109 - 71 BC
Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who led a slave war in Italy
against the Romans. He plundered most of Italy before being
defeated and killed in a pitched battle.
not known how Spartacus became a gladiator. He is said to have
fought either with or against the Romans. Eventually he found
himself in the gladiator school of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus at
Capua. From there in 73 B.C. some 70 gladiators escaped and fled
to Mt. Vesuvius, where they were joined by slaves and farm
workers from the countryside. Spartacus with the help of two
Celts, Crixus and Oenomaos, led them, forging the motley group
into a first-class fighting force.
Roman response to the uprising was at first slow and inadequate.
Spartacus defeated local levies led by a propraetor and a
praetor in three sharp engagements. The slaves then broke out of
Campania and raided all of southern Italy, eventually
establishing winter quarters at Thurii and Metapontum in Lucania.
There their forces grew to 70,000 men.
In 72 the Senate assigned both consuls and four legions to the
war against the slaves. After a minor engagement at Mt. Garganos
in which Crixus was killed, Spartacus defeated the two consuls
in separate battles in central Italy. At this point he attempted
to lead the slaves north to freedom beyond the Alps. But after
they defeated the governor of Cisalpine Gaul at Mutina (Modena),
they elected to turn back to Italy to plunder and enrich
themselves. Spartacus not only threatened Rome itself but again
defeated both consuls in a major battle in Picenum. The Romans
no longer dared face him in the field. He then returned to
southern Italy and again made Thurii his headquarters.
In the autumn of 72 the Senate transferred the command against
the slaves to Marcus Licinius Crassus, who held no public office
at the time. He recruited six additional legions and took up a
protective position in south-central Italy. After an initial
defeat Crassus won a victory over a contingent of the slaves.
That winter he built a wall and ditch across the toe of Italy to
contain Spartacus, whose attempts to escape to Sicily with his
Early in the spring of 71 Spartacus broke through Crassus' lines
but suffered two defeats at his hands in Lucania. He then
retired again to Bruttium (Calabria), where he defeated two of
Crassus' lieutenants who were following him. Encouraged,
Spartacus's men persuaded him to risk a major battle with
Crassus. In it Spartacus and 60,000 of his men fell. Spartacus's
body was never found. Stragglers from the massacre were caught
in Etruria by Pompey, summoned by the people from Spain to help
end the war. In a final act of cruelty Crassus crucified 6,000
prisoners along the Via Appia from Capua to Rome.
Although Spartacus has been justly lauded as a bold leader, the
slave war was not a revolt of the lower classes against the
bourgeois leadership of Rome. Spartacus got almost no support
from the Italian population, which remained loyal to Rome.
Nonetheless, Spartacus has been idolized by revolutionaries
since the 18th century. From 1916 to 1919 the German Socialists
styled themselves "Spartacists" when they tried to foment a
proletarian revolution after World War I. Spartacus's stout
resistance against the Romans has been a popular theme among
poets and novelists, for example, Arthur Koestler in The
Gladiators (1939) and Howard Fast in Spartacus (1951).
Spartacus (c. 109 BC-71 BC), according to Roman historians, was
a slave who became the leader (or possibly one of several
leaders) in the unsuccessful slave uprising against the Roman
Republic known as the Third Servile War. Little is known about
Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and surviving historical
accounts are inaccurate and often contradictory.
Spartacus's struggle, often seen as the fight for an oppressed
people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning
aristocracy, has found new meaning for modern writers since the
19th century. The rebellion of Spartacus has proven
inspirational to many modern literary and political writers,
making Spartacus a folk hero among cultures both ancient and
The ancient sources do not agree on Spartacus's origins.
Plutarch describes him as "a Greek of nomadic stock", which
Konrad Ziegler argues, refers to the Thracian tribe of the Medi.
Plutarch also writes that Spartacus's wife, a prophetess of the
same tribe, was enslaved with him. Others suggest his origin as
the territory of present Bulgaria. Appian says he was "a
Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the
Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator".
Florus says he "had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a
deserter and robber, and afterwards, from consideration of his
strength, a gladiator". "Thracian" was a style of gladiatorial
combat in which the gladiator fought with a round shield and a
short sword or dagger, and it has been argued that this may have
confused the sources about his geographical origins, although no
alternative origin is attested. The name Spartacus is otherwise
attested in the Black Sea region: kings of the Thracian dynasty
of the Cimmerian Bosporus and Pontus are known to have borne it,
and a Thracian "Spardacus" or "Sparadokos", father of Seuthes I
of the Odrysae, is also known.
