The legendary Spartacus


Spartacus: History of Gladiator Revolt Leader

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.

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.

First fight

Spartacus and his small band of escapees acquired gladiator weapons from a passing cart and made their way to Mount Vesuvius. This was more than a century before it erupted and, in Spartacus’ time, the mountain was actually covered with vines and had fertile farmland nearby.

Glaber’s ad-hoc army didn't even try to attack Spartacus. Instead, they blocked off the main route up Vesuvius, pitched camp and tried to starve him out. Spartacus took the initiative, having his newly liberated slaves build rope out of wild vines so they could move down the mountainside to a spot the Roman had neglected to defend. The Romans, still in camp, never saw them coming. The “slaves were able to surround them and to shock the Romans with a surprise attack. When the Romans fled, the slaves seized their camp,” Plutarch wrote. This success resulted in new recruits flocking to the force of Spartacus. “At this point, many of the herdsmen and shepherds from the surrounding regions — hard-bodied and swift-footed men — came to join the slaves.”

The growth of Spartacus’s force was aided by other factors. Throughout his rebellion, his army spent much of its time in rural areas and small towns, places that were poorly defended but had an abundance of slaves. Additionally, according to ancient sources, Spartacus insisted on equally dividing the spoils, something that made recruitment all the more easier.

Serious opposition

Spartacus continued to ambush and defeat Roman units while freeing slaves in the countryside and gathering supplies. Back in Rome, the senate grew impatient and sent a large army led by the consuls Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus. Each man may have commanded 10,000 troops.

By the spring of 72 B.C., Spartacus may have had 40,000 troops, some of which stayed in south Italy with his co-leader Crixus while the remainder advanced towards the Alps under the command of Spartacus.

Betrayed by pirates

While the Strait of Messina is small, being only two miles wide at some points, Spartacus had several problems crossing it. He had reached the strait in the winter of 72-71 BC, a time when the weather was colder. Additionally the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, had fortified some of the best landing spots.

Spartacus needed two things, good boats and good sailors, to be able to land an advance party of his troops across the strait. He turned to a group of “Cilician pirates” who frequented the area and, who Strauss notes, were equipped with speedy boats and navigational knowledge, things Spartacus needed to make the crossing successfully.

The pirates, however, had other plans. “Although the Cilicians made an agreement with Spartacus and accepted his gifts, they deceived him and sailed away,” wrote Plutarch. Whether the pirates had been bribed by the Romans, or just didn’t want to be involved, is not known.

An Alpine mystery

After defeating another Roman force, this one led by a Roman governor named Gaius Cassius Longinus, Spartacus’s force was now free to climb the Alps and go to Gaul, Thrace or other areas not controlled by Rome.

However, for reasons lost to history, Spartacus chose not to do this, instead turning his force around and heading back into Italy.

The end of Spartacus

In the spring of 71 BC things fell apart for Spartacus. Castus and Gannicus were defeated by Crassus, likely sometime before April, at the Battle of Cantenna.

Spartacus was now isolated further. After the battle at Cantenna he received news that Lucullus force had landed at Brundisium, crushing the hopes the rebels had for getting out of Italy by using that port.

While Spartacus’s uprising was ultimately crushed his memory lives on, more so than the Romans who fought against, or otherwise opposed, him. “Who, today, remembers Crassus? Pompey? Even Cicero is not so well remembered,” writes Strauss. On the other hand “everyone has heard of Spartacus.”

Sources*.html#120Florus. Epitome of Roman History

Fox, Robin Lane. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic.