

To better understand what all this means, let us compare this speculation with what actually happened in terms of a “Roman Revolution”, a phrase which Mommsen applied to the prolonged and troubled process that shifted Rome’s political constitution from the mixed regime once admired by Polybius, to imperial monarchy. The Roman Revolution thus described was a regime change designed not to destroy Rome’s civil order and reigning political economy, but rather to protect it through an adjustment to the strains of imperialist expansion and the autonomization of military force. The thing felt interminable, often aberrant and ghastly, and terribly sad and frightening for large numbers of Roman citizens, but this was simply what it took to allow Rome to accomplish the unnatural feat of a city-state morphing into a large territorial empire, something that never happened before, and never since. The stabilization under the imperial monarchy of new political rules was a radical break from the Republic’s constitution, but until the very end lip service was always paid, in formalities, oratory and public concepts and ideals, to the ancient principles, keeping them in public life though out of public conscience. This looks like – in reverse – to what happened to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: there, the monarchy made way for representative democracy in the actuality of power, but remained entrenched in the forms and symbols of the state and in public affections. That English Revolution did not change the English civil order – and similarly Mommsen’s Roman Revolution did not overturn the Roman civil order. In fact, the oligarchic fruition of Rome’s republican civil order blossomed quite remarkably after the Augustan constitutional revolution, leading to the things that make us think of Rome as a place of decadent indulgences. The changes in the rule of the games firmed up the inegalitarian social structures that had been threatened during the troubles, and in particular they strengthened the political economy of slaveholding and control over the paupers that was their mainstay.[6] This result is the converse of the one which would have obtained under the Spartacist revolution speculated in the previous paragraph.

All of this said, my main point is not that a Spartacist revolution would have been more socially radical than a constitutional revolution, or that it would have heralded an era of justice and harmony in which generations would have lived happily ever after. Such things never result from revolutions, not because – as socialists used to think – they would be thwarted by reactionaries, but because they are not the objects of revolutions. Whatever might have been the ideals of Spartacus, they were certainly much closer to those of Karl Marx than to those of Cicero or Edmund Burke, and I believe leftist opinion is right to suppose that, cornered by the fury of the Roman patriciate, Spartacus did end up seeking the achievement of social justice and redress in a free society. Such aspirations gave his revolutionary drive a much more radical purpose than any that unsettled the Roman system before the vogue of eastern religions such as Christianity. But the ultimate result of that drive would have been to rebuild the house on a different plan, not to build a perfect house[7] – while Augustus was content with some plastering, plugging and extensions to the same old house.[8] The new plan would have also presented new iniquities, but it would have been completely different from the old one: and that is the essence of revolution – to reestablish the civil order on new principles.

Revolutions are rare things. For most of history, what happened were events that might have turned into revolutions, like Spartacus’ uprising. While the term has become more common today, it generally refers to events and processes that approximate the concept of revolution in some ways rather than to something that fully enacts its eternal epics. This is unsurprising since the dynamic forces and special circumstances that may rewrite the principles and recast the civil order of a people – and thus create in fact a new people – through a close sequence of momentous events are, by the nature of things, out of the ordinary.

Revolutions affect a people, and when we speak of a “people” we are really referring to heterogeneous groups of men and women, old and young, rich and poor, individuals with different faiths and ethnicities, divergent interests, competing political ideals, all of them striving in one way or another to project what is nearer their heart onto the shared space variously called res publica, common weal or public space. Moreover, relationships between these individuals and groups of individuals are mediated by a number of political and social institutions, complete with their own specific history, within and below the general history of the people.

This context provides students of revolutions and similar events with a complex empirical terrain from which to draw elucidations of what happened. My understanding of revolution is determined by defining its object – the people – as a kind of collective conscience that comes from shared political beliefs. There are other ways of defining a people, but this particular conceptualization avoids the problems that arise from the conflation of the people with concepts of race, nation, culture or religion. Political beliefs are very similar to religious or cultural beliefs in their mode of operation, but are restricted to the things that the people have in common and that form their common conscience. In this sense they are both larger and narrower than religious or cultural beliefs, since the latter are independent from them, and yet may be included in them. For instance, the poet Sidonius Apollinaris, whom I mentioned in the long footnote 8, was culturally a Roman-educated Gaul from Lyons, religiously a Pagan-educated Christian, but in his political conscience, he was a member of the Roman people, just as, for instance, a Greek-educated Syrian of Antioch raised as a monophysite Christian.

