Any society that relies to a great extent on subjugated and enslaved people always fears an uprising, and the Roman world experienced several of those. In 73 BCE slaves, probably prisoners of war, who had been forced to become gladiators, overpowered their guards and escaped from Capua into the countryside, initially camping on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. This group quickly attracted slaves and others with no stake in society, and over the next two years they roamed Italy, meeting and defeating each local militia force sent against them. Internal disputes seem to have weakened them and on at least one occasion a large group split off and went their own way, but eventually all were cornered by legions under the command of Crassus and either killed or captured – the captives being crucified publicly as a deterrent to others. Spartacus was at least one of the leaders, and his name has been remembered in history for this serious threat to Roman order from within its own borders.
As recruits flocked to join the rebels they would have worn their ordinary clothing, which in many cases would have been the simply tunica. Knowing they would have to fight to stay at liberty, the need was always for more suitable clothing for a warrior, particularly armour, and such armour as there was came from captured stocks in warehouses, or off the backs of those forces the rebels defeated and captured. Inevitably there was never nearly enough to go round, so most probably remained in civilian clothing the whole time. Some of the figures in this set certainly reflect this, with just a basic garment being worn, and one man wears a cloak too. However half the poses here have acquired some element of armour, which is probably a far higher proportion than in reality. The armour takes many forms, including mail corselet, linen corselet in the Greek style, solid muscle cuirass and small pectoral plate. The mail corselet would have been much the most common of the plunder available to these people, with the remainder being very rare, so this set provides a wide selection of the possible armours and ignores the likely frequency of them being worn. The linen corselet in particular seems very far from home, but none of this can be said to be impossible for the time, and so is appropriate for this subject.
The other major item of armour was of course the helmet, and here again we find a very high proportion of men wearing one example or another (seven out of the 12). Styles vary as before, including several examples of the most common Montefortino type, which is good. Others include a couple that look very Greek in style, and may have been taken from cavalry, which did wear such helmets. Several have hair plumes coming from them, and one man has a full traverse crest as might be found on a centurion or officer, so a particularly splendid prize of war and again one that would be rare in such hands. Two men are wearing a greave, and there are also some elements that look to be parts of a gladiator’s costume such as a shoulder guard and a padded arm protector. Such items would certainly have been available for looting, and wearing, but in such tiny numbers as to be very seldom found on a battlefield. Finally many here have bare feet, a few wear sandals, and a couple have boots.
Weaponry came from the same source as armour - wherever you could find and take it - so would have been very diverse. Some such as herdsmen might have brought their own slings and knives, but mostly weapons were either taken from the enemy or fashioned as best they could from the available resources. Amazingly almost everyone here carries a sword, which must have been far less common than this implies, and several also have a spear of some sort. We find one bowman, and two men carrying axes, which would have been one of the ordinary household tools also perfectly useful as a weapon. One man holds a trident, which as a theatrical gladiator prop would again have been very rare, and the last pictured figure is holding nothing more than a good, meaty wooden club. While all these weapons - even the trident - are possible and so correct, the bulk of the men fighting under Spartacus would have carried perhaps a spear, perhaps a tool such as an axe, but often just a hefty piece of wood or a sharpened stick. Clearly as they defeated those forces sent against them the supply of proper weapons would have improved, but we remain to be convinced that these well-armed and well-armoured men, many a match for any legionary of the day, are typical of the slave army.
Shields, like armour, are as much about making the occupier feel safer as about any real protection, and doubtless shields were high on the wants list of most who joined the revolt. Many would have been taken from those they killed and captured, and most of the nine examples we find here seem to have come from this source and are typical of the period. Some are curved, some flat, and all are held by a horizontal grip behind the boss. We would have preferred to see some with the long central spine, but all here have just the boss. Most are plain (hooray), but three have designs engraved on them, though of course these can be trimmed off if not desired. One man carries a small circular shield that seems to be woven, and indeed such shields were fashioned by the men themselves for want of anything better, so this is fine, although usually they had an animal skin covering rather than just showing the bare vines as here.
The style of these figures is of the classic Strelets type, so not as refined as many, and with smaller features that are somewhat exaggerated. That said the detail is very pleasing and the faces are particularly expressive, and as the various elements are quite deeply sculpted they should be easy to paint. On our example we found almost no flash, although on some of the sprues the second figure in our bottom row was missing part of the spear shaft where the plastic had not reached (the extra feed at the top of the helmet suggests this is a known issue).
For the most part the poses do not feel flat, although those holding the spear aloft do so right across the middle of the head, which is common in figures but not realistic. The choice of poses is fine, and even the man holding his sword behind him (second figure, first row), although a classic Strelets pose we have criticised in the past, is here done with a much more realistic arm position. The only pose that gave us concern is the last figure in that row, as he is holding his shield high in the air. Shields were quite heavy, so there must be a good reason to do this such as protecting from arrows.
No individual figure here can be described as certainly wrong, but there is a considerable bias in favour of the well armoured and armed figures which were probably not too common, particularly considering the diverse and sometimes exotic items sculpted here. This may well be deliberate, as some customers will be more interested in these more interesting figures than in the bulk of poorly-equipped men Spartacus probably actually lead. However these are quite nice figures in a good range of action poses that match well with the many Strelets sets of Republican Romans already available. With numerous clashes between the Spartacus Army and the Roman state forces, these figures help provide the means to recreate some particularly unusual and interesting battles for the first century BCE.