Biography of Spartacus, an Enslaved Man Who Led a Revolt

The Gladiator Who Defied Rome and Led a Massive Revolt of Enslaved People

Bas relief in the Roman Colosseum of gladiators fighting

Ken Welsh / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Spartacus (approximately 100–71 BCE), was a gladiator from Thrace who led a major revolt against Rome. Little is known about this fighting enslaved man from Thrace beyond his role in the spectacular revolt that became known as the Third Servile War (73–71 BCE). Sources agree, however, that Spartacus had once fought for Rome as a legionnaire and was enslaved and sold to become a gladiator. In 73 BCE, he and a group of fellow gladiators rioted and escaped. The 78 men who followed him swelled to an army of more than 70,000, which terrified the citizens of Rome as it plundered Italy from Rome to Thurii in present-day Calabria.

Fast Facts: Spartacus

  • Known For: Leading a revolt of enslaved people against the Roman government
  • Born: Exact date unknown but believed around 100 BCE in Thrace
  • Education: Gladiatorial school in Capua, north of Naples
  • Died: Believed in 71 BCE at Rhenium

Early Life

While little is known about Spartacus's early life, it is believed that he was born in Thrace (in the Balkans). It is likely that he actually served in the Roman Army, though it is unclear why he left. Spartacus, perhaps a captive of a Roman legion and perhaps a former auxiliary himself, was sold in 73 BCE into the service of Lentulus Batiates, a man who taught at a ludus for gladiators in Capua, 20 miles from Mount Vesuvius in Campania. Spartacus trained at the gladiatorial school in Capua.

Spartacus the Gladiator

In the same year that he was sold, Spartacus and two Gallic gladiators led a riot at the school. Of the 200 enslaved people at the ludus, 78 men escaped, using kitchen tools as weapons. In the streets, they found wagons of gladiatorial weapons and confiscated them. Now armed, they easily defeated the soldiers who tried stopping them. Stealing military-grade weapons, they set out south to Mount Vesuvius.

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

Early Success

The rebellion of enslaved people 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 enslaved fighters. Glaber thought he could lay siege to the redoubt of enslaved people at Vesuvius, but the enslaved people dramatically rappelled down the mountainside with ropes fashioned from vines, outflanked Glaber's force, and destroyed it. By the winter of 72 BCE, the successes of the army of enslaved people 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 to 48,000 trained Roman fighters, plus auxiliary units. Crassus correctly assumed the enslaved people 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 enslaved people to move north. Mummius had been explicitly instructed not to fight a pitched battle. He had ideas of his own, however, and when he engaged the enslaved people in battle, he 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 toward 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 enslaved people tried to break through, the Romans fought back and killed about 12,000 of them.


Spartacus learned that Crassus' troops were to be reinforced by another Roman army under Pompey, brought back from Spain. In desperation, he and the people he enslaved 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 1,000 Romans died. Six thousand of the fleeing enslaved people 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 BCE.


Popular culture, including the 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick, has cast the revolt led by Spartacus in political tones as a rebuke to enslavement 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.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Spartacus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Mar. 2018.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Third Servile War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Dec. 2017.

History - Spartacus.” BBC.

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Gill, N.S. "Biography of Spartacus, an Enslaved Man Who Led a Revolt." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Biography of Spartacus, an Enslaved Man Who Led a Revolt. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Biography of Spartacus, an Enslaved Man Who Led a Revolt." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).