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Spartacus was a slave who led his fellow slaves against the tyrannical and abusive power of the Roman Republic. In the first century BC. His army defeated several legions, and instilled fear upon the mighty city of Rome itself. But what did Spartacus and his army wanted? To escape? To plunder and get their revenge against their former masters? Or to bring an end to slavery in the Roman Republic?

#1 The real Spartacus

Despite the name of Spartacus being invoked very often by modern thinkers and politicians, as a bulwark of freedom against authoritarianism and injustice, little is known of Spartacus, the man of flesh. He is often referred as belonging to the nomadic tribes of Thracians, who inhabited a territory that encompass parts of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Spartacus was defined by Plutarch as nomadic, his people leading their herds to graze in vast and different regions.

Spartacus was a common name for local royal lineages, thus is a likely possibility that the man himself was a natural ruler. He is believed to have been born around 111 BC, at a time when the Odrysian Kingdom (a union of Thracian tribes) was a client state to the ascending Roman Republic. Precisely, Spartacus was mentioned in connection to the Roman military.

Map depicting the extension of the Roman Empire in 125 AD, including the province of Thracia
The Odrysian Kingdom roughly had the same borders than the later Roman province of Thracia. 125 AD

The Roman legions were mainly heavy infantry, formed only by Roman citizens. However, conquered territories and Rome’s allies were required to sign up men for the Auxilia, the non-citizen corps who backed up the legions. These Auxilia would often act as scouters, horsemen, archers and performed other functions the heavily equipped Legionnaires weren’t suited, or were too lazy to perform on their own (including dragging supplies up and down). Spartacus was mentioned to have fought in the Roman Army, and since he wasn’t a Roman citizen, he probably did so in the Auxilia.

#2 The greatest gladiator of Capua

It is not mentioned how Spartacus fall in disgrace while under employment of Rome, but he is mentioned as a latro, that’s it, a criminal who had deserted. It was a custom for non-Roman warriors to bring their wives to their camps, and when the Romans captured the deserter Spartacus, they also took his wife.

They were enslaved and sold to the ludus of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Batiatus, a wealthy lanista (gladiator school owner) of the city of Capua. The ludus were Gladiator schools were the purchased slaves were trained in fight skills by the lanista, and then pitted against each other in major spectacles, only comparable to the major sports matches nowadays, with thousands roaring the name of the victorious gladiator in the arena. 

Spartacus was said to be a bulky dude who you wouldn’t want on the wrong side, like a bouncer, and immediately was acknowledge as a cash cow for the gladiator business. He was dressed as a murmillo, wearing a broad sword or gladius, a large shield, and a crested helmet, and intensely trained to become the best fighter, aiming surely one day to earn the ‘rudus,’ a wooden sword given to those gladiators who had earned their freedom. 

An actor dressed as a Murmillo, with their characteristic crested helmets, long arm guard and big rectangular shield
Gladiators like the murmillo were the celebrities of their times

#3 Spartacus’ rebellion

Spartacus’ wife meanwhile, was sold to the ludus too, likely to perform domestic chores with other household slaves, but also she was renowned as a prophetess of Dionysus, the wine-making god of ecstasy, and a very popular god amongst slaves. Who doesn’t like wine after all?

While in the ludus, she made her most important prophecy. She witnessed a snake coiling around Spartacus head, and instead of helping his dozing and unaware husband, she decided to make a prophecy instead. The snake was a symbol of the priestesses of Dionysus, therefore Spartacus had been chosen to wield a great and terrible power which would end in misfortune.

Dionysys holding his characteristic cup and grapes
Dionysus or Bacchus, for the Romans. His festivities were especially frowned by the Roman Senate

And shortly after Spartacus took the decision that would immortalise him for eternity. 

In 73 BC, Spartacus and 200 of his fellow gladiators began to plot an escape. But there is always a snitch around, and Batiatus got wind of it, increasing security as a response. But Spartacus would have it his way, and leading a group of 70 gladiators, they began a riot, seizing spits and forks from the kitchen, and pitched all the Romans in the ludus with it.

