Apart from Julius Caesar himself the name of Spartacus is probably more widely recognised today than any other from the ancient Roman world. Many have chosen to see him as a role model of later socialist ideals (not least Karl Marx), but for the wider public the name resonates thanks to innumerable books and, perhaps most importantly, the Stanley Kubrick epic film of 1960. Relatively little is known of Spartacus except that he was a Thracian who had served in a Roman army at one time but by 73 BCE found himself a slave in a gladiatorial school in Capua, some 200 km south-east of Rome. There he and some 200 others staged a mass breakout and quickly attracted and freed other slaves, forming an army of sorts which numbered in the tens of thousands. Rome’s response was initially inadequate, and the slave army defeated every force sent against it. Ultimately after two years of freedom the slave army was destroyed by Marcus Licinius Crassus, with Spartacus dying an anonymous death during the final battle.
The main source of slaves was captives taken in war, either by the Romans themselves or sold to them by pirates or so-called ‘barbarian’ peoples. As a result the slave army was a highly varied mix of just about every nationality in the ancient world, with Celts and Germans making up a large proportion of the total. However whether Gaul or Greek, German or African, all were slaves and so would have been dressed as such, often having little opportunity to follow their own native practices in terms of clothing or, when the time came, weaponry. Naturally apart from what they had on their backs, the only clothing available was what could be looted from the countryside around them, although garments could be fashioned when cloth was available. The only armour would have been that taken from local militias or the state forces sent against them, and would have been relatively rare as the rebels always greatly outnumbered the legionaries. Good weapons too were always in short supply. Spartacus had initially broken out using just clubs and kitchen utensils, and what weapons were subsequently obtained were stolen from the population and, in particular, taken from the unfortunate Roman forces they defeated. The shortfall was made up with weapons the men had forged themselves, agricultural tools and even simply sharpened sticks with the point hardened in the fire. All this would have made for an extremely motley mass of dangerous men, and it is remarkable that Spartacus was able to achieve so much in such difficult circumstances.
With that image in mind we then look at the figures in this, the first set of Spartacus fighters so far produced, and we find something quite different. What we notice first is the large quantity of gladiatorial equipment being worn and carried. Where would the rebels get these sorts of props from? Capua was a major centre for gladiatorial schools, and it is true that Spartacus discovered and 'liberated' a cart of such supplies when he first fought his way to freedom, but while gladiatorial weapons were better than nothing both they and the costumes were essentially theatrical items and while the weapons probably were used there seems no reason to suppose any slave took to dressing up as a gladiator, even, or especially, if he had been one when a slave. Many of these figures wear loin cloths and bits of armour, helmets and clothing that were only ever used in performances, making them look like they have come straight from a show. Such items would have been incredibly rare, yet here they are plentiful, which wildly distorts the look of the set as a whole. With so many having gladiatorial costume there is almost no one wearing the standard garment of slave and freeman alike in the Roman world - the tunica. This simple but effective item would have been all the clothing most slaves had, and must have made up the bulk of the clothing to be found in Spartacus’ army. Some Celts and others that were accustomed to wearing trousers would likely have obtained or made these, and two of the poses in this set do have them, while one man has helped himself to a mail coat, but for the majority of figures in this set the costume is simply not logical.
Weaponry we have already described, so a good many spears and clubs might be expected along with sticks and some swords and daggers. These do appear here, as do an axe and a hammer, which is fine. One man has a sling, which serves to remind us that very many of the freed slaves were herdsmen who were armed by their masters in order to defend their flocks, and for many the sling was a familiar weapon with which they could inflict great damage. The trident is purely theatrical, although better than nothing, so in fact the weapons are not bad. A couple of men carry shields - one looks military in origin while the other is probably again a games prop.
The poses are generally quite reasonable if often very flat (the spearman in particular is a pose physically impossible to produce with the human body). There are however several worthy of special mention. We liked the pairing at the end of the first row, with a man holding a legionary by the neck, and the last figure in the last row seems to be in a frenzy or exultant at the severed head he carries. The crucified man in the bottom row represents the many thousands of slaves that met their deaths in this particularly grisly manner, which was the standard form of execution for rebellious slaves. The wounded man next to him is nicely done and reminds us of the similar figure in the old Airfix Ancient Britons set. The penultimate figure in the bottom row is doing, well, we’re not quite sure what. Maybe picking up a rock in the most inefficient way possible? Perhaps releasing himself from a leg-iron? Certainly he has the most widely spaced legs we have ever seen, but we don't know why.
At the start of the second row is a woman. Now the slave army had large numbers of women, children and the old as runaway slaves could hardly leave such people behind to face the wrath of their Roman masters. The women supplied all the usual services you might expect, and there is evidence for non-Roman women actually fighting in battle when the need arose, so this woman, who looks aggressive with the knife in her right hand, may well be actually in combat. As a slave her costume would be simple - basically a tunic much like that of the men - although the dress she wears looks to have more to do with Hollywood than female costume of the day. In any case it has been torn such that one breast is exposed - perhaps such titillation helps to sell sets of figures. Roman women did wear underwear (though not bras as we know them today), but quite possibly many slaves did not - certainly this one doesn't.
The fairly crude style of these Strelets-produced figures is not pleasing on the eye, although rarely can there have been a subject where delicate detail is less relevant. Nevertheless the proportions are not great and some items are exaggerated in size. The woman’s left hand for instance is in some sort of contorted and very unnatural shape and is about three times the size it should be for the width of her arm. Some of the faces are not too bad though, and there is almost no flash. One figure (middle of the second row) has a ring hand for a separate weapon, but the only other assembly is the crucified man, who needs to be glued to the cross. Incidentally despite the horrific subject this is about the most accurate figure here, with the cross correctly shaped and the method of fixing him being accurately portrayed.
For the most part the army of Spartacus was made up of tough slaves who had been put to work in the fields or the mines, and were determined not to go back to that existence despite the lack of resources and the odds against them. They were not a gladiator army, in costume, as the box art and many of the figures would suggest. There are no contemporary depictions of Spartacus' men, yet we can be sure of their general appearance, and as it stands this set is no reflection of that. We note that Strelets will be producing several more Spartacus sets, and it is to be hoped that they will be far closer to the truth of the subject than many of the figures we have here. If that turns out to be so then anyone building a substantial slave army will need many of those sets and hardly any of this one.