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.

One goddess who was worshiped in Thrace was Hecate, who was later extolled in Greek myths as assisting Demeter, the goddess of the Eleusinian mysteries, by escorting her daughter Persephone back from the underworld yearly. Hecate was closely associated with plant allies, and taught other women to use them, including Medea who—legend has it—subdued a dragon with drugs, enabling her husband Jason to steal the Golden Fleece.

Tattoos on a 2500-year-old mummy dubbed the "Ice Princess" found
in the Altai mountains along with a container of cannabis.
Ancient Thrace was adjacent to Scythia, home to the Amazon Women. The Greek historian Herodotus observed in the fifth century BCE that the Scythians used cannabis in funeral rituals, throwing hemp seeds on the fire and "inhaling the smoke and becoming intoxicated, just as the Greeks become inebriated with wine." According to Wikipedia, "Herodotus also noted that the Thracians, a people who had intimate contact with the Scythians, introduced the plant to the Dacians where it became popular among a shamanic cult named the Kapnobatai, or 'Those Who Walk in the Clouds.'"

Recent discoveries of the graves of Scythians and tribes they traded with have found hemp seeds and incense burners, and because of DNA testing many are now identified as women. Strauss writes in his book The Sparticus War that Thrace was known for its "fierce fighters and ecstatic religion."

"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," Strauss writes. "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."

"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."

There is also a recorded instance of two Celtic women, part of Spartacus's polyglot army who,  "fulfilling their monthly things" one early morning in 71 BC near Lucania, spied Roman troops and were able to warn the rebel soldiers of their impending attack.

A character named Dionysus is a gladiator in the Kirk Douglas movie, where Trumbo works in a reference to the Egyptian goddess Isis. An old woman talks Spartacus into letting her join the revolt, telling him she can wield a knife as well as "cast spells and brew poisons."

Erin Cummings as Sparticus's wife Sura in the Starz series.
The recent Starz series "Spartacus" (2010-2013), featuring plenty of sex and bloody violence, portrays his wife as a character named Sura. But in the first episode she prays only to "the Gods" (not the Goddesses) for his safe return as he leaves to fight their enemies, and her vision of a snake bringing a warning is rebuffed by her husband: He tells her that the Getae (a Thracian tribe) worship the mountain wolf and put no store in snakes. Left alone to defend herself, Sura does help hold off some village plunderers with a sword (showing much cleavage) until Spartacus arrives (running in slow motion) to help.

Lucy Lawless, the actress who played Xena the Warrior Princess (1995-2001), appears in the series as Lucrecia, a member of the Roman aristocracy vying for power. Lawless recently backed the use of medical cannabis in her home country of Australia.

Spartacus shows up in references in modern films like "That Thing You Do" and Netflix's "Dumplin," with Jennifer Aniston as the queen of a Texas beauty pageant whose daughter and friends seek to conquer. "We're Spartacus and the pageant is the Roman Empire," one of them says.

We've got a lot of uprising to do against our current Emperor, with his beauty pageant past. It's time women reconnected with our true herstory, and found and used our power to change our future.

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