Plutarch for the proletariat

In a short story by Chartist Thomas Cooper, the hero is a young Nottingham lace worker interested in history. He knows all about Julius Caesar and Cicero and can’t understand why his supposed social superiors make such trivial conversation.3’ Plays featuring male heroes from ancient history associated with the overthrow of tyrants and the inauguration or defence of liberty were popular across all social classes. Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic according to Livy I, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities IV and Cicero’s de Re publica, had been adopted as hero of the peasants’ revolt in Switzerland as early as 1526,36 and became a darling of the French Enlightenment. He had been the subject of a famous play by Voltaire and became the protagonist of Brutus: or, The Fall of Tarquin, an exceptionally popular tragedy by John Howard Payne, an immigrant from New York City. It premiered at Drury Lane in December 1818, at a time when the British monarchy was at its most unpopular for centuries. Frequently revived, Brutus toured the provinces (here is a poster advertising a performance at Bridgenorth in Shropshire, Figure 19.6); its text was much reprinted.37

Plutarch’s Lives was available in translation on the shelves of workers’ libraries; the book was the source of the classical heroes with whom the working classes most unambiguously identified. We have already seen how the attempt of the Gracchi to redistribute land amongst the Italian poor inspired an important Georgian tragedy by James Sheridan Knowles, and several Irish rebels (Chapter 7). Gracchus was the title of another newspaper published by Richard Carlile (see above pp. 278-83) in the wake of Peterloo. The Gracchi also featured in one of the collections of Plutarch’s biographies rewritten for children of between the ages of 10 and 14 by the socialist freethinker Frederick Gould. The Children’s Plutarch (1906) had engravings by the then ubiquitous Walter Crane.38

Gould had taught in board schools in underprivileged London districts from his mid-20s to his mid-40s, and developed a programme for teaching secular ethics with the help of classical instead of Christian literature: in his subsequent volume, Pages for Young Socialists, published by the National Labour Press with a preface by Keir Hardie and also illustrated by Crane, Gould uses several other classical sources to inspire his intended audience, including Herodotus on Thermopylae, Xenophon’s idealised marriage in his Oeconomicus and the caricature of Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyrika.y> The entries in the index to The Children’s Plutarch consist entirely of individual principles and virtues: Courage,



Will be performed the Grand and Popular Tragedy of,



This Tragedy is founded on one of the most striking events in Roman History. T he Father and rider Brother of Lucius Junius were murdered and there wealth seized on by Tarquin K’ng of Rome. Lucius Junius to save himself from the same fate, feigns to be an Idiot, he is therefore suffered to live as the Fool of the Court and becomes the sport and dcrison of the King, his Sons and the whole People. The melancholy death of his kinswoman Lucretia, occasioned by the brutal violence of Sextus Tarquin the King’s eldest Son, induces him to throw of the mask he so long had worn, and aided by the Sybil Prophecy, Fool thosrid set Rome Free,“ rouses the People to break their chains of Slavery, and expel the Tarquins, which laid’the foundation of Roman greatness and eventually made them Masters of the World.----The'number of nights this Tragedy has already been acted since its first representa

tion, decidedly proves its real merit—Indeed such are its attractive powers, that Drury-lane Theatre every time of its performance, is crowded with a delighted and applauding Audience.

Lucius Junius, afterwards Brutus, Mr. SMITH.

Sextus Tarquin, A f Mr FAWCETT.

Aruns Tarquin, > Sons of the King, < Mr. HENRY Claudius Tarquin, J I Mr. THOMPSON

Titus son of Brutus, Mr. MAITLAND—Valerius, Mr. FAIRBAIRN—Horatius, Mr. WILSON Collatinus, hnsband to Lucretia, Mr. GILES-----Lucretius, Mr. HALLAM.

Centurion, Mr. MATHEWS—Lictors, Soldier?, &c

Tullia,Queen of Rome, Mrs. WILSON-----Tarqnina, her daughter, Mis* STANTON

Lucretia, the wile of Collatinus, Mrs. CUFFLEY—Lavina, Mrs. FAWCETT Ladies at Court, Mrs. FAIRBAIRN, Miss H. STANTON, &c.

