Thracian born Roman gladiator, Spartacus is now considered the stuff of legend. To this day, books, movies, and TV shows have been created to highlight the strength of this rebel slave and the power of a good, common cause. But one should always be careful of the ways in which TV portrays the past. Who was Spartacus really?
In truth, because of the discrepancies and biases of classical authors, this can never be fully known. What is known is his impact on the future of the Roman government, a picture painted not from the noble intentions the media would like him to be remembered for, but rather from the mere act of rebelling itself.
Spartacus began the great slave rebellion in 73 B.C (Source)
Who Was Spartacus?Spartacus' story begins in Thrace, a region to the north of Greece, the west of Italy, and to the south of the Celtic tribes. His exact beginnings are up for debate: Plutarch states that he was of a nomadic tribe, while writer Florus claims he was a mercenary. However, what Plutarch, Florus, and only a half a handful of other relatively reliable classical sources agree on is that Spartacus somehow left Thrace and became part of the Roman army. Whether he was taken captive into their service or offered himself as a willing volunteer, Spartacus served in the legions for an undetermined period until some twist of fate landed him as a prisoner in Capua, where he attended the gladiatorial training school.
It is important to understand that the life of a gladiator was not as remarkable and glamorous as movies would like us to believe. It was not an honor to be a gladiator: gladiators tended to be either hardened criminals or slaves who had displeased or offended their masters. The training school was rigorous and discipline there was brutal; it was not a place ever willingly attended. Gladiatorial sport was one of the most common and exciting sporting events of ancient Rome; exciting only for those watching the event. The ancient Romans got a thrill from watching criminals meet their demise in real-time. Like our modern day quarterback and starting point guard superstars, there were many specific gladiators people would routinely cheer for, creating their own ancient form of "fan clubs".
Detail of mosaic depicting gladiators, Villa Borghese (Wikimedia)
However, though some gladiators enjoyed their temporary fame, that is all it was—temporary. They were trained in various forms of combat and were pitted against vicious animals, as half the entertainment was seeing how long it took before the gladiator was simply ripped to shreds. It was expected that the gladiators would die and, in some cases the games were rigged to ensure it, when certain men didn't fall. Gladiators lived the worst and roughest lives, and only some of them truly deserved such a punishment. How Spartacus came to become one of them is one of the many mysteries of his life up for debate.
Leading the RebellionSpartacus survived the gladiatorial lifestyle for an unknown period of time. Eventually because of the severe training routines, the insult of his demotion from Roman soldier, and the unfairness of being forced to fend for his life in an animalistic fashion, Spartacus rallied the gladiators to escape the Capua School in 73 BCE. Using predominately kitchen supplies to fight their way out, Spartacus and seventy fellow gladiators pillaged Capua on their way out of the city and fled to Mount Vesuvius to set up a defensive position.
Murmillo gladiator helmet, the type Spartacus would have worn in arenas. (Education Portal)
It is based on his strategic moves that scholars are relatively certain Spartacus had some sort of formal military training. His maneuver to Vesuvius, and the looting of the city Capua, reveals that Spartacus was not merely a slave with a whim.
The irony lies in that he had been trained in these maneuvers by the very men he was fleeing: the Roman legions. Following military example, Spartacus and his fellow slaves created their own form of hierarchy, splitting their group into two factions—one under himself, and the other under a Celt called Crixus, or "the one with the curly hair", his identifying feature in the classical texts. Though it is uncertain particularly why power was split, it was a clever idea to create a hierarchical regulation of power ensuring every man in Spartacus' and Crixus' armies were of equal status. Without such a regulation, the risk of an internal power struggle would have been threatening.
The Romans themselves were unable to stop Spartacus and his men from escaping to Vesuvius. Luck was on the gladiators' sides during the rebellion as many Roman legions were missing in action due to a revolt in Hispania and the Third Mithridatic War in Pontus, the final and longest of the three wars against Mithridates VI of Pontus in Armenia. However, we can once again cannot overlook Spartacus' military skills as, in the past, the previous two servile uprisings were dealt with as simple policing matters, not war crimes. Spartacus' attempt, however, necessitated the involvement of the remaining Roman legions. This after the failure of Praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber in besieging and starving Spartacus' camp on Vesuvius in 72 BCE, and the subsequent massacre of Glaber's forces.
In the same year, the Roman Senate sent two other men—Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus—to accost Spartacus' and Crixus' factions.
While Crixus was defeated, Spartacus took no time in eliminating the Roman generals and their armies. Although Spartacus and his men were lucky that so many Roman forces were absent in the Republic at the time, Spartacus had made such waves throughout Italy that the Senate was forced to send whichever armies were left after him. Lincinius Crassus, future one-third of the First Triumvirate of Rome, volunteered his services.
The Final StandLed by the Roman gladiator Spartacus, the Third Servile War stretched on from 73-71 BCE – it was an attempt by thousands of Roman slaves to escape the gladiatorial ring. As a Thracian, forced into slavery by the Roman legions he had once fought beside, Spartacus was angered by the stripping of his freedom and took matters into his own hands by gathering his fellow gladiators in rebellion. Having successfully fled their training school in Capua, Spartacus and his men plundered their way through Italy, defeating Roman legion after Roman legion. With the Senate believing that the Roman state was truly in danger, Marcus Licinius Crassus was chosen next to bring the slave revolt to an end.
