Who Was Spartacus?

The Gladiator Who Defied Rome and Led a Massive Slave Revolt

Bas relief in the Colosseum of gladiators fighting.
Bas relief in the Colosseum of gladiators fighting. Ken Welsh/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Little is known about this fighting slave from Thrace beyond his role in the spectacular revolt that became known as the Third Servile War (73–71 B.C.). But sources agree that Spartacus had once fought for Rome as a legionnaire and was enslaved and sold to become a gladiator. In 73 B.C., he and a group of fellow gladiators rioted and escaped. The 78 men who followed him swelled to an army of 70,000 men, who terrified the citizens of Rome as they plundered Italy from Rome to Thurii in present-day Calabria.

Spartacus the Gladiator

Spartacus, perhaps a captive of a Roman legion, perhaps a former auxiliary himself, was sold, in 73 B.C., into the service of Lentulus Batiates, a man who taught at a ludus for gladiators in Capua, 20 miles from Mt. Vesuvius, in Campania. That same year Spartacus and two Gallic gladiators led a riot at the school. Of the 200 slaves at the ludus, 78 men escaped, using kitchen tools as weapons. In the streets they found wagons of gladiatorial weapons and confiscated them. Thus armed, they easily defeated soldiers who tried to stop them. Stealing military-grade weapons, they set out south to Mt. Vesuvius.

Three Gallic slaves, Crixus, Oenomaus and Castus, became, along with Spartacus, the leaders of band. Seizing a defensive position in the mountains near Vesuvius, they attracted thousands of slaves from the countryside—70,000 men, with another 50,000 women and children in tow.

Early Success

The slave rebellion happened at a moment when Rome's legions were abroad. Her greatest generals, the consuls Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Marcus Aurelius Cotta, were attending to the subjugation of the Eastern kingdom of Bithynia, a recent addition to the Republic. The raids carried out in the Campanian countryside by Spartacus' men fell to local officials to mediate.

These praetors, including Gaius Claudius Glaber and Publius Varinius, underestimated the training and ingenuity of the slave fighters. Glaber thought he could lay siege to the slave redoubt at Vesuvius, but the slaves dramatically rappelled down the mountainside with ropes fashioned from vines, outflanked Glaber's force, and destroyed it. By the winter of 72 B.C., the successes of slave army alarmed Rome to the degree that consular armies were raised to deal with the threat.

Crassus Assumes Control

Marcus Licinius Crassus was elected praetor and headed to Picenum to put an end to the Spartacan revolt with 10 legions, some 32,000–48,000 trained Roman fighters, plus auxiliary units. Crassus correctly assumed the slaves would head north to the Alps and positioned most of his men to block this escape. Meanwhile, he sent his lieutenant Mummius and two new legions south to pressure the slaves to move north. Mummius had been explicitly instructed not to fight a pitched battle. He, however, had ideas of his own, and when he engaged the slaves in battle, suffered defeat.

Spartacus routed Mummius and his legions. They lost not only men and their arms, but later, when they returned to their commander, the survivors suffered the ultimate Roman military punishment— decimation, by order of Crassus.

The men were divided into groups of 10 and then drew lots. The unlucky one in 10 was then killed.

Meanwhile, Spartacus turned around and headed towards Sicily, planning to escape on pirate ships, not knowing that the pirates had already sailed away. At the Isthmus of Bruttium, Crassus built a wall to block Spartacus' escape. When the slaves tried to break through, the Romans fought back, killing about 12,000 of the slaves.

The End of Spartacus' Revolt

Spartacus learned that Crassus' troops were to be reinforced by another Roman army under Pompey, brought back from Spain. In desperation, he and his slaves fled north, with Crassus at their heels. Spartacus' escape route was blocked at Brundisium by a third Roman force recalled from Macedonia. There was nothing left for Spartacus to do but to try to beat Crassus' army in battle.

The Spartacans were quickly surrounded and butchered, although many men escaped into the mountains. Only a thousand Romans died. Six thousand of the fleeing slaves were captured by Crassus' troops and crucified along the Appian Way, from Capua to Rome.

Spartacus' body was not found.

Because Pompey performed the mopping-up operations, he, and not Crassus, got credit for suppressing the rebellion. The Third Servile War would become a chapter in the struggle between these two great Romans. Both returned to Rome and refused to disband their armies; the two were elected consul in 70 B.C.

The Goals of Spartacus' Rebellion

Popular culture, including the 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick, has cast the revolt led by Spartacus in political tones, as a rebuke to slavery in the Roman republic. There is no historical material to support this interpretation. Nor is it known whether Spartacus intended for his force to escape Italy for freedom in their homelands, as Plutarch maintains. The historians Appian and Florian wrote that Spartacus intended to march on the capital itself. Despite the atrocities committed by Spartacus' forces, and the splintering of his host after disagreements among the leaders, the Third Servile War inspired revolutions successful and unsuccessful throughout history, including Toussaint Louverture's march for Haitian independence.