Few names are more instantly recognisable in history than Spartacus, the runaway slave and gladiator who for two years successfully resisted the army of the most powerful entity then known – the Roman Republic. He was to defeat time and time again the armies sent to crush him and provide hope to thousands of the enslaved and dispossessed where none had previously existed.
He was born in Thrace (modern day Bulgaria) around 107 BC, the exact date, much like his real name remains unknown.
He is believed to have served as a soldier in the Roman Army before deserting but later captured was sold into slavery and put to work in the salt mines of Greece. Certainly, the historian Florus thought so writing of him:
“He was a deserter, a robber and a thief, who later because of his great strength became a gladiator.”
It was also said he married a raven haired beauty whom the Romans described as a sorceress and seductress who dabbled in the dark arts and bewitched those who came into her presence. Some also believed him to have been an educated man to the extent that Plutarch insisted he must have been of Hellenic extraction and not a Thracian at all – it was even rumoured that he was of noble blood.
In 73 BC, he was sold to the Gladiatorial School of Lentulus Batialus near Capua in Italy.
To those who owned them a gladiator could prove a lucrative investment and so they were well fed and cared for though the training regime could be brutal and harsh.
Not long after his arrival Spartacus and around 70 other gladiators stole knives from the kitchen, attacked their guards, and escaped into the surrounding countryside.
The incident caused little stir in Rome, after all slave revolts were not uncommon and more often than not were easily suppressed. Still, the ratio of slaves to citizens in Italy as a whole was extremely high and in common with most slave societies the Romans lived in constant fear of the enemy within.
Spartacus was soon to make their worst nightmares a reality for not only was he a highly trained warrior but was to prove an intelligent and astute man; his rebellion also coincided with the bulk of the Roman Army being away on campaign.
The ambitious Pompey Magnus was fighting in Spain whilst Rome’s leading General, Lucullus, was in Asia-Minor leading his troops against that perennial thorn in Rome’s side, the Parthian King Mithridaites.
Spartacus was not slow to exploit the situation and even though he had few men to begin with he soon came to dominate the area around Capua as runaway slaves and poor labourers began to flock to his banner.
In time this was to cause him a considerable headache for many of these people were women, children, and the elderly and of those able-bodied men who were willing to fight most lacked the skills required or the discipline to be effective; but regardless of this, and despite the fact that all of these people had to be fed and sheltered, he turned no one away.
It has been estimated that as many as 100,000 people joined the rebellion and they were to vent anger upon their oppressors destroying and looting the nearby villas of the rich. But Spartacus wanted more than just vengeance, he had a plan – he was going to take them out of Italy and to freedom.
With Spartacus behaving with impunity around Capua the Senate in Rome was forced to act and placing an army of 3,000 men under the command of the ambitious young Praetor Clodius, ordered him to crush the rebellion.
Clodius was confident of doing so, these were after all just slaves, but he was to prove not just arrogant and complacent, but incompetent.
He besieged Spartacus on the hills and woods around Mount Vesuvius but had not even bothered to fortify his camp.
Spartacus, noticing this had his men lower themselves from the cliff tops near Clodius’s camp from vines before attacking in the dead of night and utterly destroying his army. Following his unexpected triumph even more people flocked to Spartacus.
Despite this setback the Senate remained undeterred and continued to send armies south to crush the rebellion and Spartacus continued to defeat them; and in victory he was to prove just as ruthless as any Roman. After destroying the army of Varinius for example, in an orgy of celebration he made the prisoners first fight to the death as gladiators before then crucifying the survivors.
But his intention remained the same, to escape Italy, and as such he began to march his army north towards Gaul. But this was to cause a split in his camp.
Crixtus, a Gaul himself, and effective Second-in-Command to Spartacus was lured by the prospect of plunder and wanted to attack Rome itself. Spartacus would not hear of it, he had no desire to conquer Rome but merely escape its malignant embrace. Crixtus, unwilling to accept the decision, abandoned the camp taking 30,000 men with him.
This was a serious blow to Spartacus but he nonetheless continued his march north.
