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What Makes a Rebel Into a Hero?

"Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra," Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888

In his 1992 book, It Doesn’t Take A Hero, America’s General Norman Schwarzkopf tells of “The Battered Helmet,” a paper he wrote while attending a course at Fort Benning, Georgia, some years before he became famous as commander of Coalition forces in the First Gulf War.

In his paper, Schwarzkopf described a general trudging to his tent following a great military victory and wearily tossing his battered helmet in the corner. Schwarzkopf then reveals that the general is Julius Caesar, and the time is immediately after the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece, in which Caesar’s army defeated the forces led by the “rebel” Pompey the Great.

Schwarzkopf’s paper, which won him a prize, went on to say that nothing has changed in thousands of years as far as battles are concerned – despite advances in technology since Caesar’s time it is the human elements of morale, preparation and audacity that still win battles. This was a valid point, but Schwarzkopf’s description of Pompey as a “rebel” was way off the mark.

It was Caesar who was officially declared a rebel and enemy of the state by the Senate when he crossed the Rubicon River with his troops to invade Italy and go to war with his own country. To defeat Caesar the rebel, the Senate conferred command of all forces of the Roman Republic on Pompey, who had once been Caesar’s son-in-law and close ally, and who had gained his title Pompey the Great at the age of just twenty-three after spectacular military successes.  

Once Caesar had defeated all senatorial forces – it took him four years – then had himself declared Dictator for life and dismantled the Republic, he only enjoyed five months of undisputed rule before his assassination, beneath a statue of Pompey, in a theater built by Pompey.

Norman Schwarzkopf’s error is just one example of how the world has remembered Caesar the rebel kindly, and made him the hero. This is because Caesar won, and his autocratic successors rewrote history to make him the hero, even naming a month of the year after him and banning public references to Pompey, defeated champion of the destroyed Republic.

Over the next four hundred years after Caesar there were plenty of examples of rebels against Rome who have been painted as heroes for their exploits. For example, British war queen Boudicca, called Boadicea by the Romans, who led the British uprising of AD 60-61. She has been immortalized by British writers, artists and sculptors since the eighteenth century as a heroic British freedom fighter who defied the invading Romans as she valiantly fought for the rights of Britons. The truth is a little different.

Go to the Embankment in London, and just across from Big Ben you will see the 1902 statue of Boudicca and her daughters. There is a lot wrong with that statue. Boudicca is given her Roman name, not her Celtic name. The chariot is Roman, whereas Boudicca used a very different-looking British chariot. It has scythes on its wheels, which neither British nor Roman chariots possessed. The horses have no reins, and the steeds depicted are 19th century cavalry mounts, not the nimble chariot ponies of the 1st century Celts.

The largest error is that the statue is in London at all. Far from liberating London, Boudicca destroyed the city, burning it to the ground. And she and her rebel horde took the thousands of Celtic Britons living in the city, tortured them, impaled then on stakes, and burned them to death – both men and women. The only crime of Boudicca’s fellow Britons was that they lived in a Roman city.

Her rebel army was defeated by a much smaller Roman force, and Boudicca took her own life. But before that, Boudicca dealt out the same cruel punishment to British residents of Colchester, and Verulamium near modern St Albans. Such a rebel leader operating today would be labeled a terrorist, with her tactics likened to that of ISIS.

Hollywood turned another rebel against Rome into a romantic hero. Spartacus was his name. A former Thracian auxiliary in the Roman army, probably an officer commanding Thracian cavalry, he ended up committing a crime and was consigned to slavery. Sold to a gladiatorial school in Capua, south of Rome, he trained as a gladiator. Breaking out with some seventy fellow gladiators, Spartacus began a rampage throughout central and southern Italy, killing Romans, looting and pillaging, and freeing and arming slaves – tens of thousands of them.

Over many months Spartacus’s army of slaves humbled one Roman army after another, until they became divided among themselves and Roman general Marcus Crassus dealt them a crushing defeat. Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’s men beside the road from Capua to Rome, and Pompey the Great, returning from defeating Sertorius, the rebel Roman governor of Spain, defeated the remaining 5,000 in the field.

In reality Spartacus wasn’t such a heroic character. He killed unarmed civilians and military prisoners, and for the entertainment of his men forced captured Roman legionaries to fight each other to the death. And, of course, like all the dozens of rebels against Rome over the centuries, he eventually lost.

At least the later British rebel Ventidius outwitted and outran the Romans for forty years, apparently dying of natural causes, a free man. Similarly, Zenobia, the rebel queen of Palmyra, had a peaceful end, dying in her own bed married to a Roman senator after her earlier defeat and capture.

Arminius, known as Hermann in his native Germany, is another example of the rebel/hero dichotomy. He was a prefect in the Roman army who betrayed his superior, the governor of Roman Germany, in a rebellion that began with the massacre of three legions in an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest east of the Rhine. Since the 19th century, Hermann has been considered a national hero in Germany. A massive statue of him, eighty-one feet tall, stands on temple-like base on a hilltop southwest of Detmold in the German district of Lippe.  And yet Hermann the rebel, like Caesar, was assassinated by his own people, who had tired of him. He was no hero to them.

So, the question of whether a rebel is a hero has a lot to do with how successful they are, who is judging them, and the times in which they are judged. Take the previously mentioned Fort Benning in Georgia. On the opening of this US Army base in 1918 it was named after Henry Benning. A Georgia native, Benning served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, fighting against the Union Army in numerous battles of the US Civil War – or the War of the Rebellion as it was called by northerners, who referred to Confederates as “Johnny Rebs.”

Benning the rebel was an avid secessionist and slavery advocate who fought bitterly against the Union. In the eyes of northerners, he was a traitor. Yet in the South he was revered, and his name was given by the US Government to this new US Army establishment to assuage southern sensibilities at a time when the South’s men were being drafted into the US Army to fight the first world war.

Times have changed, however. It was recently announced by the US government that, as of January 2024, Fort Benning will be renamed Fort Moore, after a Vietnam-era US Army general, author of the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, which became a Hollywood movie, and his wife, who are both buried at the fort. Some would say removing the name of Benning the rebel is long overdue.

In the end, it seems, politics of the day are the final determinant when judging the difference between a rebel and a hero.