Thracian warrior Spartacus is credited with starting one of the most famous slave rebellions of all time. Also known as the Third Servile War, this conflict began with fewer than 100 slaves who grew to become an army of up to 120,000. The war is often interpreted as a fight to end slavery in the Roman Republic, but this is never mentioned as a reason in ancient accounts. Although the uprising was ultimately a failure, it carved Spartacus’ name in folklore as tales of his deeds have been told (and exaggerated) in various movies and television shows.
The Great Escape
Little is known about Spartacus although historians agree that he was probably a military leader and gladiator. He was born in approximately 111 BC around the Struma river in modern day Bulgaria, and there are suggestions that he once fought as an auxiliary in the Roman army in Macedonia. Spartacus ultimately ended up as a prisoner in Capua where he attended gladiatorial school. Again, sources don’t agree on how he ended up in this situation. Some say he deserted the army while others suggest he led bandit raids against the Romans.
The story began in 73 BC when Spartacus led an escape from the school with 70-80 other gladiators. They apparently stole knives from a cook’s shop and a wagon full of other weapons. The runaway slaves took refuge on Mount Vesuvius, and Spartacus emerged as a leader along with Crixus and Oenomaus. The band of runaways had luck on their side as the Romans initially didn’t take the threat seriously. At that time, the Romans were dealing with a rebellion in Hispania and the Third Mithridatic War in Pontus.
This war was to become a long, bloody and drawn out affair. This is partly due to initial Roman complacency, but the military skill of Spartacus was also a major factor. Before retreating to the volcano, the slaves raided the countryside and terrorized landowners. A number of house slaves and field slaves joined the rebels so by the time they reached Vesuvius, Spartacus’ ranks had swollen. Rome made a mistake by treating the incident as a crime wave instead of rebellion. Gaius Claudius Glaber was dispatched with a militia of 3,000 poorly trained men. They were only used to handling small riots and were completely ill-equipped.
Matters weren’t helped by Glaber’s blundering leadership. Instead of attacking Spartacus, Glaber blocked off the main route to the volcano in an attempt to starve the slaves. The rebels spotted a gap in the Roman blockade and created vines to climb down. The slaves surrounded the Roman camp and took them completely by surprise. The Romans were annihilated, and the rebels took the camp. This success led to further recruitment as shepherds and herdsmen from the surrounding area flocked to the cause. Spartacus found it easy to grow his army; the countryside was filled with poorly protected towns that had a lot of slaves. As Spartacus insisted on sharing the spoils equally, fugitive slaves took up arms in their thousands.
The Romans still didn’t appear to take the threat seriously even after the destruction of Glaber’s forces. Instead of sending a large military presence to crush the rebellion, Rome sent Publius Varinius to track the insurgents. He divided his army into two with Furius and Cossinius given command of these groups. Varinius was seemingly unaware that the rebel force now exceeded 40,000 which may explain why he didn’t keep his army together. In any case, Furius and his 2,000 man column suffered a surprise attack and were destroyed. Spartacus quickly located Cossinius at Herculaneum and defeated him in battle. The Roman fled but was caught and killed by the slaves.
The rebels went south and were pursued by Varinius. The Roman praetor met Spartacus in battle at Lucania but discovered that some of his soldiers refused to fight. Foolishly, Varinius still launched his attack and was comprehensively beaten. The rebels enjoyed further successes but hadn’t yet faced veterans of wars in Germany, Gaul, and Spain. Spartacus was apparently well aware of this good fortune and advocated a move to the Alps to regroup. However, up to 30,000 men, led by Crixus, wanted to stay and plunder and they ultimately separated from the main army.
While it’s hard to imagine the rebels beating the full might of the Roman army, in any case, this split was a disaster and ultimately spelled doom. By 72 BC, the Senate understood the threat and sent two armies of experienced soldiers led by consuls Lentulus and Gellius. They found it easy to track the path of destruction left by Crixus and Gellius sent praetor Quintus Arrius to deal with the enemy. Arrius surrounded Crixus’ force near Mount Garganus and up to two-thirds of the slaves were killed including Crixus.
Spartacus spent the winter of 73-72 BC in Thurii, Southern Italy. He seemed to make good use of his time by raiding towns and increasing his army to approximately 70,000 men. All freed slaves capable of fighting were given basic training. There is some confusion over what happens next as the two most important ancient sources, Appian and Plutarch, offer different accounts. It is important to note that neither historian contradicts the other.
It does appear as if Spartacus fought three separate engagements in the spring of 72 BC. Lentulus tried to surround the slaves but was defeated. Then the combined forces of Gellius and Arrius were also beaten. Finally, Gaius Cassius tried to halt the rebels with an army of 10,000 men at Mutina but met the same fate as his counterparts. It is said that Spartacus took 300 prisoners and sacrificed them or forced them to fight in gladiatorial combat.
With the latest Roman legions out of the way, the rebels were free to climb the Alps and advance to Thrace, Gaul or another area not under Roman control. However, Spartacus elected to lead his men back to Italy. The reasons for this decision are not clear although it seems as if his ragtag group didn’t want to leave Italy. After the split with Crixus, Spartacus was aware that further division of his army would be a disaster. It is also possible that the insurgents entertained ideas of invading Rome itself.
The Senate was extremely nervous at this stage because there were reports that the slave army now numbered 120,000. Rome was short of experienced commanders as generals such as Pompey and Metellus were in Spain while Lucullus was in Asia Minor. Crassus stepped forward in Rome’s hour of need. He was one of the wealthiest men in the city and offered his help to the Senate which was eventually accepted. Crassus had military experience as he served under the command of Sulla. He was given remnants of those who had fled during Varinius’s disastrous campaign along with new legions. Spartacus was to face his strongest enemy yet.
