Spartacus Leads Slave Rebellion

by Richard Sheppard

Spartacus was a warrior from one of the tribes that roamed eastern Europe during the first century B.C. He served with the Roman army before being arrested and sold into slavery as punishment for some crime, possibly desertion.

According to Plutarch, the ancient historian, Spartacus was sold at the slave market of Rome in 73 B.C. Plutarch wrote:

Some say that, when Spartacus was taken to the slave-market in Rome, he fell asleep there, and a snake coiled itself upon his face. His wife, who had been enslaved with him, was a prophetess, a priestess of the frenzied cult of Dionysus. Seeing the snake on her husband's face, she declared that it was a lucky sign portending that Spartacus would grow powerful.

Luck, however, seemed to desert Spartacus and his wife when they were both sold to a man named Lentulus Batiates, who ran a school for gladiators. This meant that Spartacus would be trained to entertain the public by fighting with weapons in the arena.

Spartacus and his wife were sent to the city of Capua, about twenty miles from Mount Vesuvius in central Italy. There Spartacus was enrolled in his master's gladiator school, which was essentially a heavily-guarded prison, where two hundred gladiators were trained by whip-wielding martial-arts instructors.

Although some of the gladiators in this school were convicted criminals, most were prisoners of war from northern Europe. They were taught to fight each other using a variety of bizarre equipment, including nets, fishing spears, unbalanced swords, and armor that hid the face but left the stomach bare. Although they knew that they were doomed, the enslaved gladiators also knew that an aura of glamor surrounded their profession. The most skillful gladiators, who survived many duels, became celebrities before they died. In the city of Pompey, Roman merchants decorated their villas with portraits of champion gladiators, and infatuated girls scrawled love-notes to gladiators on public walls.

Spartacus, however, felt no attraction to that sort of celebrity. He allegedly told his fellow-gladiators, "If we must fight, we might as well fight for freedom."

Inspired by the fiery rhetoric of Spartacus, and the optimistic foretellings of his wife, the gladiators staged a riot at the school. According to Plutarch:

Two hundred gladiators tried to escape, but the guards recaptured most of them. Only seventy-eight men managed to fight their way out of the school, using weapons they had found in the kitchen, such as chopping-knives and spits. Fleeing through the streets of the city, the fugitives had the good luck to find several carts full of gladiators' weapons, which were being shipped to another city. After arming themselves with these weapons, the gladiators had no trouble fighting their way out of Capua. They paused at a defensible place in the countryside, where they elected a chief and two captains. As their chief they chose Spartacus. Although he was a barbarian from one of the nomad tribes, Spartacus was brave, intelligent, and polite-more like a civilized Greek than a wild man from the Balkans...He was accompanied by his wife, who had escaped with him... When some soldiers came out of Capua to recapture them, Spartacus led the fugitives into battle. The soldiers were routed, and the gladiators captured from them a quantity of regular military equipment. As soon as the fugitives got their hands on conventional weapons and armor, they threw away their inferior gladiator equipment.

Spartacus led his band south toward Mount Vesuvius, a volcano which had been inactive for generations. Along the way, the gladiators plundered plantations and liberated slaves, many of whom accepted Spartacus's invitation to join the rebel gladiators in a life of banditry.

Slaves made up a large percentage of the population of Itay in the first century B.C. Nobody knows exactly what percentage was enslaved, but in rural areas the numbers were probably comparable to those in the slave states of America during the 1850s, where there was one slave for every two free people. Most slaves in Italy were foreigners who had been captured by

conquering Roman armies in northern Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. Local authorities in Capua, alarmed by the growing slave rebellion, requested help from the central government in Rome. An army of three thousand soldiers marched from Rome against Spartacus, who retreated with his men up the slope of Mount Vesuvius.

Plutarch wrote:

The gladiators took refuge atop the mountain, which was accessible only by one narrow and difficult passage. By keeping this passageway guarded, the Roman general thought that he had caught the gladiators in a trap, since the mountain top was surrounded on all other sides with steep and slippery cliffs. On the mountaintop was a crater, in which grew a profusion of wild vines. Cutting as many vines as they needed, the gladiators twisted them into ropes,

and constructed ladders long enough to reach the bottom of the cliffs. By this means they all descended except for one man, who remained at the top long enough to lower their weapons; then he also descended. The Romans had failed to notice what was happening, so the gladiators decided to attack them by surprise. They stormed into the rear of the Roman camp and captured it.Many of the slaves in that region now revolted against their masters and joined the rebel gladiators.

After Spartacus defeated the army that had been sent to subdue him, the Roman senate dispatched two larger armies against the slaves. According to the ancient historian Appian, these were not regular Roman armies, but "forces picked up in haste and at random, for the Romans did not consider this a war yet, but a raid, something like an outbreak of robbery." Spartacus, however, attacked and defeated both of the fresh armies sent against him. According to Appian, "The Roman general himself only narrowly avoided captured by a gladiator, and Spartacus did capture the general's horse."