#4 The battle of Vesuvius

Apart from Spartacus, the rogue gladiators were led by Crixus and Oenomaus, from Gaul, and together with Spartacus, they raided and plundered around Capua, seizing weapons and supplies, while the Roman Senate refused to consider the events as little more than a simple criminal wave.  But the Third Servile War had begun.

Instead of heading north and escape the Italian peninsula, the slaves moved southwards, under the shadow of the Vesuvius, where they were tailed by the man tasked to hunt them, the Praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, who brought friends with him, a hasty assembled militia of 3000 men.

Meanwhile Spartacus recruited to his cause, especially herdsmen slave, who unlike household slaves, were allowed to keep weapons (to protect the cattle from bandits) and were specially valued as scouters and versatile warriors. Surprisingly enough, Spartacus, with his military knowledge, managed to keep such homogenous group together.

Glaber, ready for some action, pushed the rebels up to the hills of Mount Vesuvius, placing guards across all the possible escape routes, intending to starve Spartacus. The later however, noticed the strong, thick vines growing on the crater of the volcano, and his men weaved them to create long resistant ropes.

Under the cover of the night, Spartacus and his men rappelled above the unaware Romans, camping under the steep rock cliffs, and took the lives of hundreds of them by surprise, including the unlucky Glaber.

The vertical and barren crater walls of the Vesuvius
The crater of the Vesuvius

The Senate didn’t learn the lesson, and sent another Praetor, Varinius, to deal with the rogues. He unwisely divided his legions between Cossinius and Furius, and Spartacus quickly dispatched them back to Rome with their tails between the legs.

#5 Spartacus and Crixus

Free from Roman harassment during the winter of 73-72 BC, Spartacus drew and trained thousands of slave-recruits for his army, swelling the ranks to 70,000 or possibly more, including non-combatants. Not bad for a man who a year ago couldn’t even go to toilet without permission.

But the leadership was fragmented, and discipline fragile. Crixus took 30,000 men and went on rampage to pillage northwards, being shortly defeated and killed by the consul Lucius Gellius Publicola. Immediately, he and his co-consul colleague, Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus began to chase Spartacus, but the genius Thracian picked their over-confident adversaries one by one.

Perhaps to remind the ex-slaves what the Romans had done to them, or to remind the Romans what was upon them, or maybe he wished to honour the fallen Crixus, Spartacus took 300 Roman prisoners, and forced them to fight to death in gladiator matches.

Sources diverge at this point. Appian claim that Spartacus marched against Rome, but suddenly changed his mind, turning south to strengthen his numbers in Thurii. But Plutarch claims that Spartcus marched further north, defeated the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Gaius Cassius Longinus, opening a safe passage out of Italy. But inexplicably he decided to turn south and head to Thurii.

We are unsure about the true intentions of Spartacus, whether to take Rome, or to flee and disperse his army outside the reach of the legions, or simply to plunder and take revenge. 

Be as it may be, Spartacus had finally become a real menace and Rome’s bogeyman.

#6 Crassus. Spartacus’ scourge

The Senate charged the richest man of Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, to put down the rebellion. He was given the command of eight legions, 40.000 men in total, and a pat in the back: good luck fellow, if you screw it, we’re fucked.

A clever man, Crassus had had vast military experience, like Spartacus himself, and he had decided not to overestimate his opponent. He tasked his Legate (equivalent of a general), Mummius, to shadow Spartacus’ army but not to engage it. But Mummius saw a chance of glory, and charged. And another victory for Spartacus.

Enraged at the cowardice shown by his retreating troops, Crassus ordered Mummius legions to be punished by Decimatio. The modern English word, ‘decimate’ is inspired by this terrible Roman punishment. Soldiers were divided in groups of ten and then casted lots, the one picking the shortest straw was to be clubbed to death by his companions. Some sources claim than up to 4.000 Legionnaires were decimated under Crassus’ command. Now the Roman soldiers feared more their commander, than Spartacus himself.