The Scene varies from Rome to the Camp before rlrdea, [which the Remans are besieging,} and to CtUalia, the Country Seat of Cdllatinut.

In Act 3rd. an Equestrian Statue of TARQUIN. KING of ROME, «Inch is struck by Lightning and dashed tn pieces.

end of the flay, A COMIC SONG by Mr. HALLAM.


__ The Whole to conclude with a laughable Burl esq tie called,

Don (¡¡ioi'atini


Don Giovanni, Mr. MAITLAND---Don Guzman and the Ghost of Himself Mr. FAIRBAIRN

Don Octavio Mr. FAWCETT—Gondoleri, Mr. THOMPSON,—Pescatori, Mr. WILSON Leporello, Mr. HALLAM.—Sailors, Messrs. HENRY and MATHEWS

Donna Anna, Mrs. CUFFLEY—Gentiline, Mrs. WILSON—Old Woman, Mrs. FAIRBAIRN } Two Ladle, dealer, in Fith, { Mil FAWCETT,

pr PIT as—GALLERY it. ---Tickets to be had of Mr. STANTON at Mr Eduard«-.

Highstreet, of Mr. PARTRIDGE, and of Mr. GITTON Book’sellers. ’’ u ir • “ S,<- i'“1 ,hc Performance to begin at a Quarter before Seven.

CT Half-pnce lime commences at Half-pa« ttght o CIock. [Partridge, Bridgnorth

FIGURE 19.6 Handbill for John Howard Payne’s Brutus: or, The Fall of Tarquin (1822), reproduced from Hall’s personal collection.

Conscience, Freedom, Generosity and Kindness, etc. Forty-two of Plutarch’s Lives are retold, and the political undertext is most obvious in those dealing with ancient heroes who despised financial greed (Solon, the Gracchi) and those who coveted it (Crassus).

As reforming Athenian statesman of the 7th-6th centuries все, Solon had helped define republican ideas in British literature ever since the late 16th century, when Plutarch first became available in English translation. Yet Solon could also be recruited in more conservative causes. At the peak of the conflict over the Corn Laws, a spokesman for the agriculturalists who wanted to maintain protection of British food producers, a resident of Sheffield (which, as an industrial city, was a centre of anti-Corn Law agitation), published a protectionist allegory under the pseudonym Solon. It is a mock-Aesopic fable, entitled ‘The Old Sow and Her Litter of Pigs’, followed by an epistle addressed to an opponent which insists that the working class has ‘never had it so good’.40 But, as Frederick Gould was aware, Solon’s reputation as the legislator who had taken important steps in the foundation of Athenian democracy was confirmed by the discovery and publication of the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians in the late 19th century.41 This is why progressive Cardiff University classicist Kathleen Freeman chose to publish her first substantial monograph on Solon in 1926,42 and a Queen’s Counsel, proposing a radical overhaul of the entire legal system in Britain, entitled his treatise Solon: or, The Price of Justice in 1931.43 Solon was seen as meriting the title ‘Herald of a New Age, Solon the Liberator’; he had given ‘to the people who sat in misery and despair fresh hope and self-respect, and fresh opportunity of honourable self-directed industry’.44

As leader of the most famous slave revolt, recorded in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus, Spartacus became the workers’ favourite ancient historical figure. He had emerged as the Abolitionists’ favourite hero in the French Enlightenment, when he was praised as a symbol of emancipation by Voltaire, Diderot and above all in the Abbé Guillaume Raynal’s seminal 1770 Histoire de Deux Irides, which ran through 38 French and 18 English editions and was judged by British Abolitionists to be ‘one of the primordial agents in promoting antislavery ideas in England during the 1770s’.45 The Abbé had faith in the capability of black people to find their own rebel leader, provided only that the response of the colonial superpowers was not comparable with that of the Roman Senate in 71 все: ‘Where is this great man to be found, whom nature perhaps owes to the honour of the human species? Where is the new Spartacus who will not find Crassus?’46 The first truly British Spartacus was the hero of the short novel Spartacus: A Roman Story (1822), written by a young woman who was later to become an ardent abolitionist, Susanna Strickland;47 this Spartacus is a Christlike Thracian shepherd, whose every thought was ‘turned on forming some plan for the emancipation of himself and his comrades’.411 Spartacus was soon, however, to supplement his political role as leader of the archetypal slave uprising with the new role of proletarian martyr. One cause was the international shockwaves created by the 1789 revolution in France, where the sharp controversy over slavery in the revolutionary assemblies had resulted in the temporary French Abolition of 1794, overturned by Napoleon in 1802.49

British supporters of the French Revolution, such as Tom Paine, inevitably supported Abolition; when John Flaxman contemplated designing a monument entitled ‘Liberty’, the iconography of the French Revolution collided with the Abolition issue in his conception of Liberty bestowing the red cap of liberty on a kneeling slave.’0 But Flaxman’s kneeling slave is most reminiscent of the man in perhaps the most famous of all images from the Abolition movement, the seal designed in Josiah Wedgwood’s factory in Stoke, with the enchained slave asking, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ The seal became widely available as a cameo.’1 Some impoverished white Britons, for example in late 18th-century Bristol, resented what they perceived as the special case being made by Abolitionists for slaves as opposed to other coerced labourers, especially those press-ganged into naval service.52 But intimate connections existed between the anti-slavery movement and agitators for other forms of social emancipation— women’s rights, the colonised Irish, electoral and factory reform.53

Spartacus is already leader of the universal proletariat in The New World, a remarkable poem criticising American slavery written in 1848-1850 by Marx and Engels’ associate, the Chartist Ernest Jones, when in prison convicted of sedition. In the opening section Jones focuses on North America, conveying the doubleness of the British radical’s view of that new nation after the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. Jones’ poem shows how the strained applications of ancient mythology in the political imagery of this period reflect the complexity of the relationship between the Abolitionist movement and campaigns for other types of reform.’4 Since the American War of Independence, the new republic had offered an inspirational example to British radicals and republicans, and Jones configures not the old but the new country, after independence had been secured, as a young Hercules who even as an infant could slay the British monarchy and religious intolerance.

Young Nation-Hercules! whose infant-grasp

Kingcraft and churchcraft slew, the twinborn asp!

What glorious visions for thy manhood rise,

When thy full stature swells upon our eyes!55

Yet in Jones’ picture, the virtue of the new country is compromised by its practice of slavery, which it has not outlawed despite the example set by the British Abolition:

Ah! that the wisdom here so dearly bought

Would sanctify thy wild, luxuriant thought,

And righteously efface the stripes of slaves

From that proud flag where heaven’s high splendour waves!’6

This Hercules, grown from revolutionary babyhood to corrupt adulthood, plays no further part in Jones’ vision. What Jones sees as the millennia-long persecution and domination of Africa comes to symbolise the oppression of the working people of the entire world, the victims of capitalist classes at home and imperialism abroad; this procedure entails, remarkably for a Briton writing at this time, drawing a connection between British exploitation of colonial India and Britain’s implication in the history of the slave trade.’7

Jones, the imprisoned Chartist, presents himself allegorically as an African, soon to take over first Europe and then the rest of the planet. He turns now to Spartacus, supplemented (since Jones had received an excellent training in Classics at a German gymnasium) by the much less familiar Ennus (or Eunus). This rebellious slave had led a Sicilian slave revolt in the 2nd century все.58 Africa’s example, configured by Jones as a resurrection of the historical ancient slave rebels Ennus and Spartacus, can fire the dream of universal liberty dreamt by the new ‘chained men’ of Britain—the Chartist prisoners:

Deep in the burning south a cloud appears,

The smouldering wrath of full four thousand years,

Whatever name caprice of history gave,

Moor, Afric, Ethiop, Negro, still meant slave!

But from the gathering evil springs redress,

And sin is punished by its own excess... ../

Near and more near, and fiercer and more fierce,

East, West, and South, the sable legions pierce;

On! to the site, where ancient Rome once rose,

And modern towns in meaner dust repose.

Up, Ennus! tip! and Spartacus! awake!

Now, if you still can feel, your vengeance slake!

Ennus and Spartacus, whose example has liberated the world’s slaves, can now help—in the imagination at least—to usher in universal suffrage.

Spartacus’ slave revolt receives equally politicised notice, accompanied by a dramatic illustration of gladiators in combat (Figure 19.7) in Osborne Ward’s The Ancient Lowly (on which see above, p. 8).59 Raffaello Giovagnoli’s long novel Spartaco (1874), which used its hero more as a symbol of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy than of proletarian labour, was not translated into English, yet by 1913 could be seen by early cinema audiences in Britain in the silent movie directed by Giovanni Enrico Vidali (1913). In the film, the unification of Italy will have passed most British cinemagoers by, while the importance of Spartacus in Russian and subsequently German socialist movements inevitably attracted attention. Spartacus was celebrated by a readership of youthful Welsh workers, three years after the movie was first shown, in ‘The Revolt of Spartacus’, the rousing lead article in the Worker for August 1921 (Figure 19.8).

Illustration from Osborne Ward’s The Ancient Lowly (1907 edition), reproduced from Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 19.7 Illustration from Osborne Ward’s The Ancient Lowly (1907 edition), reproduced from Hall’s personal collection.

The author was T. Islwyn Nicholas, a Welsh-speaking founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who worked tirelessly with young miners in South Wales.

In Scotland, a lively version of Spartacus’ life, with an emotive picture of the mass crucifixion on the Appian Way, was included in John S. Clarke’s Young Workers’ Book of Rebels (1918), a Scottish textbook produced for teaching at the Proletarian Schools.60 Thirty branches of these flourished in Scotland between the Russian revolution and the 1930s, with a few offshoots in England. Clarke (1885-1959) was one of 14 children born into a circus family living a nomadic gypsy life. He performed as a bareback rider and a lion tamer, but was stirred by socialism and joined the Socialist Labour Party, itself inspired by the writings of Daniel De Leon (on whom see above, pp. 199-200). Clarke edited the Socialist and the Reform Journal, spending much of World War I hiding from the police as a conscientious objector. He was later to become an important Labour Party author; his Marxism and History (1928), which contains a long analysis of the Roman Empire, was influential in socialist circles. He was elected MP for Maryhill in 1929. Perhaps the Scottish author of the most important British novel about Spartacus, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (on whom see above, pp. 248—9), learned about the rebel gladiator at Proletarian School, although one scholar thinks that his Spartacus (1933) was inspired even before that by the heroic martyrdom of the German Spartacists, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, for whom he had written panegyric poems.61

¿VGUST. 1921.


Monthly Organ of Young Workers’ League


The Revolt of Spartacus. By T. Islwyn Nicholes.

t If we allow our mind« to wander back through l the ages w® will find that ivbcw have idwayx exi'tcd wherever tyranny and injustice reign. Rebels arc the product of tyranny and injustice. My story p of a great, and glorious rebel called Spartmiu. >’ow Spartacus wa* an Aryangrant and belonged to the Thracian nation. He lived in the first century, >.c., about two thousand years ago. At that timo the all-powerful nation in Europe win the Roman Republic. The Romans were a very cruel people, and wanted to conquer and rule every body eke. They indulgi-d in revolting!/ cruel and brutal ainube-ment-. Like all who arc |>owerful they lived on the labour of the poor ill-treated slaves. Tbeic »lam were mostly prisoners they had captured in battle. If a slave was strong and brave he was conqwlled to becon*» a gladiator. Borne of my rcaden) may wonder what a gladiator was. Well, a gladiator was a slave who was trained to fight with treacherous weapon* in the theatre and to kill hi* fellow-slaves just to entertain th® cruel and besotted rich men and women of Rome. Other slave» were thrown to the wild bea-U, and sometimes smeared with tar .and .-ct fire to, and whilst the poor wretch®» rolled •nd wri*hed with agony the bloodv spectators cheered and thouted with glee. Near Naples the Romans .kept a school to train those slaves for these murder-Ou- ■ games." Ou«; of the slaws was the glorious rebel Kpartacux. LJk® other slaves he had been dragged from hi* luxnc and longed tn be free and able to return to it once again.

they met on their way to join them They had tasted liberty and were determined to keep it. They lived by plundering the rich mens mansions, wbo previously plundered them, and carried food and clothing to their camp on the Mount. Rome wa* very much alarmed at. thi«, and »ent an army of 3,000 men to attack Spartacus ami kill hi* followers. This army Wav led by a murderer call«! 'lodiui» Glaber. they surrounded the rebel* on the Mount, but Spartacus wa« too clever for them. At night, he and bi* men climbed down the via« that grew on the rock, and before the Roman army knew it Spartacus da hed in among them ami totally routed them. This meant more arms ami men for Spartacus. From all over Italy rebels flocked to the rebel army, and in a short time Spartacus commanded an army of 40,000 insurgents. Soon Publius Vuriiua, another Roman General, yn «ent wjfth a gigantic anny pgauwt the rebels, but when the two armire met, the Roman toldicris, frightened of the daring gladiators, ran away, and Spartacus won another treme idoue victory. Immediately the rebel* marched all over Italy and won battle after battle, but Spartacus was tired with warfare and longed to bo able to return to his home in Thrace. Hi* follower», however, dcuroi to keep fighting against their late оррггмога, and Spartacus wa* the only man capable of leading them. Once again Rome sent an army to defeat the nan under Spartacus. This army was in turu beaten by the poorly-armed but xkdful rebel*. Many battle« were fought, but Spartactu won them all. By thi« Iirno he had over 100,000 шеи in bi* ranks, and wa® able to emit® the Romans whenevej they cam® within reach. For nearly four у eats the rebel« spread terror throughout Italy. They plundered the rich and tel the poor slave® free. At length anothrfi huge army, led by Marcus Cra-su*. known aa th® richest and cruellest man in Rome, succeeded in mooting th® army of Spartacus. During the battle» thu Romans throw away their weapons and гад, oft. Crassus was determined to punish them, so ho ordered that every tenth man in the army should) be killed no a lesson to the others. Finally Стами» managed to get behind thu army of Bpartacua.

Continued va po/e 2.



FIGURE 19.8 Cover of Young Worker (August 1921), reproduced from Hall’s personal collection.

Gibbon used the name Kleon for one of his most important characters, which was an intriguing choice, since the demagogue of that name was rarely adopted as a hero by working-class or leftist writers, despite his unwavering support of the lowest-class Athenians. This was because the sources, Thucydides and Aristophanes, are so contemptuous about him.62 The Irish Chartist Feargus

O’Connor embraced the abusive word ‘demagogue’, once producing gales of laughter by saying, ‘I am a demagogue; if the fools understood Greek, they would have known it was a term of honour, rather than reproach’.13 But even he avoided using Kleon’s name, and it was useful to reactionary English journalists wishing to decry another eloquent Irish republican, Daniel O’Connell.64 Much the same can be said for Thersites, the ordinary soldier who tries to prompt a mutiny in Iliad II .211—.77, even though by 1898 Dublin ProfessorJ.P. Mahaffy, who was no socialist, suggested that he ‘seems drawn with special spite and venom, as a satire on the first critics that rose up among the people, and questioned the divine right of kings to do wrong’.65 Tom Paine, predictably, was compared with Thersites by his bitterest enemies, including the snobbish Professor John Wilde, who also equated him with ‘a fishwoman at Billingsgate’, and C. Servilius Glaucia as described by Cicero in his Brutus, ‘by far the vilest man alive, but experienced and shrewd and most of all laughable’.66

A slave-hero who may have reached a wider working-class audience even than Spartacus was the entirely fictional Diomed of Owen Hall’s A Greek Slave (1898), one of the great hits of the late Victorian and early 20th-century British stage (Figure 19.9). This musical comedy, set in ancient Rome, ran for what was in those days a staggering 349 nights. It was performed in many provincial towns, for example at Swansea Grand Theatre in October 1899.67 It even transferred to Broadway. Hall was an educated middle-class Anglo-Irish Jew. He set the drama at the time of the Saturnalia, a festival which involved social role-inversion in which masters and slaves temporarily exchanged places. His operetta’s plot is in the spirit of Plautine comedy, in which slaves often outwit their masters. But after singing his rousing number ‘Freedom’,68 Diomed actually marries his bourgeois master’s daughter, reflecting the increasing class-consciousness of the audiences which flocked to see him win his liberty at the same time as his true love.69

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