Spartacus: The Roman slave and gladiator who led a slave revolt against Rome

Spartacus was a Roman slave and gladiator who led the slave revolt against Rome in the first century BC. He was probably a trained soldier in the Roman army, but he would later find himself sold into slavery and then trained at the gladiatorial school in Capua, north of Naples. He would then make his way to freedom by fleeing to a place near Mount Vesuvius. Over there, Spartacus would band together with thousands of escaped slaves and form a fierce army to go against the might of Rome. According to some accounts, Spartacus had close to 100,000 men in his army. The war that he waged against Rome came to be called the Third Servile War or the Gladiators’ War.

In this article, you will learn the real story about Spartacus, as well as how he used guerrilla warfare in a slave revolt that almost brought Rome to its knees.

Spartacus: Fast Facts

Born: c. 109 BC

Place of birth: Thrace

Died: 71 BC

Nationality: Thracian

Most known for: the leader of the slave revolt against Rome in the first century BC

A Roman soldier who deserted but was later recaptured

Not much is known about the birth and early life Spartacus. It is generally accepted that Spartacus was born in Thrace (today’s the Balkans). According to some sources, Spartacus first gained military experience as a legionnaire in the Roman army. Then for reasons unknown to this day, he deserted the army. However, he was later recaptured and sold into slavery in 73 BC.

Time as a gladiator

In the history of ancient Rome, there aren’t as many gladiators that had the kind of reputation that Spartacus had.

Following his sale into slavery, he was placed in the service of Lentulus Batiates, an instructor at the gladiator training school in Capua, Italy. Over there, he further honed his skillsets in fighting and one-on-one combat.

Spartacus escapes from the gladiator school

Spartacus statue

According to Plutarch, Spartacus was a Thracian – an area in eastern Europe, which largely comprises of today’s Bulgaria and some parts of Greece and Turkey

Spartacus had not stayed in the gladiator school for more than one year when a riot broke out. It was said that the riot was began by two very strong Gallic gladiators. Desiring to be free more than anything, Spartacus lent his support to the riot and managed to escape from the school with about 100 gladiators.

As the school was about 21 miles from Mount Vesuvius, the runaway gladiators took refuge on the slopes of the mountain. Having played a key role in the riot and escape, Spartacus became one of the leaders of the band of slaves. The other leaders were Castus, Crixus and Oenomaus. The slaves proceeded to erect strong fortifications in order to ward off any attempts by the school’s authorities to recapture them.

Spartacus’ band of slaves become a thorn in Rome’s flesh

Steadily, more and more slaves and gladiators joined Spartacus’ band of slaves. The group would grow to a size of about 100,000 men, along with an additional 40,000 people that made up their wives and children. At such numbers, Rome certainly did take notice of the Spartacus’ army. However, Rome did initially invest much time and effort into quelling the rebels.

Another reason why Rome could not act swiftly to the rebellion was because a significant portion of its forces were abroad on military campaigns trying to conquer the kingdom Bithynia (present-day northern Turkey).

The task of containing the rebels fell to relatively inexperienced Roman generals and praetors. As a result, Spartacus and his followers were able to lay waste to regions in southern Italy. They also helped themselves to abandoned weapons and military gear of fleeing Roman forces. Thus the initial forces Rome sent to handle the situation failed spectacularly, including Roman praetors Publius Variunius and Gaius Claudius Glaber, with the latter having about 3,000 men under his command.

Those Roman generals had gravely underestimated the resolve and fighting spirit of Spartacus and his men.

The rebels initial success against Rome was a huge encouragement for them. As a result, more and more people signed up to fight in Spartacus’ army.

Crixus’ death spurs the rebels on to victory over two Roman consular legions

Following the defeats of the two praetor-led forces, Rome sent two consular legions to quell the rebellion. The names of the Roman commanders were Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus and Lucius Gellius. In the ensuing clashes which took place at Mount Garganus near Apulia, the rebels suffered considerable losses, including the death of Crixus, one of Spartacus’ most trusted lieutenants. The two Roman commanders tried to sandwich Spartacus’ forces only to find out that Spartacus had outmaneuvered them. The rebels were able to turn things around and inflict a huge defeat on Clodianus and Gellius’ forces in a battle near Picenum.

Spartacus faces off against Roman General Crassus

Spartacus was one of the leaders of that led the slave revolt against Rome. Other leaders of the rebellion included two Gauls – Oenamus and Crixus. Image: The Death of Spartacus by the German illustrator Hermann Vogel (1882)

Those defeats at the hands of the rebels were a cause for concern for Rome. A different approach was needed if Rome was to crush the rebellion. That task fell to a very eager Roman general and politician called Marcus Licinius Crassus. Having made an enormous amount of wealth, Crassus was looking for similar level of success in the military world. The Roman general had under his command 10 legion and other auxiliary soldiers.

However, some historians state that when Spartacus and his rebel forces marched north towards Gaul in 72 BC, they were simply hoping to escape Roman rule. They were not trying to start a movement that would topple the oppressive Roman Republic.

Battle at Lucania in 72 BC

With winds in his sails, Spartacus and his army of fierce runaway slaves marched north towards Gaul in 72 BC. The region of Gaul comprised modern day France, the Low Countries and northern Italy. In Gaul, Spartacus’ forces engaged the Roman army in a number of battles before heading south to Rhenium (today’s Reggio Calabria).

Thus Crassus first engagement against the rebels was a failure. It was said that one of Crassus’ lieutenants, Mummius, disobeyed his orders. In order to instill discipline, Crassus introduced the ancient punishment of decimation where one-tenth of the lieutenant’s unit was randomly chosen to be killed in front of the army. This was Crassus’ way of instilling the highest discipline in his forces.

