Strauss lectures on Spartacus, strategy in slave rebellion

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John Carberry

Military historian Barry Strauss talked about epic battles, military strategies and the lives of the combatants in the uprising Spartacus led against the Roman army from 73-71 B.C. in his lecture, "On Spartacus," March 28 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Strauss, a professor of history and classics at Cornell, analyzed the ancient slave rebellion in his 2009 book, "The Spartacus War." His lecture separated the reality of the revolt from the myth, and highlighted the contrasts between the ancient and modern ways of fighting insurgency. Strauss also included new research on the role of women during the rebellion, and work by a graduate student that links Spartacus' Thracian ethnic background and his use of unconventional warfare.

Strauss said that native soldiers recruited from other territories into the Roman army would often bring women along with them, as would those in the armies of northern barbarians who fought the Romans.

"Among the Thracians and Gauls and Germans, the men brought their women with them to war. They were cheering them on behind the frontlines," Strauss said. "There seems to be some confirmation that when Spartacus was fighting, his woman was with him in the gladiatorial barracks and supported him during the revolt. We're finding material evidence that tends to support this -- and this is really important to ancient historians."

Two findings by archaeologists stand out in highlighting women's roles during Roman wars, he said.

"In the English-Scottish frontier, around Hadrian's Wall, we have found many pairs of sandals, and some of them clearly belonged to women," Strauss said. "And looking at the official records of native units in the Roman army, when [soldiers] showed up to join the army, they brought their women with them. Romans would never do that, it was totally illegal according to Roman law."

Strauss added: "On the ['Spartacus: Blood and Sand'] television show, as in the Kirk Douglas movie, Spartacus is obsessed with his woman. It might have really been real, and the women were there for emotional as well as material support."

Spartacus was an allied soldier in the Roman army before he was sold into slavery. Strauss' book depicts him as a charismatic leader and a keen military strategist; new research shows that Spartacus' background informed the tactics he employed against the Romans.

"Spartacus came from Thrace, the ancient equivalent of Bulgaria," he said. "One of my students [Matthew Sears, a graduate student in classics] completed a Ph.D. thesis on the Thracian way of war, about 400 years before Spartacus. He shows that even back then the Thracians were specializing in single combat [and] excelling in the kind of things gladiators do. It shows that Spartacus fought as his people had before him. Instead of fighting the way Greeks and Romans did, lining up two armies, they would have raids and ambushes, and horsemen charging into villages and stealing things. The Romans liked to hire allies who would do that for them."

Strauss also recently lectured on Spartacus at the NATO military headquarters in Belgium. "It seems that modern soldiers too want to learn the lessons of Rome vs. Spartacus," he said in an interview.

"I was impressed to see how seriously people took the question of what the strategic lessons of ancient history would be," Strauss said. His NATO audience was "appalled by the extent to which the Romans would go to put down the rebellion. The Romans didn't have to worry about winning hearts and minds, not as much as we do now. The Romans had a steamroller approach to rebellion, unlike the American and NATO armies, which try to minimize civilian casualties."

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