Was Varinia the Wife of Spartacus?

Spartacus was a Gladiator and Husband

A nineteenth-century statue, The Oath of Spartacus, in Paris. Louis-Ernest Barrias/Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Did Spartacus, leader of the great slave revolt against Rome, have a wife? He sure did in the famous 1960 movie Spartacus, but was that woman, named Varinia, a real person?

Background

Let's brush up on just who Spartacus was first. In 73 B.C., this Thracian slave escaped from a gladiatorial school in Capua. According to Appian's Civil Wars, Spartacus "persuaded about seventy of his comrades to strike for their own freedom rather than for the amusement of spectators." They fled to Mount Vesuvius - yes, the same volcano that later erupted to bury Pompeii - and accumulated 70,000 men to create an army.

Those men were discontented slaves and freedmen.

Rome sent military leaders to deal with Spartacus and his friends, but the former gladiator had turned his forces into an effective war machine. It wasn't until the following year, when Spartacus's army numbered about 120,000, that his fiercest opponent, Marcus Licinius Crassus, "a distinguished among the Romans for birth and wealth, assumed the praetorship and marched against Spartacus with six new legions."

Spartacus defeated Crassus, but the latter's forces eventually turned the tables and decimated Spartacus's. Writes Appian, " So great was the slaughter that it was impossible to count them. The Roman loss was about 1000. The body of Spartacus was not found." In the midst of all this, Crassus and Pompey (a.k.a. Pompey the Great) were battling for who would get the glory of winning this war. The two were eventually elected co-consuls in 70 B.C.

Marriage?

So Spartacus was a folk hero for about two years, but was there a woman who could claim the glory of being his wife? Varinia is the name novelist Howard Fast invented for the wife of Spartacus. She was called Sura in the recent TV series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. We don't know for sure that Spartacus was married, let alone what her name was - although Plutarch does say Spartacus was married to a Thracian.

In his Life of Crassus, Plutarch writes, "The first of these was Spartacus, a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he 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."

So the only ancient evidence we have for Spartacus's wife dubs her a fellow Thracian who had prophetic powers that she used to indicate her husband would be a hero. Such mystical signs often marked great heroes of mythology, so it would make sense she'd try to bring her hubby into this elite category.

What do experts say? In the Wall Street Journal, classicist Barry Strauss elaborates on the possibility of Spartacus's wife and her mythological significance in building up the hero myth around her hubby. It's possible he was married - even if it wasn't legal - and sadly, she probably met the same fate as her husband's followers.

-Edited by Carly Silver