Spartacus and the Great Gladiator War
One in three people in the Roman Republic were slaves. Denied freedom and rights, subject to mistreatment and abuse, they were suppressed by fear and force. But when united, armed, and inspired by a courageous leader, they proved as deadly a threat to Rome as any foreign foe.
by Fernando Lillo Redonet
A Thracian slave sleeps fitfully while waiting to be sold in Rome. A serpent is seen coiled around his head. The slave’s wife, “a kind of prophetess, and one of those possessed with the Bacchanal frenzy,” interprets this unsettling sign, explaining that formidable power awaits the sleeper, but his final fate is unhappy. Although the name of this prophetic woman has long been lost, that of the sleeping slave has endured for all time: Spartacus.
Plutarch, the Greek-born historian and biographer, provides this richly symbolic detail in his account of the man who became the most famous slave in history. The sign of the serpent signifies that Spartacus is close to the gods; the reference to Bacchus, a deity associated with liberty, is appropriate for the story of someone who would fight for and win the freedom of thousands of slaves—albeit in a hard and short-lived liberty, much as the prophecy suggests.
The legend of the rebel slave was recorded by Greek and Roman authors, and it is their voices, not Spartacus’s own, that have passed into posterity. Of the rebels themselves, and of their direct experiences, no record has survived. Indeed the accounts we have are generally brief and often contradictory, driven by the sympathies and motivations of their authors. The treatment of Spartacus falls broadly into two camps. He is admired and idealized by Plutarch and the Greek historian Appian of Alexandria, although the latter does include many less appealing aspects of Spartacus’s personality. In the other camp we find historians Livy, Floras, and Orosius, who are all uncomplimentary about the slave warrior. They depict the revolt as nothing more noble than banditry, seeing it as a threat to public order and republican stability that needed to be swiftly crushed.
A School for Killing
Spartacus’s revolt began in a gladiatorial school in Capua, near the modern-day city of Naples. All of its gladiators were slaves, and most were Gauls from modern France and Belgium or Thracians from an area around modern Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. They were being trained to fight in the arena for the entertainment of bloodthirsty crowds. For most this meant a short, terrifying life followed by an agonizingly brutal death.
In the spring or summer of 73 B.C. around 200 of these unfortunate slaves plotted their escape. Although their plans were betrayed, as many as 78 managed to break out, armed with knives and spits from the kitchen. While on the run, the fugitives chanced upon some carts transporting gladiatorial weapons. Pillaging their contents, they stood a fighting chance of resisting recapture.
The small group of slaves appears to have been led by three men: Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus, the latter two probably Gauls or Celts. Some ancient writers say Spartacus was the principal leader, while others maintain that authority was shared equally in a triumvirate. Whatever the arrangements had been, it is the name of Spartacus that has prevailed for striking real fear into the heart of the late Roman Republic.
Little is known of Spartacus’s personality. Plutarch imagines him as a man of strength, intelligence, and culture, in the style of a Greek hero. Appian is less flattering and draws attention to Spartacus’s sacrifice of 300 prisoners to avenge the death of Crixus, his execution of prisoners to free up his army as it marched, and his crucifying a Roman prisoner during the siege of Reggio.
Accounts of his early life also differ. Appian claims that Spartacus was a Roman soldier until he was imprisoned and sold as a gladiator. Florus, another chronicler, reports that Spartacus was a Thracian mercenary, then a soldier, a deserter, a bandit, and finally a gladiator. If Spartacus had served in the ranks of the Roman army, his knowledge of its military strategy might have given him a very dangerous advantage in the battles that followed.
The Roman historian and politician Sallust makes a favorable moral distinction between Spartacus and his followers: the leader himself was a man of refinement who struggled to curb the excesses of his slave army. Whereas Crixus is portrayed as having a perverse, slavish nature from birth, Spartacus is presented positively as a man who was not born to be a slave.
These very different accounts demonstrate how the Romans were torn between celebrating Spartacus as a noble hero and condemning him as a lowly bandit. Since slaves were considered lesser beings, it was shameful for Romans to fight them, and a huge dishonor to be bested by them. Therefore, a Spartacus who threw off his slavish mantle to assume true nobility made him a more fitting adversary for the Roman army, helping to restore some of its badly battered pride.
Smashing the Legions
After escaping Capua the slaves sought rural isolation on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The core of Spartacus’s followers were fellow gladiators from the school, but their ranks were soon swelled by fugitive slaves and the oppressed local peasantry. The large estates and farms of southern Italy employed a huge slave workforce that was ripe for revolt. Indeed the whole region was still in a state of tension following the Social War (90-89 b.c.), when it had confronted Rome to protest its unequal treatment, assert its rights, and become a full member of the republic.
The fact that Spartacus distributed all plunder in equal parts was a strong incentive for many impoverished or dis satisfied freemen to join his ranks. However, no city ever pledged him support, and Spartacus’s followers would always be slaves, deserters, and the lowest born. It was a combination of factors that would contribute greatly to his defeat.
Against the rebels assembled on Mount Vesuvius the Romans dispatched 3,000 soldiers under the command of Caius Claudius Glaber. He laid siege to the mountain and concentrated on monitoring the slaves’ only descent route. However, on the heights above, the besieged forces had discovered wild vines, which they plaited into makeshift ropes, using them to descend from a more rugged, undefended side of the mountain. The Romans found themselves outflanked by a surprise attack and were forced to retreat. Their abandoned camp was then captured by the triumphant mob of rebel slaves.
Inspired by this victory, many more now flocked to fight for Spartacus, whose forces swelled to between 70,000 and 120,000 men. With these, the rebel leader now routed another Roman army, led by Publius Varinius. So far Spartacus had faced hastily assembled and poorly prepared Roman forces. Rome had not treated the revolt as a proper war but as an outbreak of common banditry. That now changed.
