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January 4, 2012 Volume 18 Nr. 3, Issue 261

    Che Guevara vs. Spartacus
A comparison between two revolutionaries

Flang E. Gemring

Two well known revolutionaries, Spartacus and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  Spartacus was a gladiator who escaped from Rome.  Che Guevara was a medical student who observed harsh conditions in South America during a journey from Cordoba, Argentina in December 1951 to Caracas, Venezuela in July 1952.  Che Guevara's revolution succeeded while Spartacus' failed.  This essay is a comparison of the two to examine the differences and similarities in the two revolutions explaining why Spartacus failed and Che succeeded.

Spartacus' (109-71 C.E.) history prior to being a gladiator is not well known.[1]  He could have been an ex-soldier, a severe criminal such as a murderer, or possibly an innocent bystander to the wars that Rome had caused, who was captured.  Before he was a gladiator, he most likely had served as a foot soldier in the auxilia,  the allied units of Rome.[2]  Being an auxiliary and witnessing firsthand the armies of Rome could have been an important factor in provoking the rebellion once he was captured.

The beginning of Ernesto Guevara's (1928-1967) rebellious history was very different from Spartacus.[3]  It all started during the last year of his medical education.  He chose to take a journey around South America from 1951-52.[4]  What he witnessed appalled him, the terrible conditions of the people who were not rulers or rich.  His understanding in medicine and in the philosophy of equality prepared him for the Cuban Revolution.

By the time Spartacus became a gladiator, there had already been two wars between the slaves and masters.  There is some conflict in the dating of the first revolt.  The Spartacus War places the revolt from 135-32 B.C.E.[5]  The International Communist Current places the beginning revolt to be 134 B.C.E.[6]  The second took place in 104-101 B.C.E.[7]  Rome was expanding at this time and stretching its resources.  The empire was having wars with several other countries.  With the soldiers out of the country, they didn't have as much of a hold within Rome itself.[8]  This contributed to the slave revolts.

The fact that Spartacus failed, and the time that the Third Servile War happened have to be taken into account to explain the fact that there is very little we know of Spartacus' revolution (73-71).[9]  There are many sources for Che Guevara's revolution attempts.  With most wars, only the victorious get to pass down the stories.  Opinions differ on who Spartacus was and his history.  The positive view of Spartacus is influenced by the need for an explanation of how and why it took the entire Roman army to defeat him.  The historians of the Roman Empire used this as a propaganda method for Rome, making Spartacus sound like a superhuman being, not a normal man.  This was done to avoid an embarrassment of  Rome.

Che Guevara was successful in the Cuban Revolution.  Because of this, the Revolutionaries were the ones to release their stories of how and why they began the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban Revolution happened much more recently, since we have become much better in writing and storing historical documents.  There are many sources on the events surrounding the Revolution.  They are presented from numerous sides.  The groups of people who are for the revolution include the peasants, the revolutionaries and civilians who stayed or moved to Cuba.  The groups who oppose the revolution include the rich, dictators, military, business leaders and civilians who fled Cuba to Florida.

The deaths between the two revolutionaries were very different.  Spartacus chose to fight to the death instead of being taken back to Rome as a gladiator.[10]  There isn't any concrete date on the death of Spartacus, the best estimate was on the spring of 73 B.C.E.[11]  At the ending of the Third Servile War, Spartacus was killed.  The surviving rebels of the final battle did everything they could to flee instead of surrendering.  The ones that were captured were crucified in such a large number that the Roman world itself abhorred.  The estimation of the number of rebels crucified reached 6,000.[12]

Che had a similar sentiment, that he would rather be killed and become a martyr than be captured.[13]  However, this doesn't mean that he was suicidal, On the 8th of October, 1967, there was a battle in Bolivia between military group serving the dictatorship and the Che's group trying to succeed in starting a revolution.  Che's firearm was shot, making it useless.  When he tried to escape, he was disabled and captured.  Che shouted out “Don't shoot”, “I am worth more to you alive than dead.”[14]  He was brought to a school and interrogated for several days.  It was most like that Che was executed by the Bolivian soldier who captured him wanting to be known as the man who killed him.  He ignored the warnings of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.  The CIA had requested that they receive Ernesto Guevara so that they also could have a chance to interrogate him.  It was also a warning to prevent him from becoming a martyr.[15]  The Bolivian government at the time ignored the warnings.  By killing Che Guevara, they set the events for Bolivia and other South American countries to eventually become socialist

