Friday, 22 August 2014

The Message of Violence, Now as in the Past

Yesterday evening I read an opinion piece by Jeff Sparrow relating to the murder of photo-journalist James Foley by a member of Islamic State forces.
He wrote:
"Traditionally, authoritarian political parties or regimes concealed their crimes, on the (not unreasonable) basis that footage of, say, mass executions would undermine support.  The Islamic State works to a different plan.  Its attrocities - beheadings, crucifixions, mass shootings - are purposefully spectacular, staged precisely so they circulate."
I agree with Sparrow's piece, but as a Roman historian, my mind ran in another direction when I read "crucifixion".  When it comes to spectacular, staged deaths which were meant to circulate, there is nothing new, just the media platform via which circulation occurs.  I immediately thought of the Spartacan slave revolt from 73-71 BC.  The historical sources describe miles of crucified rebellious slaves along the Via Appia.  
"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.  A large number of his men fled from the battle-field to the mountains and Crassus followed them thither.  They divided themselves in four parts, and continued to fight until they all perished except 6000, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome."  Appian, Civil Wars 1.14.120.
The purpose of such an act was for it to be noticed and spoken about.  According to Appian, Spartacus knew that this was the fate of his slave army if they failed to defeat the Roman forces.  For this reason, he too crucified someone prior to this last battle:
"He [Spartacus] crucified a Roman prisoner in the space between the two armies to show his men what fate awaited them if they did not conquer."  Appian Civil Wars 1.14.119.
While we only have the historical record of these events, it is an illustration of how these events circulated in antiquity.  These acts were discussed, written and spoken of, and remembered.  While we only have the historical sources written by men who accepted the slave system, and no voice for the slaves affected by it (especially in the case of rural slaves), like the killing a James Foley, these crucifixions had a set audience, in this case Italy's rural slaves.  Many slaves working on estates along the Via Appia would have watched, been outraged, and scared - and that was the whole reason why it was done.
For this reason I think Sparrow has missed another reason for the release of this horrible video - to scare people, especially journalists.  The Syria Campaign has pointed out the important work of journalists like Foley:  ensuring the outside world knew the story of the victims of the violence in Syria.  The death of James Foley is a warning to all other journalists: don't come, just as the message along the Via Appia was don't revolt.  The Islamic State might be wanting to send that message to locals too.
In the modern world, like the ancient world, violence always sends a message, regardless of the medium by which it is, or was, spread.