Crassus' Crusade Against SpartacusA Roman politician and former general under Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a powerful and distinguished Roman general, Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome. Crassus offered to prepare and train new troops with his own finances, strategically setting himself up for political maneuvering if he were to return to Rome successful. Crassus took his troops to "the borders of Picenum, expecting to receive an attack of Spartacus… Mummius, however, at the first promising opportunity, gave battle and was defeated." Following this decisive moment, when Crassus' best legate (a general in the Roman army born of the senatorial class) saw failure and lost many of Crassus' men, Crassus himself led his armies against Spartacus.
One of the great mysteries of Spartacus begins here, as it appears Spartacus was leading his men back into southern Italy for unknown reasons after having just beaten Publicola out of Gaul. He went instead to the sea with the intent to take Sicily, according to Plutarch, by starting another servile war there. Spartacus bargained with the Cilician pirates to take him and his men across to the island, thereby also escaping the efforts of Crassus. Instead, he was betrayed for his money and left behind.
Around this time, the wars in Hispania and Pontus were coming to an end, both Roman successes. In 71 BCE, the successful general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (‘Pompey the Great’) returned to Rome and took an interest in Spartacus' uprising.
According to Appian, Pompey was asked by the Roman Senate to provide backup for Crassus' army, as they believed the threat of Spartacus was still growing and Crassus wasn't yielding the best results quickly enough. Because of this second, and somewhat more fearsome legionary threat, Spartacus attempted to reach an agreement with Crassus to avoid complete decimation. Crassus, however, aware of the prestige that would come with defeating Spartacus, wanted the glory for himself as much as he wanted to ensure Pompey wouldn't obtain it. He rebuffed Spartacus' proposal, choosing to take his chances with continued war.
In the wake of this denial, Spartacus attempted to flee a final time to Brundusium with Crassus hot on his tail. However, upon Spartacus' arrival, he learned that the general who had led and defeated Mithridates, Lucullus, was present in the same region, having also returned from war and summoned as reinforcements. Caught between two powerful Roman military leaders, Spartacus and his men took a last stand in 71 BCE, choosing to face Crassus' army over Lucullus'. With half of his army dead or captured from attempting to attack Crassus on their own, Spartacus and his remaining men faced Crassus's army by the River Sele for one final battle.
There is little written record about the battle itself, especially as the story of the war was undoubtedly skewed by the victorious leader Crassus on his return to Rome. It is generally believed that Spartacus died on the battlefield among his comrades.
Appian claims that Spartacus "was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him…until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain." Though Spartacus' body was not recovered to the knowledge of modern scholars, it is generally agreed by the ancient sources that he did indeed die on the battlefield. His surviving men were taken by Crassus, and all 6,000 were crucified along the Appian Way as symbols of his victory and warnings to any other slaves who dared risk challenging the Roman state. Spartacus may have been a skillful warrior with numerous defeats of Roman troops on his record, but at the end of the Third Servile War it was the Romans who endured - a matter that Crassus did not want to be easily forgotten.
6,000 of Spartacus' followers were crucified between Rome and Capua. Fyodor Bronnikov, 1877. (Public Domain)
What was Spartacus Fighting For?What remains most interesting about Spartacus, aside from the curiosities about his historical beginnings and his exact moment of death, were his motivations. Many would like to believe Spartacus led his revolt in an effort to stop slavery and the inhumane gladiatorial games altogether. But Spartacus' actions, and those of his men, were much less noble. Much of their time was spent plundering cities and the countryside, and it is believed he wanted to go to Sicily to pillage their riches as much as start another rebellion there. This may not be the case, however, and the plundering and looting may have been intended to keep up morale and restore much of the wealth that many of the slaves had lost. There is a theory that he had been attempting to return many of the men to their homes—accounting for his sudden turn back to southern Italy not long before his death. But neither theory has been recorded by any of the ancient scholars who have written extensively on the subject.
Nevertheless, Spartacus remains an intriguing character for modern historians and classicists to examine. His motives are at the heart of many analyses, but his revolt against Rome still stands as one of the most successful rebellions recorded. Furthermore, if not for the victory of Crassus over Spartacus, much of the beginnings of the Roman Empire might have been different as well. Spartacus' revolt is a highlight of the history of Rome, but the impact of his rebellion is much more far-reaching than realized at first glance.
Featured image: A mosaic depicting gladiators (Source)
By Ryan Stone
- Appian "Civil Wars." Penelope: University of Chicago. June 20, 2013. Accessed October 31, 2014. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Appian/Civil_Wars/1*.html#120.
- Appian. Roman History, Vol. II, Books 8.12-12. Translated by Horace White. (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 1912.)
- Florus. Epitome of Roman History (London: W. Heinemann, 1947.)
- Fox, Robin Lane. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian (New York: Basic Books, 2006.)
- Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by R. Warner. (London: Penguin Books, 1972.)
- Sallust. The histories, Vol.2, Books iii-v. Translated by Patrick McGushin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.)