Closer to our times, a significant criticism levelled against the French state, for instance, by so-called immigrants – that is, for instance, people of North African ancestry and Islamic religion who have been living as part of the French people for two or three generations – has to do with difficulties exercising or even securing the right of vote, when nationals of other European Union countries get it as a matter of rule. Given their comprehensive participation in the history of the French people, these persons are outraged by a kind of contradiction which includes foreigners in the most decisive rituals of the people but excludes persons with an inborn French political conscience – however blunted by issues of the colonial divide and of economic integration.[9]

Members of the same people believe in a unique civil order, organized by abstract political principles and more tangible institutions, customs and public memory, all things which make of it such an intimate and natural entity for them, and such an exotic and confusing one for foreigners.




[1] Of course, the more probable course would have been Spartacus occupation of Rome failing to withstand the onslaught of the Roman generals who would have hurried back from the operations they were conducting in the empire, Pompey and Metellus in Spain, Marcus Lucullus in Thrace and Lucius Lucullus in Asia Minor.

[2] “Roman Slavery and the Class Divide: Why Spartacus Lost”. In Spartacus: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, pp. 144-153.

[3] Mommsen explains the primacy of Rome over other cities of the Latium through the fact of ambition. This was true of Athens in Greece and Carthage in Liby-Phoenicia. Without the demon of ambition, a psychological force, none of these cities would have aimed for empire, since empire is never the result of a “fit of absence of mind” as in Seeley’s description of the origins of the British Empire.

[4] The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome, the New Press, 2003.

[5] G. K. Chesterton expresses this poetically (though not very scientifically) in his Short History of England: “There had appeared, like a subterranean race cast up to the sun, something unknown to the august civilization of the Roman Empire – a peasantry. At the beginning of the Dark Ages, the great Pagan cosmopolitan society now grown Christian was as much a slave state as old South Carolina. By the fourteenth century it was almost as much a state of peasant proprietors as modern France. No laws had been passed against slavery; no dogmas even had condemned it by definition; no war had been waged against it, no new race or ruling caste had repudiated it; but it was gone.” A Spartacist success would have tried to achieve this changeover in a decade instead of through several centuries, and by force rather than in “spiritual factories,” to quote the phrase from Chesterton.

[6] Expensive and cumbersome as it was, the regular dole of grain and other foodstuff to tens of thousands of Roman paupers was institutionalized by Augustus in reforms that established the office of the Praefectus Annonae (Prefect of Provisions), and gladiatorial games and other mass entertainment events became a staple of Roman way of life. Hence emerged the panem et circenses creature lampooned as the typical Roman commoner of the imperial period.

[7] The most radical revolutionaries in the line of social justice and redress – for there are radical revolutionaries in other lines too, including for instance Adolf Hitler – are perfectionists who usually get assassinated or otherwise betrayed by those who do not believe in perfection.

[8] Centuries later, the old house was sacked. In the mid-5th century CE, most of the Mediterranean became the empire of the Vandal king Genseric, seated in the city of Carthage, which he had captured in 439. Genseric’s Mediterranean operations enabled him to control the African grain stream, the main source of food supply for the Roman capitals of Rome and Constantinople. In 455, he sailed to Rome itself and marched to the gates of the city, leading the emperor Maximus to take flight and get killed by angry mobs in his way out (the ugly fate that did not befall the oligarchs when Caesar was nearing Rome). The pope reached an agreement with Genseric whereby the Vandal army was to proceed into Rome and plunder it to their heart content, but without exercising violence: no rape, no murder. In an eerie orderly raid, Rome was stripped of its treasures, and Genseric carted off in his boats the widow and daughter of Maximus. Genseric thus rolled back the accomplishments of the Roman republic and empire. Under him, both the scourge of piracy and a threatening power at Carthage came back to life, and he took from Rome its last spoils of many centuries of running an empire. A witness to these calamities, the Gallo-Roman nobleman and poet Sidonius Apollinaris painted Rome as a disheveled old hag, her hair full of dust instead of being covered with a cask as in days of yore, holding on to a spear and shield as if they were deadweights, and throwing herself at the feet of Thundering Jupiter with the cry: “mea redde principia!”, “give me back my beginnings!” For it was when the house was built, at the beginning of it all, that the principles were sharp, the foundations stout and the forces fresh and boundless. That was the real Roman revolution, when urbe condita, when the city was founded.

[9] This is also, obviously, one of those cases when cultural identification (of White Europeans) may, to an extent, trump the fact of being a people. After all, even such an exceedingly discriminating mind as Samuel Huntington has trouble disentangling cultural identity and the political conscience of a people (In his 2004 essay Who we are. The Challenges of America’s National Identity.)

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