As he approached Cisalpine Gaul the Governor of the Region, Caius Cassius tried to block his path with 10,000 men but just as all those before him he was soundly defeated. The route to Gaul and freedom now lay open but then to everyone’s surprise Spartacus suddenly retreated south.
It has been suggested that he was forced to remain in Italy by his people who feared to leave and much like Crixtus wanted more plunder. After all, they had defeated every Roman Army sent against them and the country lay open and undefended with much plunder still to be had.
The Senate in Rome however, had long since ceased to take Spartacus lightly and had recalled four veteran Legions from Spain. Also, unknown to Spartacus and the rebels Crixtus had been intercepted and his army annihilated near Apulia by the army Quintus Arias.
Spartacus, in the meantime, had crushed the army of Cornelius Lentullus.
Following the defeat of Crixtus the Senate determined to finish Spartacus once and for all, gave command of the Roman Army to Marcus Licinius Crassus who had generously volunteered himself for the job.
Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome with an estimated fortune of 200,000,000 sesterci and his great wealth fuelled his political ambitions but in a society where glory and honour was everything he still lacked credibility.
This, h knew, could not be bought it had to be won on the battlefield – he needed a military victory.
He sought nothing less than the award of a Triumph, or the right to parade through the streets of Rome in a golden chariot with columns of bedraggled and manacled slaves following in his wake.
He was supremely confident of victory but upon his first contact with Spartacus half of his army had turned and run. Forced to retreat as a result, he had been humiliated, and so to restore order to the ranks he applied an old custom known as decimation. The most cowardly Legion was singled out and its men were forced to draw lots to find out who among them was to be the one of every ten executed.
His army reinforced at his own expense was now more than 40,000 strong and he continued to pursue Spartacus south but it was no disorganised chase through the countryside, Spartacus knew exactly where he was heading – the port of Brundisium where he had arranged at great cost for Cillian Pirates to provide ships to take his people across the Straits of Messina. But fearing retaliation by Rome they failed to turn up.
Devastated by the turn of events he could do nothing else but beat a hasty retreat further and further south until he had nowhere else to go. Finally he established camp at Rhegium (Reggio) in Calabria where he was soon besieged by Crassus.
Spartacus’s people may have been weighed down with plunder but they had no food and soon began to starve. He also knew that Pompey had returned from Spain with his Legions and was on his way south.
He had no choice but to give battle.
Spartacus and his men attacked with a fury that saw them break through Crassus’s siege lines and into open country but once there all sense of cohesion broke down and pursued by the more disciplined Romans they were cut down.
Plutarch describes what happened next:
“Finally, after his companions had taken flight Spartacus, surrounded by a multitude of foes, continued to defend himself until he too was slain.”
His body was never found.
Some 6,000 slaves who had escaped the slaughter now fled north suddenly desperate to get to Gaul but were intercepted by Pompey and defeated.
Much to the fury of Crassus it was Pompey who now received the plaudits for bringing the slave revolt to an end, even though he had not participated in any of the battles. He was also awarded a Triumph for his exploits in Spain.
Crassus was denied the same by a Senate who declared that fighting slaves wasn’t worthy of one and so in his fury he had 10,000 slaves crucified along the Appian Way leading to Rome where their corpses remained hanging for years to come.
Crassus still yearned for a Triumph however, and desperate to match the military exploits of his partners in the new ruling triumvirate of himself, Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar in 53 BC he raised and equipped an army at his own expense and invaded Parthia but the campaign was to prove a disaster.
Defeated and besieged he visited the Parthian camp in the hope of buying himself out of a parlous situation but instead he was taken prisoner and in recognition of his well known love of money they poured molten gold down his throat before cutting off his head.
Spartacus had led the most serious slave rebellion ever to threaten Rome, but it was never a campaign of conquest. He had merely sought freedom for himself and his people but was to be as much undone by the greed and avarice of those within his own camp as he was by the Roman Army.
Yet he fought a two year battle for freedom with a largely untrained army weighed down by many women, children, and elderly within the beating heart of the soon to be Roman Empire, the most powerful force on earth.
It was a remarkable achievement.