Third Servile War
Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school (ludus) near
Capua, belonging to Lentulus Batiatus. In 73 BC, Spartacus and
some seventy followers escaped from the gladiator school of
Lentulus Batiatus. Seizing the knives in the cook's shop and a
wagon full of weapons, the slaves fled to the caldera of Mount
Vesuvius, near modern day Naples. There they were joined by
other rural slaves.
The group overran the region, plundering and pillaging.
Spartacus's intention was to leave Italy and return home. His
chief aides were gladiators from Gaul and Germania, named Crixus,
Castus, Gannicus and Oenomaus. The Senate sent an inexperienced
praetor, Claudius Glaber (his nomen may have been Clodius; his
praenomen is unknown), against the rebels, with a militia of
about 3,000. They besieged the rebels on Vesuvius blocking their
escape, but Spartacus had ropes made from vines and with his men
climbed down a cliff on the other side of the volcano, to the
rear of the Roman soldiers, and staged a surprise attack. Not
expecting trouble from a handful of slaves, the Romans had not
fortified their camp or posted adequate sentries. As a result,
most of the Roman soldiers were still sleeping and killed in
this attack, including Claudius Glaber. After this success many
runaway slaves joined Spartacus until the group grew into an
army of allegedly 140,000 escaped slaves.
The Fall of Spartacus
Spartacus is credited as an excellent military tactician and his
experience as a former auxiliary soldier made him a formidable
enemy, but his men were mostly former slave labourers who lacked
military training. They hid out in the Caldera on Mount Vesuvius
which at that time was dormant and heavily wooded, and this
enabled them to train properly for the fight with the Romans.
Due to the short amount of time expected before battle,
Spartacus delegated training to the Gladiators who trained small
groups, and these then trained other small groups and so on
leading to the development of a fully-trained army in a matter
of weeks. By spring they marched north towards Gaul.
The Senate, alarmed, sent two consuls, Gellius Publicola and
Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus, each with a legion, against
the rebels. Crixus wanted to stay in Italy and plunder but
Spartacus wanted to continue North and so, along with around
30,000 Gaul and Germanic supporters, Crixus left Spartacus and
was later defeated by Publicola. Crixus was killed in battle.
Spartacus first defeated Lentulus, and then Publicola. At
Picenum in central Italy, Spartacus defeated the consular
armies, then pushed north. At Mutina (now Modena) in 73BC, they
defeated yet another legion under Gaius Cassius Longinus, the
Governor of Cisalpine Gaul ("Gaul this side of the Alps"). By
now, Spartacus's many followers included women, children, and
elderly men who tagged along.
Choice to remain in Italy
Apparently, Spartacus had intended to march his army out of
Italy and into Gaul (now Belgium, Switzerland and France) or
maybe even to Hispania to join the rebellion of Quintus
Sertorius. There are theories that some of the non-fighting
followers (some 10,000 or so) did, in fact, cross the Alps and
return to their homelands.
The rest marched back south, and defeated two more legions under
Marcus Licinius Crassus, who at that time was the wealthiest man
in Rome. At the end of 72 BC, Spartacus was encamped in Rhegium
(Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina. Spartacus's deal
with Cilician pirates to get them to Sicily fell through. In the
beginning of 71 BC, eight legions of Crassus isolated
Spartacus's army in Calabria. With the assassination of Quintus
Sertorius, the Roman Senate also recalle] Pompey from Hispania;
and Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus from Macedonia.
Spartacus managed to break through Crassus's lines and escape
towards Brundisium (now Brindisi), but Pompey's forces
intercepted them in Lucania, and the slaves were routed in a
subsequent battle at the river Silarus, where Spartacus is
believed to have fallen. According to Plutarch, "Finally, after
his companions had taken to flight, he (Spartacus) stood alone,
surrounded by a multitude of foes, and was still defending
himself when he was cut down". According to Appian, "Spartacus
was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee,
holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way
against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with
him were surrounded and slain"; The body of Spartacus was not
After the battle, legionaries found and rescued 3,000 unharmed
Roman prisoners in their camp. 6,600 of Spartacus's followers
were crucified along the via Appia (or the Appian Way) from
Brundisium to Rome. Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to
be taken down, thus travelers were forced to see the bodies for
years after the final battle. Around 5,000 slaves, however,
escaped the capture. They fled north and were later destroyed by
Pompey, who was coming back from Roman Iberia. This enabled him
also to claim credit for ending this war. Pompey was greeted as
a hero in Rome while Crassus received little credit or
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This web page was last updated on:
31 December, 2008