Was Spartacus a Thracian or a Thracian?


Recently I was reading Colleen McCullough’s ‘Fortune’s Favorites’ from her series about ancient Rome. In the latter half of this long book, she retells the story of Spartacus, but with a different perspective. In particularly, she questions the common wisdom that Spartacus was born in Thrace.

Historical sources refer to Spartacus as a ‘Thracian gladiator’. But that phrase can have two meanings. It can mean that the gladiator known as Spartacus was a man born in Thrace. Or it can mean he was a gladiator who fought in the Thracian style— one of two combat styles used by gladiators in the era of the Roman republic.

McCullough, whose Roman series seems to be VERY well researched, presents Spartacus as a non-Thracian, a former Roman legionary who got in trouble with his superiors and was as punishment made a gladiator. In her fictional account, the new gladiator Spartacus (not his real name) was too aggressive with his trainers and ended up being sold to a more punitive gladiator school. Life was so horrible there that he and his comrades slew their tormentors and escaped— and without meaning to, accumulated a massive following of escaped slaves and others who looked to Spartacus to give them hope for a better life.

Spartacus is shown as acting not as a modern crusader to end slavery and oppression as he is sometimes portrayed, but as a man who acted as he did mainly in attempts to feed his followers and bring them to some place of safety.

The ending McCullough gives Spartacus, where both Spartacus and his wife possibly escaped the final battle to live peacefully in hiding, gives a rather hopeful note to the story.

Now, the source for the story of Spartacus as ethnic-Thracian does come from ancient Roman sources. But I wonder how much the ancient Romans knew about him? Surely there were no detailed records kept of the life history of every slave gladiator. And Spartacus was never captured alive and interrogated about such things as his life history. So that leaves the true story of Spartacus with a lot of mystery.

My Current Roman-History Phase

While Roman history is a Special Interest of mine, my current attempts to study it are actually part of worldbuilding, for a story-world I call Kirinia. Kirinia is a large division of a world called Erileth, which can be reached from our world through gateways. The tween-worlds gateways go to and from different time periods without necessary chronological agreement— so people from the Middle Ages can come through, build a society for a thousand years, and then a gateway can open up that leads to ancient Rome.

Which is the origin of Kirinia. A thousand years or more before the story begins, Koreans from the period of the late Middle Ages or so came over from our world to Erileth and build a society. Some of them settled in the land that would one day be Kirinia. As the story begins, the Korean-descended population has been devastated by a war, with only handfuls of refugee women left as survivors. A new gate opens up which connects to Earth in the era of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Roman legionaries go through the gate and start to transform an abandoned city into a Roman colony. Unknown to the Roman leaders, a number of Christians, with their presbyters and two bishops, have gone through the gate as well. And then, the gate closes. And the Romans meet the enemy that emptied the city….

Ancient Roman References in The Hunger Games

Hunger GamesI didn’t get very far into The Hunger Games before I noticed it: ancient Roman references everywhere! Perhaps not surprising since author Suzanne Collins is said to be ‘Roman Catholic’ (which could mean anything from ‘faithful Catholic’ to ‘angry anti-Catholic’.) Ancient Rome is alive in the minds of Catholics even more so than Evangelicals/Protestants, since we Catholics are more likely to seriously study the Early Church, or to hear it mentioned in homilies or Catholic books. For those of you who didn’t grow up with your nose in a Roman history book, here are some references you may have missed.

Panem – That’s the name of the country in which The Hunger Games takes place. It comes from the Latin for ‘bread’. In one of the books it’s mentioned clearly that the name ‘Panem’ comes from the phrase panem et circenses, meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (‘circuses’ meant sports such as chariot racing and gladiatorial games, not our circuses). I can’t imagine any country naming itself that, can you? Particularly since at the very beginning, the few survivors of whatever-all destroyed the United States probably had very little in the way of panem and no time off to enjoy circenses.

The Capitol – It sounds, the way the Capitol is spoken of in The Hunger Games, as if the whole of Panem was designed to service that one city. It was the same with Rome— it sounds as if the world served one city during the Roman empire. In fact, ‘Rome’ also included the surrounding agricultural land that made the city possible, and in the centuries after the founding of the city, there were Roman citizens in many places other than urban Rome. Logically, the Capitol in The Hunger Games would have included a whole Capitol ‘district’.

Roman Names – The citizens of the Capitol have names taken direct from ancient Rome— Cinna, Seneca Crane, Caesar Flickerman, and Castor and Pollux.

Tesserae – In ancient Rome, tesserae (singular: tessera) were little tags used for various purposes. One type of tesserae served as tickets to public entertainments, including gladiatorial games. In The Hunger Games, tesserae are allotments of food that a young person from the districts can sign up for, if they are willing to put their names in for the Reaping extra times.

The Games – In ancient Rome, their bloodsport, the gladiatorial games, started out as a funeral custom— a wealthy family would order two of their slaves to fight to the death at the funeral of their family member. The blood shed was a sort of replacement for the rejected practice of human sacrifice which earlier cultures practiced at funerals. Romans rejected customs of human sacrifice, and that was one reason they were so appalled by the Druids, who burned human beings alive in large wicker baskets. In The Hunger Games, the Games were a long-term punishment for the rebellious Districts. And just as a successful gladiator got money and fame, the winner of the Hunger Games was promised riches for life.

One thing that is not a parallel with ancient Rome is the matter of religion. Rome kept order by creating a national religion of revering the genius (guiding spirit) of the current Emperor. Christians, who would not burn incense to the emperor, were for that reason condemned to death in the arena— for refusing to be ‘good citizens’.

In The Hunger Games, it seems that the authorities of Panem have achieved what dictators of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China only dreamed of— the obliteration of all religion. Not even in the Districts is there any trace of hidden people of faith, or even of remembered folk-hymns. It is all bleak, hopeless, and rather impossible to credit— unless you take into account that books that have no religion sell better to the officially-atheist American government-run schools.

For the writer who bothers to learn history, ancient Rome is an excellent source of inspiration for world-building of many kinds. It is a culture distinctively different from our own, and yet it contributed much to our world.

For Christians, knowing about ancient Rome is essential to understanding the world of the New Testament. I remember that reading Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’ helped me a lot in my college level New Testament courses at Fresno Pacific College. I discovered that Graves’ work, though they were novels, were very much based on the existing ancient sources.

After reading some basic books on Rome, the Christian writer might consider learning about the Early Church Fathers. These are the writers of the very earliest preserved Christian materials other than that in scripture. Some of these works, like the Didache, were considered by some to be scripture before the Church defined the official Canon of the New Testament.

In my own vast supply of Works-in-Progress that are not making enough progress, I have one world in which stray Romans went across a barrier between worlds, found themselves trapped, and build an enduring culture. This idea predates my reading of The Hunger Games, but has changed considerably based on ideas I had reading The Hunger Games. (Being contrary, my world is more of a ‘what if the Capitol were mostly in the right?’ take on the whole thing.)

So, what about you? Are there any fictional works inspired by ancient Rome that you really enjoy? Have you ever written a Roman-influenced story?