Crassus revealed himself to be a brutal and cruel commander. When he learned that Spartacus was on the march through Picenum, he ordered Mummius to shadow the enemy but not engage. Instead, Mummius foolishly attacked the rebels from the rear and was defeated. Hundreds of soldiers fled, but if they thought they were retreating to safety, they were sorely mistaken. To set an example, Crassus decimated men accused of cowardice. He reportedly divided 500 of his army into 50 groups of 10. Lots were drawn, and one soldier was executed from each of the 50 groups.
Crassus forced his whole army to watch the executions. It is not known whether he only decimated 50 men or if he had his entire army decimated after a defeat. The latter is unlikely as it would have resulted in the deaths of up to 4,000 soldiers. From this point onwards, the Romans feared their commander more than the enemy. As harsh as the punishment was, it did galvanize the men and improved discipline. Crassus retrained and rearmed his troops. He drilled the soldiers in the use of the ‘pilum,’ and they were divided into cohorts of 480. A full legion was now comprised of approximately 5,000 well-trained men.
With eight legions, Crassus chased Spartacus across Italy and scored a victory in a running battle in the Lucania region. The rebels retreated to Rhegium where a desperate Spartacus bribed Sicilian pirates to take his men to Sicily. He hoped it would breathe new life to the uprising in a place where a rebellion occurred only a generation previously. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pirates took the money but reneged on their promise. The rebels were trapped on the Brittum peninsula, and Crassus knew it.
Rather than engaging the enemy in open battle, the Roman commander ordered his soldiers to build a wall to keep the slaves hemmed in; the ultimate goal was to cause them to starve and surrender. Initially, Spartacus ignored the wall and tried to find another way out. Unfortunately for the rebels, winter was fast approaching, and their supplies were running out. Spartacus realized their only hope was to break through the barricade and they did so during a winter storm. The gladiators were once again free to roam the Italian countryside, and a panic-stricken Senate recalled Lucullus and Pompey from their respective wars.
While the slaves escaped certain death, it did nothing for internal harmony as once again they fought amongst themselves. Cestus and Gannicus, a pair of Gauls, broke from the main army and began plundering villages and towns. They were surrounded by Crassus at Lucanian Lake, and approximately 12,000 rebels died before Spartacus came to rescue the remaining men.
The end was drawing near for the depleted rebels, and they retreated to Petelia and sought to hide in the mountains. Spartacus managed one more victory over the Romans that followed him. Two of Crassus’ lieutenants, Scrophas and Quintus, attacked the rear of the rebels. Spartacus’ men quickly turned around and routed their opponents. By now, the slaves heard that Lucullus and Pompey were on their way, so Spartacus recommended a retreat through the mountains. However, a number of his officers wanted to travel to a seaport called Brundisium where they could steal ships and sail to safety.
The rebels opted for the latter option which was a mistake as Crassus pursued them relentlessly and caught up to the stragglers in the group. The Roman knew the conflict was about to come to an end when he heard that Lucullus had landed at Brundisium; the slaves had nowhere to go.
Spartacus realized that his army was trapped, so he elected to stay and fight. He reportedly killed his horse to show his men that it was now a case of victory or death. The rebel leader decreed that Crassus was the weaker of the two armies, so he chose to face him in combat. The slaves charged at the enemy and Spartacus tried to find and kill Crassus but was wounded, surrounded and ultimately, killed by the Romans. His body was never recovered; he was probably dressed in ordinary armor and buried in a mass grave without the Romans realizing who he was. The majority of the rebel army was slaughtered with a handful of survivors fleeing to the hills. Although Crassus did all the hard work, Pompey arrived on the scene, and his men tracked down and killed up to 5,000 escaped slaves. According to Appian, 6,000 slaves were captured by Crassus and crucified on the road from Capua to Rome.
Pompey told the Senate that he had ended the war; a fact that enraged Crassus. Both men returned to Rome but instead of disbanding their legions; they camped outside the city. They stood for consul in 70 BC and, even though Pompey was ineligible, he was still awarded the title of consul along with Crassus. They were to become two of the most powerful men in Rome and, along with Julius Caesar, they formed the First Triumvirate. The ensuing power struggle would ultimately result in the end of the Roman Republic.
The impact of Spartacus’s slave revolt was felt in Roman society as there was now a constant fear of another uprising. Certain writers and historians tried to suggest that Spartacus was a champion of the people and the cause of a social revolution in Italy. There is no evidence to suggest that any of this is true and it is more likely that he was motivated by self-interest. Remember, the initial escape featured less than 80 men who were simply trying to avoid the wretched conditions in a gladiatorial camp.
It was a remarkable achievement to create an army of around 120,000 men, and for a time, Spartacus caused real panic in Rome. However, the slaves were never able to agree on a clear objective, and they began to splinter. A unified rebellion would have struggled against the might of Rome; a divided one had no chance. Despite the rising, gladiator games continued to grow in popularity and later on, Roman Emperors held elaborate games to curry favor with the public. By the 4th Century AD, around 175 days a year was devoted to gladiator games.
There was something of an impact on the institution of slavery in Rome over time. It appears as if slaves were treated less harshly than before and wealthy landowners started to replace agricultural slaves with freemen. During the relative period of peace in the first century AD, the number of slaves gained through conquest dwindled significantly. Emperor Claudius even decreed that abandoned slaves were to become freemen and the killing of an old or infirm slave was seen as murder. Further laws to protect slaves were introduced by Antonius Pius in the 2nd Century AD. Although these changes happened so long after the revolt that they can’t be classified as direct consequences, they are evidence that Roman attitudes towards slavery evolved over time.