Roman soldiers surrond and strip their comrade for the punishment to begin
Depiction of Roman soldiers facing Decimatio

#7 The end of the rebellion

Despite Mummius’ reverse, Crassus managed to push Spartacus further down the peninsula, and began to dig trenches to trap the rebels and starve them. Spartacus was forced to retreat to the Sicilian strait. There he attempted to strike a deal with Sicilian pirates, to transport some of his men to Sicily, to extend the rebellion and mayhem there. But Spartacus was double-crossed by those sea-wolves ruffians, who were in the payroll of Crassus.

Showing the lenght of Crassus' fortifications and Pompey's legions moving southwards to back him up
Spartacus was virtually trapped by Crassus. Although many doubt such lenghty fortifications would had been feasible to build, and to man

An impatient Senate recalled Pompey, who was returning from Hispania with his battle-hardened legions, and commanded him to quell the insurgents once and for all. Spartacus got wind of it, and using the corpses of his fallen comrades and livestock, he filled the defensive ditches Crassus had built, and escaped north one again, with the Romans on pursuit.

Under constant skirmishes, the rebel army began to dismember, and Crassus’ Legions easily picked the stragglers. Spartacus took the decision to run no more. He rode in front of his army of over 50.000 and faced Crassus’ formidable legions. The Battle of the Silarius River was about to begin. The dice was cast. Either freedom or death.

It is said Spartacus slaughtered his white stallion in front of his men and told them: ‘when we win the battle there will be plenty of horse to plunder, and if we lose I won’t need it anymore’.

The emplacement of the last battle of the Third Servile War
Several skirmishes followed Spartacus retreat northward, until he decided for a last pitched battle

The rebels charged against a wall of Roman shields, who under intense discipline and training, could withstand without breaking, keeping the ranks tight, thrusting their swords and spears in the gaps between shields. Very soon it was clear that the rebels were lost.

In a last attempt to overturn the fates, Spartacus charged against an aloof Crassus, observing the battle from a safe distance. He killed Crassus’ two centurions, before receiving a spear wound in his leg that brought the ferocious Thracian to his knees. And despite so, he kept fighting, to the end, for whatever cause and goal he fought, for his fellow gladiators and comrades-in-arms. Spartacus choose to fight and die, rather than spend the rest of his life as a slave.

A fallen Spartacus trusts his spear on the belly of Roman, while around him rebels and soldiers battle
Spartacus’ fall

#8 Why did Spartacus revolt

The Battle of the Silarius River meant the complete destruction of the rebel army and the end of the Third Servile War. Spartacus’ body was never found. Crassus captured 6.000 survivors, and in order to teach a lesson to all slaves, he crucified the prisoners along 200 km, or 120 mi, of the Appian Way, between Rome and Capua.

The Senate regarded Pompey the hero who ended the uprising, as he slaughtered a 5.000 fleeing slaves, and claimed credit for ‘finishing’ the job. One only has to imagine Crassus’ face when he recieved the news.

Jean Claude Van Damme Rage GIF by hero0fwar - Find & Share on GIPHY

Via GIPHY

The Third Servile War didn’t end well for the slaves, and slavery was to endure for many centuries (and unfortunately still endures in many countries), but Spartacus the man, has become Spartacus the symbol. A battle-cry, a prayer, a light of hope for those under the shackles of oppression, and who dream of one day breaking free, owning their own lives and choices.

Professional ballet dancers on the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, performing 'Spartak'
Spartacus even inspired a ballet in Russia, called Spartak

We will probably never know much about Spartacus. Was it his real name? What was the name of his wife? Did he had children? Did he survived the last battle? Was he a royal? Perhaps a commoner? How did he view slavery? What were his goals? What did he fight for? For revenge, for ambition, for freedom?

Spartacus is a heap of incognito marks, but whatever his motivations during the Third Servile War, whatever the true nature of the man, Spartacus has become, and will remain, a symbol of hope and a proud statement of freedom against tyranny.

Don’t miss the TV show covering Spartacus’ time as a gladiator, plus the subsequent uprising and war. It includes mostly sex and abundant violence, but also a very revengful and freedom-fighter version of Spartacus, worhty to witness.

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