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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.


It is 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 army failed.

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 modern.

Spartacus's origins

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 found.

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 celebration.










This web page was last updated on: 31 December, 2008