Recognizing that the problem required a drastic solution, the senate dispatched a strong force under the consuls Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius lentulus Clodianus. Arrogance again got the better of them. The consuls saw the slaves as little more than wild beasts to be hunted down and destroyed, and so they opted for a tactic of encirclement. Gellius marched south to cut off the rebels who were heading toward Sicily. His plan was to drive them north to where Lentulus awaited them. Near Cape Gargano, in Apulia, Gellius’s legions attacked rebels led by Crixus: he and 20,000 slaves were killed.
Rome’s Worst Nightmare
The consuls next faced Spartacus himself, and he proved a far greater challenge. The former gladiator defeated one after the other, forcing them into a humiliating retreat. Spartacus sacrificed some 300 Roman prisoners in memory of the slain Crixus. He then marched north to Modena, where he defeated the soldiers of Gaius Cassius Longinus. Now within striking distance of the Alps and a better chance of freedom, Spartacus decided to march south once more.
Some sources suggest his men preferred to stay and plunder Italy rather than cross the mountains. Perhaps the settlements of the Po Valley—its peasantry wealthier and freer than in the south—showed little interest in joining or aiding his rebellion. Perhaps bad weather and food shortages prompted Spartacus once more to seek the support of the south.
Whatever the reason, as the slave army approached Rome, the citizens panicked, traumatized by tales of a similar advance toward the capital by Hannibal in the Second Punic War, around 150 years before. The rebels, however, lacked the resources to besiege the city, so they marched around it. Spartacus had demonstrated pragmatic caution in the face of his hotheaded subordinates’ thirst for looting and revenge.
Until now the rebel’s victories were due largely to numerical superiority, guerrilla tactics, and the poor preparation of the armies they faced. The cream of the Roman military was abroad at that time: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus—better known as Pompey—was fighting in Hispania (Spain) while Lucius Licinius Lucullus was in Anatolia (Turkey). Desperate to end the run of humiliating defeats, Rome entrusted supreme command to one general—Marcus Licinius Crassus.
This extremely rich politician had very personal reasons for quashing the slave rebellion, not least that it was grievously disrupting the commerce and farming on which his wealth was based. Furthermore, Crassus’great rival, Pompey, was expected to return from Spain in triumph at any moment. Crassus sorely needed a military victory to reinvigorate his standing in Roman politics. Fighting runaway slaves hardly seemed glorious, but with Spartacus being compared to Hannibal, a victorious Crassus would be likened to Scipio, the great Roman general who defeated Hannibal in 202 B.C. In fact, the braver Spartacus was, the more glory awaited the man who could defeat him.
A Race for Military Glory
Crassus had to move fast if he was to win sole credit for defeating Spartacus. He sent his legate, Mummius, ahead with orders to track the slave army’s movements. Mummius exceeded his orders, attacked, and was shamefully defeated. Crassus felt the need to assert his authority and motivate his army. His chosen method was decimation, executing every tenth man in a unit of 500 soldiers. The measure was brutal but effective. With iron discipline restored to the legions, Crassus was ready to face the slave army himself.
Spartacus withdrew to Reggio in the south of Italy. It is likely he intended to cross the short distance across the strait to the island of Sicily, but the Cilician pirates whose ships he was going to use betrayed him to the Romans. Crassus managed to encircle the rebel army, building a system of fortifications near Reggio. But Spartacus was not so easily contained, and, taking advantage of a night of snowstorms, he broke through the cordon. At this critical moment the Roman Senate ordered Pompey and Lucullus to join the battle. Pompey marched south, while Lucullus disembarked his troops at Brindisi.
Reluctant to allow the Romans to force his army back into a disadvantageous position, Spartacus turned to fight Crassus. Plutarch recounts that before this battle Spartacus called for his horse. “When his horse was brought him, he drew out his sword and killed him, saying, if he got the day he should have a great many better horses of the enemies,” and if he lost he would “have no need of this.” It is possible Spartacus made this dramatic gesture to spur on his men, but it can also be interpreted as a ritual sacrifice to win the favor of the gods. If so, it was not enough.
Plutarch describes the heroic last stand and death of the gladiator and slave leader: “Making directly toward Crassus himself, through the midst of arms and wounded, he failed to find him, but slew two centurions that had fallen upon him. At last being deserted by those around him, he himself stood his ground, and, surrounded by the enemy, bravely defending himself, was cut in pieces.”
The victorious Crassus ordered the crucifixion of 6,000 recaptured slaves: They lined the Ap-pian Way from Capua to Rome. Even so, Crassus found himself trumped by Pompey, who had managed to kill an additional 5,000 rebels, and so seize the lion’s share of the glory. An infuriated and frustrated Crassus did not dare request the triumph awarded for the greatest victories: He was forced to make do with an ovation, a lesser ceremony where the general paraded on foot.
Liberator or Bandit?
It has been suggested that the slave revolt was far less important than the idealized accounts of Plutarch would have us believe. It is argued that it amounted to nothing more than a series of skirmishes by a loose network of dispersed bands of escaped slaves bent on looting, under the command of different chiefs over which Spartacus had some level of overall control. According to this view, it was later Roman historians who embellished the Spartacus story for reasons of politics and propaganda. Yet for almost three years the slave army evaded and defeated Rome’s arrogant and ill-conceived efforts to suppress them. Only when the Roman military machine really stepped up to the challenge was Spartacus and his rebellion snuffed out. Whether we see Spartacus as a heroic liberator or a common bandit, it was the revolt’s lack of a clear, overall objective, its failure to win support from the cities, and the inexhaustible resources of the republic that doomed the dreams of victory for the slaves who defied Rome.
National Geographic History, August/September 2015, pp. 52-63