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Struggle between classes in the ancient world
The permanent resistance

By Paul D'Amato | July 8, 2005 | Page 12

SO LONG as society has been divided into classes and presided over by a ruling or exploiting class, there has been resistance from the exploited class.

The first recorded strike in history took place under PharaohRamses III in 1158 B.C. The grievances of the strikers, who had fled work and found sanctuary in a local temple, were written down on a papyrus.

"It was because of hunger and thirst that we came here," the scroll reads. "There is no clothing, no ointment, no fish, no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh, our good lord, about it, and send to the vizier, our superior, that sustenance may be made for us." They had to occupy two other temples in the next few days until their demands for wages (paid in rations of food and drink) were met.

According to W.W. Tarn, strikes were an "an old Egyptian custom...not merely riots in which the manager got beaten, but regular withdrawals of labor." According to Tarn, "The men had one weapon which officialdom feared; they could throw the machine of out of gear by leaving their 'own place'...and they usually took refuge in some temple with the right of asylum."

In ancient Rome, the class struggle took a different form--various kinds of slave resistance, up to and including slave insurrections and wars. The landed aristocracy of the Roman empire depended for its wealth not on wage labor, but on plunder--which included not only stealing wealth, but seizing war captives and selling them into slavery. The Roman historian Tacitus attributed these fitting words to a British general fighting the Roman conquerors: "Robbery, butchery, rapine, with false names they call Empire; and they make a wilderness, and call it peace."

Slaves were put to work on large plantations and in mines, as domestic servants, and of course, as gladiators. There were few slave revolts, primarily because the conditions made it extremely difficult to organize on such a scale. One aspect of Roman law will suffice to give an idea of why this was so: If a slave killed his or her master, the entire household of slaves was required by law to be put to death.

The gladiator contests that the Roman rich put on to entertain the masses of Rome were not just between two men, but often involved the slaughter of dozens and even hundreds of men in staged battles. For example, Caesar celebrated a triumph over his enemies in the Civil War by staging wild beast hunts and a full-fledged gladiatorial battle in the Circus Maximus, with 500 infantry, 30 cavalry and 20 elephants on either side.

The most famous slave uprising was led by the Thracian gladiator slave Spartacus. Spartacus led 77 slaves in a breakout from a gladiator school in Capua in 73 BC. He quickly gathered an army of escaped slaves and poor people that swelled to 70,000. Spartacus' army crushed seven of the vaunted Roman legions, winning seven major battles over a three-year period.

He had wanted to lead the slave army out of Italy through the Alps. In the end, the rebels advanced toward Brundisium in the South, but were betrayed by Cilician pirates, who promised them ships that never arrived. Trapped between the sea on one side and massed Roman legions on the other, Spartacus was finally defeated by an army led by Lucinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome. Crassus crucified 6,000 surviving slave rebels along the Appian Way to serve as a lesson to anyone who dared to challenge Rome.

The famous scene in the 1960 movie Spartacus--in which one by one, slaves stand up to claim "I am Spartacus" to protect their beloved leader--is one of the most moving ever put on film, but alas, it didn't happen. The Romans actually never found Spartacus' body.

Karl Marx called Spartacus: "The most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history." And though little was known about the man, his towering deeds make it impossible not to agree.

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