Sunday, February 9, 2020

Spartacus's Wife: The Woman Behind the Revolt

Jean Simmons with Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus" (1960).
It was sadly fitting that on the Day our Democracy Died we also lost Kirk Douglas, who helped break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for the 1960 film "Spartacus," telling the enduring story of the 73BCE Gladiator/slave revolt against the Roman empire.

I rented the movie, and was struck by the depictions of the communal nature of the former slave army: people pulling together, women making candles and weaving, etc. I was also struck by the lack of power among the women in the film: Spartacus's love Varinia (Jean Simmons) is a slave forced into submissive prostitution who ends up back in Roman clutches in the end. Simmons appears nearly naked in a bathing scene.

The herstorical facts are different: Spartacus, who came from Thrace, was married to a priestess from his tribe who inspired and aided in the revolt. According to history professor Barry Strauss writing in The Wall Street Journal:

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) 

Plutarch, and Strauss, pin her as worshipping Dionysus, the god of wine and liberating "frenzies"; but long before his cult appears, the snake was a symbol of the goddess religions. Scholars think the wines of ancient times may have contained entheogenic plants as well as alcohol.