Spartacus’ Wife

Barry Strauss comments on a detail from the Spartacus television series in a blogpost sort of thing in the WSJ about Spartacus’ wife:

That a gladiator like Spartacus should have a wife to help his rebellion catch fire seems like a Hollywood touch but, in fact, it’s true. She was a Thracian like him, from the same tribe. Neither her name nor the name of their tribe survives. Only one ancient source mentions her existence, but he is Plutarch, who relied on the (now largely missing) contemporary account by Sallust. In his “Life of Crassus,” Plutarch writes:

It is said that when he [Spartacus] 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. This woman shared in his escape and was then living with him. (Plutarch, Crassus 9.3)[1]

If it seems odd that a gladiator had a wife, it shouldn’t. Roman slaves often had wives, and children too, although such marriages were not valid in Roman law.

Spartacus’s wife was religious, vocal, and hardy enough to endure the life of an escaped slave battling the Roman army. As a Thracian woman she probably had tattooed arms. As a worshipper of Dionysus, she was used to rural places, especially mountainsides. Another thing about the cult of Dionysus: She probably handled snakes, the god’s symbol.

Dionysus was the god not only of wine but also of liberation. Various peoples considered him their national god, from Thracians to Greeks in southern Italy. Several enemies of Rome chose Dionysus as their rallying cry, including rebel slaves in second-century B.C. Sicily and the Anatolian King Mithradates of Pontus, whose long war against Rome was still on at the outbreak of Spartacus’s revolt in 73 B.C. Hence, Dionysus made a good symbol for Spartacus.

Thracians valued the religious authority of women and they set great store by prophecy, making it likely that Spartacus’s wife was a respected figure. Slave owners may well have feared her, having learned from the Sicilian rebellions that prophets and witches were troublemakers.

As for the story of a snake coiled around Spartacus’s face, herpetologists discount the possibility, but that may be why it seemed like a miracle at the time. Imagine Spartacus’s wife announcing, perhaps after a vision in a trance that Dionysus had sent a snake as a sign of Spartacus’s great power. Did she actually inspire Spartacus’s revolt? To say that would be going beyond the evidence, but she certainly added to his mystique. In short, behind the macho figure of Spartacus there was a woman.

We do not know what happened to the Thracian woman but she probably shared the same unhappy fate as most of Spartacus’s followers.

… and as long as we’re talking Spartacus and the WSJ,  Adrian Goldsworthy also reviewed Schiavone: He Was Spartacus

Vidfest: We’re all Spartacus

I thought of tying this to the Times piece (below) but it seems sufficiently different to warrant its own little chunk of rogueclassicism. The incipit of a column in the Post … where possible, I’ve interspersed bits from Youtub of the clip in question:

1. In the Stanley Kubrick epic “Spartacus,” the Romans offer slaves leniency if they’ll turn in the title character, played by Kirk Douglas. But when Spartacus rises to identify himself, Tony Curtis’ Antoninus screams “I’m Spartacus!” So does another man, then another, and by scene’s end, the infamous “No Snitching” movement is born.

And so, too, is an iconic movie moment, as “I’m Spartacus” became a legendary movie line in league with “You talkin’ to me?” “I coulda been a contender,” and “Don’t call me Shirley.”

As such, the line has generated more parodies and offshoots in pop culture than the “Single Ladies” video has on YouTube. On the occasion of the film’s 50th anniversary Blu-Ray release this Tuesday, here are some of our favorites.

MONTY PYTHON’S “LIFE OF BRIAN” (1979) As the Romans seek Brian (Graham Chapman) in order to release him from his crucifixion, they ask him to identify himself. Caught unaware, as he’s cursing out John Cleese’s People’s Front of Judea, the also-crucified Eric Idle sneaks in with, “I’m Brian of Nazareth.” When the real Brian screams “I’m Brian,” so does another man on a cross; then another, and another, until it becomes a chorus — including one man who announces, “I’m Brian, and so’s my wife.” The gesture of generosity from “Spartacus” is flipped into a cowardly act of self-preservation.

“MALCOLM X” (1992) Spike Lee ends his biopic of the civil rights icon with a depiction of Malcolm’s assassination, followed by footage of the actual murder. Then real African and African-American children declare, in the same spirit of unity as Spartacus’ fellow slaves, “I am Malcolm X.” [the bit comes towards the end of this long clip; some nice oratory by Nelson Mandela follows]

“MONK” (2002) The episode “Mr. Monk Meets the Red-headed Stranger” finds Willie Nelson, playing himself, suspected of killing his road manager after a financial dispute. When the police come to arrest him, his band members loyally step up, intoning “I’m Willie Nelson” one by one. The real Willie wisely surmises, “I don’t think they’re goin’ for it, boys.” [sorry … can’t find one for this]

“SOUTH PARK” (2005) In the episode “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow,” which aired two months after Hurricane Katrina, Cartman and Stan accidentally breach a local beaver dam. This leads to Katrina-level flooding, and a parody of the hysteria and whirlwind of blame surrounding that tragedy that includes the mantra, “George Bush doesn’t care about beavers.” At episode’s end, after Stan confesses, the townspeople misconstrue his guilt for altruism and declare “I broke the dam” one after the other, Spartacus-style, as the music swells, with Stan screaming the details of his crime aloud to no avail. [can’t find this one either, although I suspect it’s there somewhere]

PEPSI COMMERCIAL (2005) Incorporating clips from the film, here the Romans simply want to return a lost lunch bag with the name “Spartacus” written on the back, and a can of Pepsi inside, to its rightful owner. As a Roman holds the can aloft and screams “Is there a Spartacus here to claim this?” Douglas and Curtis rise, Curtis screams his line, and the noble scene is transformed into a greedy grab for a can of soda as Douglas looks on, forlorn. In the end, the Roman declares that he is Spartacus, and takes the can for himself.

via Agenda: We’re all Spartacus –

… and as long as we’re doing things Spartacan, I came across this little vid thing of the Mediaeval Baebes singing Salva Nos, with images from the 2004 tv version of Spartacus: