Episode 27 – Mahatma Gandhi versus Spartacus

We’re headed over to the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket today to discuss the lives and accomplishments of two famous people, the Indian activist, Mahatma Gandhi and the Thracian gladiator who led 120,000 escaped slaves’ rebel against Rome, Spartacus.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

The first contestant, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was born on October 2, 1869, into a Hindu merchant caste family, was the leader of a nonviolent resistance movement in order to free India from British rule. His father, Karamchand Uttamchand Gandhi was a chief minister of the Porbandar State in what was then British India. Karamchand had four wives, not at the same time, two dying in childbirth, the third marriage was childless. Mohandas was the fourth and last child of this marriage.

School was not a place that the young boy excelled at, but he was a good student nonetheless. He was put into an arranged marriage when he was a mere 13 years old. When he was 16, in 1885, both his father and first-born child died. Between 1888 and 1900, they would have four sons who would survive into adulthood.

When Gandhi turned 19, he left India to study law in London. When he finished his degree, he headed back to India to practice law in 1891. It did not go well as he was unable to cross-examine people on the stand, so he took an offer to work for an Indian law firm in South Africa two years later. He packed his bags along with his family and made the long trek to the country he would live and work in for the next 20 years.

Gandhi’s time in South Africa was transformative. There he saw a vast network of discriminatory practices against not only the blacks but also against Indian immigrants like himself. One incident served as a turning point in his life. He was thrown out of a first-class compartment he had paid for heading to Pretoria and beaten up by a white stagecoach driver for refusing to give up his seat for a European passenger. It was here that he began to utilize the concept of satyagraha, truth, and firmness, also known as passive resistance. From that moment on, “he would no longer accept injustice as part of the natural or unnatural order in South Africa; he would defend dignity as an Indian and as a man.”

Gandhi was ready to leave South Africa, but a bill was being considered by the legislature to deprive Indians of the right to vote. He was begged to help fight the law which he did but was unable to stop its passage. What he did do is show the world what was going on especially in his home country of India as well as in Great Britain.

There are some who will point to his work for the Indian people in South Africa only, ignoring the plight of the native Africans. There is some merit to this criticism as he was once quoted as saying, “Anglo-Saxons and Indians are sprung from the same Aryan stock or rather the Indo-European peoples,” he further argued that the Indian people should not be put into the same group as Africans.

This criticism should be taken with a grain of salt as he did encourage Indian peoples to help the native Africans, especially in the 1906 war between the British and the Zulu Kingdom.

In 1908, the famed Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, wrote A Letter to a Hindu, to Tarak Nath Das. Gandhi read the letter and was greatly impressed. Here is a striking line written by Tolstoy that Gandhi quoted in his introduction of the Letter. “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil – in the violent deeds of the administration of the law courts, the collection of taxes and, what is more important, of the soldiers and no one in the world will enslave you.”

Gandhi commented that “There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all, he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.” Gandhi and Tolstoy would correspond together for the years until the Russians death in 1910. Gandhi would use the concepts of Tolstoy’s to urge the Indian people in South Africa to use passive resistance to reverse the anti-Indian voting bill.

Over the following seven years, many Indians were imprisoned, flogged and even shot while peacefully protesting. The world began to see what was going on which caused the British to pressure the South African government to come to the bargaining table. A compromise was agreed upon, but it was a kind of hollow victory as South Africa still discriminated against the Indian people but as Gandhi’s biography states, “What hi did to South Africa was indeed less than what South Africa did to him. It had not treated him kindly, but, by drawing him into the vortex of its racial problem, it had provided him with the ideal setting in which his peculiar talents could unfold themselves.”

In 1914, the Gandhi’s decided to head back to England right before the beginning of World War I, leaving London in December and returning to Bombay in January of 1915. During the war, Gandhi supported the British war effort but still remained critical of the way they handled local affairs. The British were uneasy with the way things were going in their crown jewel of a colony which caused them to pass the Rowlatt Act. This allowed them to imprison anyone without a trial if they suspected sedition.

The year of 1919 was to be a tumultuous one in India with rights and an outbreak known as the Massacre of Amritsar where the British-led soldiers killed about 400 Indians. Gandhi was incensed. This led him to redo the Indian National Congress party as a means of promoting Indian nationalism. Now 35, he began to be heard throughout India as one of the most influential voices for the nonviolent, noncooperation movement against the British government.

All over India, more and more protests began with thousands of people gladly being imprisoned for their beliefs. In February 1922 though, violence began to break out and in particular in the village of Chauri Chaura. Gandhi was horrified by the violence and called off the boycotts which irked many of his followers. In March, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for sedition. While he was released just two years later, the political climate had changed with his Indian National Congress splitting in two. What was even more disturbing was the split between the Muslims and Hindus. They would no longer cooperate with each other.

With more violence breaking out, Gandhi decided to begin a three-week fast to make people focus back on a nonviolent means of protest. This would not be the first fast he would undertake to object to violence.

In 1930, Gandhi began the famous Salt March which was a protest against the British tax on sale which disproportionally affected the poor. The first march of over 240 miles or 385 kilometers began on March 12 and ended on April 6 when Gandhi and his followers picked up some sale along the shoreline which technically broke the law.

The next trek began in April headed to the Dharasan saltworks. The Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin had enough and ordered people to be arrested along the route. Nehru and Gandhi were both taken into custody along with over 60,000 people in the protest which lasted through the year.

Another protest that he had called for was known as the swadeshi policy whereby the people would stop buying foreign made and in particular British goods. He urged his followers to spin khadi or homemade cloth. This began to appeal to all levels of India’s society gaining more and more followers.

When World War II began, Gandhi called on his followers to stay out of things and not help the British. This was not met with the support he had gotten in the past. Over 2 million Indian men joined the British military. In 1942 addressed followers at the Gowalia Tank Maidan park in Bombay, now known as Mumbai called the Quit India Speech. It was his call for Indian Independence. The entire All-India Congress Committee was arrested after the meeting and kept in prison until the end of the war in 1945.

By now, the British knew that they could no longer govern India effectively. One of the reasons, of course, was the economic devastation caused by the war itself. The movement to remove the British was now inevitable, but a significant problem arose, and that was the Muslim League demanding a split with India to form a new Islamic country, Pakistan.

The British finally approved the granting of independence to both countries. During the migration of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus to India, over half a million people died in the violence that ensued. Gandhi had started another fast to stop the rioting which some claim worked, while others claim that it had little or no effect.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was on his way to a prayer meeting when Nathuram Godse walked up to him and shot him three times in the chest at point-blank range. Bapu as he was called, meaning father, was dead at the age of 78.

His legacy of non-violent protest was to be the guide for people like Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights protests of the 1950’s and 60’s in the United States.

Now on to our second contestant, the rebel, Spartacus.


To be really honest, doing a segment on Spartacus is difficult because we really don’t know much about him except for his time as one of the main leaders of the Third and last Servile War. It has been suggested that Spartacus was a Thracian, but there are those who think that it was his Thracian style of gladiatorial style and not his birthplace. From what I’ve seen, it is likely that he was born in the area which is modern-day Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece.

The First Servile war occurred in Sicily between 135-132 BC with about anywhere from 10-70,000 slaves revolting. The Second, also in Sicily was much smaller and occurred in 104 through 100 BC.

The Third Servile War was the big one, and it was staged the heart of the Roman Republic between 73 and 71 BC. At its peak, over 120,000 slaves, gladiators, and non-combatants made up the rebel army.

The leaders of the rebels included Spartacus, Crixus, Oenomaus, Castus, and Gannicus. They escaped from a gladiatorial school in Capua, a Roman town near Naples in the southwestern part of Italy. From there they headed to Mount Vesuvius which gave them the high ground, making it hard for the Roman forces sent to defeat them. The Roman praetor that surrounded the slaves was known as Gaius Claudius Glaber. He believed that he could starve his opponents as the only way out was down a sheer cliff. It is here that the legend of Spartacus begins. He led his men down the cliff using vines to rappel down, circle back and ambush the 3,000 men of Glaber’s militia.

Another militia was sent out to destroy the slave army, but they two were defeated. The news of the victories sent shockwaves throughout the countryside, encouraging slaves and gladiators to rebel against their owners and join Spartacus and the other leaders. By now it is estimated that there were about 70,000 people in the rebellion.

History has suggested that there was a split between Crixus and Spartacus as to the goal of the army they led. The former wanted to continue plundering southern Italy while Spartacus tried to hightail it out of there and head over the Alps to safety. But we have conflicting stories from Roman historians like Plutarch, Appian, and Florus who claim that Spartacus wanted to march on Rome itself. That seems crazy as Rome was so heavily guarded that no army could have taken it at the time. I’ll go with the run like hell to the north theory and get out of Dodge.

What we do know is that in the winter of 73-72 BC, the rebels trained to be able to fight what they knew would no longer be militias but the legions of Rome, the real army. Two armies were sent out led by Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus. The Rebels split their troops with the one led by Crixus destroyed with him killed in action. Spartacus was now was the main leader of the rebellion. He turned his army toward Lentulus and defeated him twice. Spartacus is said to have been the head of over 120,000 men, women, and children, although this number may be overblown.

The Roman Senate by now was gravely concerned by the growing slave army that was ravaging the countryside. They turned to one of the wealthiest men in Roman history to quell the rebellion, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus decided that the problem with the Roman military was a lack of discipline. He brutally trained his men, even bringing back the punishment known as decimation, where every tenth man would be executed. Estimates of the number killed were between 48, ten percent of a cohort of 480, or 1,000. Whatever the exact number, the Roman legions were now more frightened of Crassus than the army led by Spartacus.

The rebels began to head north but were blocked by Crassus’s army, so they headed south, hoping to board ships in Rhegium and to freedom in Sicily. This never happened and for all intents and purposes, it boxed them into a narrow area of southern Italy.

Another Roman army came back to Italy at this time, led by a legendary general, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known today as Pompey the Great. These combined forces were too much for Spartacus and his men to fend off. At the Battle of the Silarius River, the rebellion was crushed with Spartacus supposedly dying on the battlefield. It is said that 6,000 captured slaves and gladiators were crucified along the Appian Way between the place where it all began, Capua, all the way to Rome to set an example.

The aftermath of the Third Servile war and the effect Spartacus had on Rome, and the way they treated slaves is difficult to determine. Over the coming years, through to the reign of Antoninus Pius in 138-161 AD, laws were enacted to treat slaves better, but we cannot for certain, claiming that it was due to the revolt led by Spartacus. It is likely though that it did have a significant impact as Rome never saw a fourth Servile war and that slaveholding and their blatant mistreatment did seem to change.

Now for putting it into perspective.

In the 70’s BC, a rebellion led by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to overturn the Sullan constitution was crushed, Julius Caesar is captured by pirates and held for ransom, and the Golden Age of Latin Literature begins.

Let’s start the scoring to see who moves on to the second round. We begin with the length of time that they were a rebel, rogue or scholar. This is pretty much a slam dunk for Gandhi as he was a rebel from 1898 to his death in 1948. Spartacus was a rebel for only 2 years. Bapu gets 15 points, the Thracian, 1.

How they affected the rest of the world in their time is another big win for Gandhi. He changed lives in South Africa, India, and Great Britain while Spartacus’s rebellion really only affected Rome. Twenty for Gandhi, 5 for Spartacus.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history. This one is much tighter as the rebellious gladiator influenced many slave and serf uprisings over the centuries and Gandhi has only had 70 years to affect things. For this reason, I’m giving Spartacus 25 points and Gandhi 23.

The final and big point giveaway is how they affected their country for the better. Spartacus, it can be argued, helped make slave have a better life than before his rebellion. Gandhi helped create an independent India, and Pakistan, which can be argued is far better than remaining a British protectorate. For these reasons, I’m giving both men the full 40 points.

In the end, Gandhi gets the win by a score of 98 to 71. He moves on to the second round where he will face the winner of the battle between Sir Issac Newton and Galileo Galilei.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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