There are several problems in being a revolutionary or martyr.  The stories that are told from either followers or opponents could be exaggerated or lies.  Either way one must be careful to avoid bias.  The stories told by the Roman Empire historians often represented Spartacus as impossibly athletic, more than a human could ever be.  This was to explain how the Roman army had been defeated several times and how it required the entire army to defeat Spartacus, without sounding embarrassed by the fact.[16]   There are similar cases for and against Che Guevara.  The Cuban capitalists in exile told lies or exaggerations about both Ernesto Guevara and Fidel Castro.  Before the revolution, and in today's current United States' conditions, there are many homeless or untreated people.  This is due to the simple fact that this country is a capitalist based system.  After the Cuban Revolution, the capitalist rulers fled the country and went to Florida.  The ruler before the Cuban revolution, Fulgencio Batista, a US sanctioned dictator and military leader, had killed thousands of people.  He also made thousands more miserable as there servants of the rich ruling class.[17]  After the Cuban Revolution, all people who stayed were treated equally.  No one was homeless.  Everyone had health care and food.  Everyone had equal chance in college, there wasn't exaggerated demand in currency.  These facts cannot be said the same for the United States.[18]

These revolutionaries have set strong examples on what would be a better way of living.  Each one has helped set the fundamental philosophy of equality and socialism.  Spartacus helped set the seeds of revolt against slavery.  Even though he had failed in his revolution, the process of how he failed was more important than whether he had succeeded.  The process he had used was that he wasn't the only gladiator to escape.  His group started small but increased quickly throughout the months, showing that he wasn't the only one to be suppressed by the Romans.  There were several groups other than Fidel Castro within the last century that tried to follow his example, such as the 1919 German Marxist group, the Spartacus League.[19]  Even though Che was captured and executed in Bolivia, most of South America eventually turned to democratic socialism.  Che Guevara's name is known worldwide.  He extended the philosophy Spartacus began, that if you want equality, you have to use unconventional means to achieve it.

Both Che and Spartacus have set an example for changes in the world.  Spartacus set the example to revolt against slavery, while Che set the example on how to achieve a successful revolution.  Even to this day Cuba has set the example for an alternative to an imperialist capitalism.  Cuba continues to set the example to this day after the death of Che Guevara.  Bolivia still became a socialist country years after the death of Che Guevara.  Though the Cuban Revolution was achieved through a revolutionary war, there are several peaceful ways to revolt against a suppressing country.  Most of our country's civil rights and human rights can be said to have been achieved by non violent resistance and civil disobedience such as strikes, conscientious objection and non cooperation.  One thing that has been reinforced throughout  this entire study is that fact that imperialism, in any way, will not survive.


[1]    Alan Woods, 'In Defence of Marxism,' Spartacus - a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times. Last modified April 3, 2009.

[2]    Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 17

[3]    Jon Lee Anderson. Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life (New York: Grove Press, 1997), xiii, 3

[4]    Ann Wright, The Motorcycle Diaries (New York: Verso, 1995), vii

[5]    Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), xi

[6]    Phil, 'International Communist Current,'  Spartacus revolt: inspiration for the proletariat. Last modified Dec. 30, 2004.

[7]    Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 19

[8]    Ibid, 3

[9]    Alan Woods, 'In Defence of Marxism', Spartacus – a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times. Last modified April 3, 2009.

[10]  Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 174

[11]  Jona Lendering, '' Spartacus. Last modified Dec 30, 2008

[12]  Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 191

[13]  Paul J. Dosal,  Comandante Che: Guerrilla Soldier, Commander, and Strategist, 1956-1967 (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 111

[14]  Paul J. Dosal, Comandante Che (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 2003), 297

[15]  Jon Lee Anderson. Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 733, 737

[16]  Alan Woods, 'In Defence of Marxism,' Spartacus - a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times. Last modified April 3, 2009.

[17]  Jon Lee Anderson. Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 170

[18]  amte, 'Allow Me To Explain' Responding to slanders against Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution.         Last modified July 11, 2009.

[19]  Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 4

Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

amte. “Responding to slanders against Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution”  Allow Me To Explain July (2009)

amte. “Who was Che Guevara?”  Allow Me To Explain July (2009)

Avis, Jon. “Che Guevara: Martyr and Revolutionary” Socialist Appeal October (2007).

Dosal, Paul J. Comandante Che: Guerrilla Soldier, Commander, and Strategist, 1956-1967. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

Guevara, Ernesto Che. The Motorcycle Diaries, A Journey around South America. New York: Verso, 1995. Translated by Ann Wright

Lendering, Jona. “Spartacus (1)” LIVIUS: Articles on Ancient History December (2008).

Strauss, Barry. The Spartacus War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

WorldRevolution, Phil. “Spartacus revolt: inspiration for the proletariat” International Communist Current no. 247 (2001).

Woods, Alan. “Spartacus – a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times” In Defence of Marxism April (2009).

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