Spartacus' revolt: Slave rebellion, or Samnite-nationalist rebellion?

In her historical novel Fortune’s Favorites, Colleen McCullough tells a very different version of the rebellion of Spartacus – what Roman historians called the “Third Servile War” (73-71 B.C.) – than we saw in the Kirk Douglas film: It was not a revolt against the institution of slavery, nor even primarily a rebellion of slaves. It did begin with a breakout of slave gladiators-in-training from a ludus or gladiators’ school, but by the time the war got going in earnest, most of Spartacus’ followers were free Samnites, unreconciled to Roman rule and still nursing a grudge from the Social War (91-88 B.C.). Their aim, if they could not throw off the Roman yoke in Italy, was to relocate their nation en masse to Sicily and found a new state there. So it was really a nationalist rebellion.

Does McCullough have history on her side?

BTW: McCullough also asserts that during the Republican period, gladiators did not fight to the death or even try to wound each other. Gladiatorial combat was just a show, like professional wrestling. Fights in earnest, and to the death, came later, under the Empire. Is that true?

The Samnites were pretty much destroyed as a people by the Social War. That’s not to say that there weren’t any individual Samnites in Sparticus’s army, but as far as I know, and as far as the histories record, it was primarily a slave revolt.

Appian-The Civil Wars


Plutarch-Life of Crassus

If you want a couple of very different takes on Spartacus, try reading Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus, the book on which the film is based, but which differs significantly from the flick (despite the fact that I love Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay). I understand that neither the book nor the film are historically accurate.

Another interesting book treatment is Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators. Very different from Fast’s or Trumbo’s.

I haven’t read McCulloch’s yet, although I’ve read others in the series.

Wonder where McCullouch got her ideas about the revolt, then? I mean, she’s “only” a novelist, but her knowledge of Roman history is widely reputed to be so encyclopedic that professors in the field consult with her.


I find that highly unlikely.

Colleen McCullough is very good at knowing what the ancient sources say - and what they don’t. She often takes a lot of liberties with what isn’t known.

I haven’t heard anything of Samnite involvement. The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this topic. And my prof is cited!

I have read that somewhere else, but I don’t remember where. (I haven’t read that book by McCollough) IIRC, the theory was that gladiators were expensive to train, and maiming/killing them just destroyed the investment.

I’ve never heard that gladiators weren’t legitimately killed. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across some inscriptions that give the ages at death of gladiators, and they’re usually quite young.

It’s true that they weren’t always killed. The Oxford Classical Dictionary says:

Of course, this means that gladiators probably got to fight in 5-10 games before they died, rather than two or so.