Every time Spartacus won a victory against the Romans, more slaves joined his rebellion. By 72 B.C., less than a year after the gladiators had escaped from Capua, Spartacus was commanding an army of seventy thousand men. Most Roman armies were fighting wars of conquest abroad, so the regular troops in Italy found themselves outnumbered by the forces of Spartacus.

After the rebel slaves smashed two armies commanded by the highest officials of the Roman Republic, some senators feared that Spartacus might next attack Rome itself.

Plutarch wrote:

Despite his success, Spartacus was wise enough to know that he could not match the power of the whole Roman Empire. He therefore marched his army north, intending to escape from Italy by crossing the Alps. His plan, after crossing the mountains, was to disband his army and send his men to their homes in Thrace and Gaul. But the gladiators, puffed up with their own

success, would not obey Spartacus. Instead of escaping to freedom, they roamed up and down the Italian peninsula, looting and plundering.

By 71 B.C., it was difficult for the Roman government to find a qualified general willing to lead an army against Spartacus. Few leaders were willing to risk the disgrace of being defeated by an army of slaves. Appian wrote:

This dangerous conflict, which the Romans had at first ridiculed and despised as a mere rebellion of gladiators, had now lasted two years. When it was time to elect new officials to deal with the crisis, all the political leaders were afraid to run for office. Nobody offered himself as a candidate until M. Licinius Crassus, a very rich nobleman, agreed to run for the office of praetor.

After being elected, Crassus raised an army six new legions. Combining this force with four existing legions, Crassus marched against Spartacus.

Crassus expected that Spartacus would now flee north toward the Alps, so he positioned his main force to block this escape route. He then sent his lieutenant, Mummius, with two legions to harrass the slaves and try to provoke them into marching north. Mummius had strict orders not to fight a pitched battle, but he disobeyed his instructions and led a frontal assault

against the slaves. He was routed. After severely rebuking Mummius, Crassus sentenced the defeated legions to suffer the traditional Roman punishment of decimation. Plutarch described the process as follows:

The soldiers were divided into groups of ten men each, who drew lots to see which of them would be executed. Those who drew the unlucky lots were killed in appalling and terrible ways, suffering disgrace as well as death before the eyes of the whole army, which assembled to watch them die.

Crassus then led his main army against Spartacus, who retreated southward down the Italian peninsula to the isthmus of Bruttium. When Spartacus reached the straits separating Italy from Sicily, he could retreat no further.

Plutarch wrote:

Meeting with some Cilician pirate ships in the straits, Spartacus decided to send a small force to Sicily, where a slave rebellion had been been extinguished only a few years earlier. By landing two thousand men in Sicily, Spartacus hoped to rekindle the fire which had so recently been smothered, and which seemed to need only a little fuel to set it blazing again. But after the pirates had struck a bargain with him, and collected their payment, they deceived Spartacus and sailed away.

To trap Spartacus on the peninsula of Bruttium, Crassus built a fortification

across the entire isthmus. According to Plutarch:

Much faster than anyone had expected, Crassus completed this great feat of engineering, digging a ditch from one sea to the other, a distance of thirty-seven and a half miles, right across the neck of land. The ditch-fifteen feet wide and equally deep-was backed by a good, strong wall and a paling.

Appian wrote:

One day, Spartacus tried to break through the wall, but he failed. Crassus killed about 6000 of Spartacus's men in the morning and as many more towards evening. The morale of the Roman soldiers had been improved so dramatically by their recent decimation, that only three Romans were killed and seven wounded in this battle.

The siege resumed. Spartacus did not make another serious attempt to break through the wall until he learned that Crassus was being reinforced by the a fresh Roman army which had just returned to Italy from Spain. Hoping to escape before the enemy's reinforcements arrived, Spartacus made a dash with his whole army through the lines of the besieging force, and fled northward with Crassus in pursuit. Spartacus still hoped to escape over the Alps to his homeland, but he found his northern escape-route blocked at Brundusium by a third Roman army, which had been recalled from Macedonia by the senate. At this point, early in 71 B.C., Spartacus decided to risk fighting a decisive battle against the army of Crassus.

Plutarch wrote.

Spartacus, seeing that he could no longer avoid a pitched battle, set his army in array. When his horse was brought to him, he drew out his sword and killed it, saying that if he won the day he would get a better horse from the enemy; and if he lost the day he should have no need of any horse.

Appian wrote:

The battle was long and bloody, as might have been expected with so many thousands of desperate men. 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 remainder of his army was thrown into confusion and butchered in crowds. So great was the slaughter that that it was impossible to count the dead Spartacans. The Roman loss was about one thousand. The body of Spartacus was not found. A large number of his men fled from the battlefield to the mountains, but Crassus followed them. Split into four separate groups, the slaves continued to fight until they all perished except six thousand, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome.

The fate of Spartacus's wife was not recorded.


The Life of Crassus. by Plutarch.

The History of Rome. by Appian.

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