Upon arriving in Rhenium in the south, Spartacus and his forces set up a camp with the necessary defensive fortifications. The close proximity of Rhenium to the island of Sicily has led some historians to state that the rebels were hoping to cross the Strait of Messina and journey to the island of Sicily. They hoped to use ships belonging to pirates in the region as their getaway transport. However, Crassus had better idea, as he hoped to end the rebellion once and for all.

Roman general and politician Crassus halts Spartacus’ forces in their tracks

Having wreaked a lot of havoc on Rome, the days of Spartacus’ forces were numbered as astute Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus entered the fray. Crassus led a fierce Roman army to the south where he tried to trap Spartacus and his men. The Roman general ordered for the construction of a wall to prevent the rebels from fleeing. However, Spartacus and his men were able to push Crassus’ forces back and force their way through the Roman fortifications. This move was necessitated as Spartacus had received news of another Roman general with a significant number of legions marching into the fray. That general was Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey the Great).

The end was nigh for the slaves as Crassus forces chased them to Lucania in Southern Italy. It was at the Silarius River that the slave revolt was effectively crushed by the Roman army. The Spartacans were completely pegged in and subsequently killed en masse by Roman forces. Compared to the number of slaves that were killed, Rome’s loss of about 1,000 men in that battle was acceptable.

How did Spartacus die?

The Roman slave and gladiator who almost brought Rome to its knees. His military campaign rattled Rome to its core, as it took many Roman legions to quell the revolt. Image: A 19th-century depiction of the fall of Spartacus by the Italian Nicola Sanesi (1818–1889)

Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt, was killed in the battle, along with thousands of his followers as well in 71 BC. The few rebels that managed to make their way to safety were later hunted down, captured and executed by another Roman general called Pompey the Great. Pompey lined the bodies of rebels along the Appian Way, a very famous road that led to Rome.

More facts

Although much of the heavy lifting of the suppression of the Spartacus slave rebellion was done by Crassus, Pompey managed to spin the story more in his favor and took credit for crushing the rebellion.

Spartacus was not among the fleeing rebels that were captured and later crucified by Pompey. Therefore, it’s very likely that he was killed during the battle. However, his body was never found.

Roman historian and writer Plutarch maintained that Spartacus and his forces were not necessarily seeking to bring down the Roman Republic. Instead, Spartacus was trying to put a lot of distance between him and Rome. Thus he hoped to find a place where the slaves would be free from the oppression of Rome.

Spartacus’ forces were ruthless in their marches and raids. They committed unspeakable atrocities throughout the revolt.

Legacy

The Spartacus slave rebellion has been a huge inspiration to revolutionaries and freedom fighters across the world for many centuries. The most famous revolution that comes to mind in our modern era is the Haitian Revolution in

Unlike Spartacus, Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was successful as his slave revolt helped secure the independence of Haiti in 1804. For his heroic efforts against France, Louverture came to be referred to as the Black Spartacus.

Both Spartacus’ life and his slave revolt have featured in many artistic and literary works over the years. Although plagued by a few historical inaccuracies, the 1960 film Spartacus, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick, is considered by many the most famous on-screen portrayal of Spartacus.

In 1916 in Germany, a revolutionary social group by the name of Spartacist League sprang up and tried to overthrow the government, i.e. the Weimer Republic.

Crassus – the man who killed Spartacus

Marcus Licinius Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus was the famous Roman general and politician who put down the slave rebellion led by the slave-turned-gladiator Spartacus. Crassus was later annoyed by the fact that Pompey received the Triumph following the Third Servile War, when he, Crassus, did all the heavy lifting during the war.

Spartacus died in a battle against Roman general Crassus’ forces. Crassus, who was also an astute politician, was a very wealthy man, perhaps the wealthiest of his time. Much of his wealth came from slave trading and unscrupulous real estate dealings. He also set up a fire department in Rome, which he used to exploit vulnerable homeowners. With his enormous amount of wealth, he was able to influence the political landscape of Rome, often times greasing the palms of Roman senators that would do his bidding.

From 60 bc to 53 bc he was ranked as one of the three most influential men in the late Roman Republic. He was a member of the First Triumvirate, which included Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.

Crassus was known to have harbored strong feelings of jealousy of the military feats of the two other triumvirs – Caesar and Pompey.

Did you know?

About 6,000 men of Spartacus were captured by Crassus and later crucified by the roadside. It was a stern warning to all slaves that Rome would no longer tolerate any slave rebellion.

Perhaps taking inspiration from the courage and tenacity of the rebellious gladiator Spartacus, there are many sport teams, especially in eastern Europe, that named themselves after the rebel. Notable example is Spartak Moscow, a football club in Russia.

How significant was Spartacus’ slave revolt?

Prior to Spartacus Gladiator War, there were two major slave rebellions against the Roman Republic. The First Servile War in Sicily was between 135 and 132 bc; while the Second Servile War, led by Athenion and Tryphon, took place between 104 – 100 bc. It was the last Servile War that most etched its name in history.

Unlike the first two slave revolts that were centered in Sicily, the Roman Senate feared that Spartacus’ slave revolt could spread into the heartland of the Republic. It also came at a very turbulent time in Rome’s history. For example, the Republic was still reeling from the civil war between Marius and Sulla.  Then there was the Social War between 91 BC and 87 BC that took the breath out of Rome a bit. Therefore, the last thing that the Roman Senate wanted was to have a full-blown slave revolt.

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