Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Thomas Gordon compares the Greatness of Spartacus with that of Julius Caesar (1721)

The USA cable channel recently showed a remake (first done brilliantly by Stanley Kubrick over 40 years ago) of the story of “Spartacus” who led a slave revolt against the Roman Empire. Here is what one of our authors (Thomas Gordon from Cato’s Letters 1721) has to say about Spartacus, in comparison with Julius Caesar:

But there is an instance in the Roman history, that will set this matter yet in a fuller light; it is the story of Spartacus, a Thracian slave and gladiator, who bid fair for being lord of the Roman world. He seems to me to have had personal qualifications and abilities, as great as those of Caesar, without Caesar’s birth and education, and without the measure of Caesar’s guilt. For I hope all mankind will allow it a less crime in any man to attempt to recover his own liberty, than wantonly and cruelly to destroy the liberty of his country.

But if the killing Caesar were so great a crime, how comes Catiline to be still so universally detested, for only intending what Caesar accomplished! It is true, Caesar did not burn Rome; nor did he save it out of any tenderness to it, but saved it for himself: He spared fire, only because the sword was sufficient. I would here ask another question: If Oliver Cromwell had died by any of the numerous conspiracies formed to take away his life; would posterity have condemned the action for this reason alone, that it was done the only way that it could be done?

But there is an instance in the Roman history, that will set this matter yet in a fuller light; it is the story of Spartacus, a Thracian slave and gladiator, who bid fair for being lord of the Roman world. He seems to me to have had personal qualifications and abilities, as great as those of Caesar, without Caesar’s birth and education, and without the measure of Caesar’s guilt. For I hope all mankind will allow it a less crime in any man to attempt to recover his own liberty, than wantonly and cruelly to destroy the liberty of his country.

It is astonishing to consider, how a poor slave, from the whip and the chain, followed only by about seventy fugitive gladiators, should begin a revolt from the most powerful state that ever the world saw; should gather and form, by his courage and dexterity, a formidable army; should inspire resolution and fidelity into the very dregs of mankind; should qualify his sudden soldiers, composed of thieves and vagabonds, to face and defeat the Roman legions, that were a terror to the world, and had conquered it; should keep together, without pay or authority, a raw and lawless rabble, till he had vanquished two Roman armies, and one of them a Praetorian army: And even when Crixius, his fellow-commander, envying his glory and success, had withdrawn from him, and carried with him a great number of his forces, and was cut to pieces with twenty thousand of his men, by Q. Arrius the praetor, yet he still continued to conquer. He beat that very Arrius that had killed Crixius; he defeated Lentulus the consul; he overcame L. Gellius, another consul; and in all likelihood, had he not been weakened by the above defection of Crixius, he had beat Crassus too, and seen himself lord of Rome.

Now I would ask the advocates of lawless power, the friends to the life and name of Caesar, whether Spartacus, if he had succeeded in his last battle against Crassus, had been lawful and irresistible King of Rome? And whether the Senate and people of Rome, with the greatest part of the known world, would have owed him duty and allegiance? Or, would he not have continued still a thief and a robber? And if he had continued so, then, by all the laws of nature and self-preservation, as well as by the municipal laws of every country in the world, every man was at liberty to seize him how he could, and to kill him if he resisted, or ran away.

Tell me, O ye unlimited slaves, ye beasts of lawless power, ye loyal levellers of right and wrong! how came Caesar by a better title to dominion than Spartacus had, whose sword was as good, though not quite so prosperous and destructive, as Caesar’s? Tell me where lay the difference between them, unless in their different success; and that Spartacus was as great a man, but Caesar a greater traitor and tyrant?

Indeed, had Sir Robert Filmer, or any other of the honest and sage discoverers of Adam’s right heir, lived in those days (as they have done since, and plainly pointed him out) and complimented Caesar, as doubtless they would, with a lineal and hereditary title from Aeneas, wandering prince of Troy; he might have been called the Lord’s Anointed, as well as others, and his assassination been accounted rebellion, and worse than the sin of witchcraft. But as I do not find that Caesar, though he valued himself upon his descent from the pious Trojan hero, did yet claim any dictatorial right by virtue of his illustrious parentage; I have therefore taken liberty to treat him as a mere traitor, an usurper, and a tyrant.

G I am, &c.

About this Quotation:

The idea of having a quote of the month or quote of the week was to highlight some recently added text which had something particularly apt to say about mankind’s struggle for Liberty and against the intrusions on that liberty by Power – hence the title of this collection “Quotations about Liberty and Power”. It was also hoped that the quote would inspire readers to delve more deeply into the online collection, to follow the links provided to other books by the author or related subject matter, and to generally explore the website and its resources.

What should be the first Quote for a project of the scope of the Online Library of Liberty? The OLL website went live to the public in March 2004 with nearly 300 titles so the possibilities for selection were quite large. It was decided to choose Cato’s Letters by Trenchard and Gordon because it was a book published by Liberty Fund and because the two authors had had a profound effect on bringing to the attention of the American colonists the threat posed to their liberties by the British Empire and its corrupt government. A secondary factor was the recent showing on cable television of a movie about the Roman slave Spartacus who lead one of the more significant slave revolts against the Roman Empire in 73 BC. Not surprisingly, this symbolic event was discussed by Trenchard and Gordon in their attacks on the British Empire in the 1720s. In fact, Trenchard and Gordon were not alone in using the example of “Cato” to symbolise the struggle for liberty against power. For many people in the 18th century Shakespeare’s play about Julius Caesar still carried a powerful message. A good example of this is Joseph Addison’s play Cato: A Tragedy (1710), which was published by Liberty Fund in 2004.

More Quotations