The Slave Who Challenged an Empire

Samuel Sullivan

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"Spartacus’ death by Hermann Vogel — Public Domain."

The true story of Spartacus and the third servile war is more incredible and daring than that portrayed in popular culture.

Excerpts from Plutarch’s Life of Crassus give us insight into Spartacus’s mentality going into his final battle. His army of former slaves and citizens tired of the oppressive Roman government was surrounded after three years of being hunted down by the Roman Republic's legions. Before his last stand, Spartacus sacrificed his horse to inspire his men and clarify that there would be no retreat from the battlefield. He would achieve victory or die in battle as a free man.

"As Spartacus prepared for what would be his final battle, he killed his horse with his sword. He told his men that the enemy had plenty of good horses which would be his if he won, if he lost, he would not need a horse at all."

Spartacus, who started as an escaped slave, amassed a large army that threatened the Roman Republic's existence. Spartacus was a gladiator that fought back against his mistreatment. He became a commander who rallied thousands to his cause and took on an oppressive government.

Spartacus was a product of his society. According to Livius.org, a modern estimate puts the Italian slave population during the first century BC at two million. The total population was six million, so one in three people were slaves.

Escaping Slavery

By the time of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73 BC, there had been two other major slave rebellions in the Roman Republic. Revolts in Sicily in 135 BC and 104 BC had lasted years and caused devastation, but both had been eventually quashed.

According to Plutarch, Spartacus was a gladiator of Thracian origin for Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. Spartacus and the other slaves were kept in close confinement between gladiatorial combat. Two hundred, due to the mistreatment, planned an escape.

The group of two hundred was betrayed, but seventy-eight, including Spartacus, realized this and escaped by stealing whatever they could use as weapons from a cookhouse. With some luck, they acquired better weaponry, found a safe place to rest on Mount Vesuvius, and elected Spartacus as their leader.

Plutarch describes Spartacus as having a great spirit, physical strength, intelligence, and culture. He was likely a former soldier and was a seasoned warrior.

It seems to me that oppressors often push those they oppress to their breaking point. Many stand up to their oppressors eventually, but few are ever mount successful rebellions. Spartacus and the other gladiators were formidable warriors, but oppressors like Lentulus Batiatus seem to view their power as absolute.

Leading a Rebellion

Aside from his strong spirit and intelligence, Spartacus demonstrated other qualities that made him a great leader. Excerpts from Appian’s Civil Wars explain that the gladiators Crixus and Oenomaus were made commanders under Spartacus. Spartacus was able to organize quickly, and the group from Capua that pursued the escaped gladiators were easily repelled.

Of note is Crixus and Oenomaus were Gauls and not Thracian like Spartacus. It is unclear why they were made his commanders, but I imagine Spartacus put them in position, so the rest of the group that was Gaul and Thracian felt represented.

According to Appian, as Spartacus and the rebels plundered the nearby areas, he divided the spoils evenly amongst his troops. This caused many to join his group, and his small band grew into a formidable force of a few thousand.

The praetor Glaber was sent with three thousand militia to quell the rebellion. Spartacus’ troops still camped on Mount Vesuvius, and Glaber set up a position blocking the only passage back down the mountain. He hoped to force the eventual surrender of Spartacus and the rebellion.

According to Plutarch, the sheer cliffs in all directions prevented escape; however, Spartacus and his men found an ingenious solution to their problem. They fastened vines into long, sturdy ladders that they used to climb down the cliff in secret. Once down, their weapons were thrown to them, and they snuck around behind Glaber’s troops. The surprise attack worked, and the rebels were able to rout the Romans and capture their camp easily.

After the success, many local herdsmen and shepherds joined up with Spartacus. It was not just the enslaved of the Roman Republic that felt oppressed. I do not find it surprising that the greed of the few at the top of the Roman Republic alienated so many who were suffering at the bottom.

Guerilla Warfare

The tactics and ingenuity of Spartacus made him a powerful threat to the Roman Republic. He still led a relatively small force, and he engaged in guerilla fighting to overwhelm and defeat the next force that came up against him.

As Plutarch describes, the next praetor, Varinius, sent against Spartacus, also suffered defeat. Varinius, on his way to battle, had his troops split into groups of a couple to a few thousand. The first group, led by a deputy commander was named Furius, was ambushed and routed. Next, Spartacus used spies to watch the movements of Varinius closely.

One day, while Varinius bathed, Spartacus tried to capture him. The capture was unsuccessful, but the surprise turned into a successful attack that allowed Spartacus’ army to seize the praetor’s supplies and camp, slaughtering many Roman troops in the process.

Varinius would soon after be defeated and humiliated. The Roman Republic had not yet started to take Spartacus seriously and had paid dearly for their mistake. The Romans would regroup and, in 72 BC, would send both their consuls to deal with the threat Spartacus posed to their nation. They were officially in a major war.

Spartacus’ leadership and tactics made him a successful general in battle and popular with his troops. His battle experience made him a formidable leader, and his generosity made people flock to his cause. He was beginning to show the Roman Republic just how delicate their place in the world was.

A Force to Be Reckoned With

According to Appian, Spartacus’ army now numbered seventy thousand troops. The Roman Senate decided to send both its consuls, Publicola and Clodianus, each with forces of twenty to thirty thousand soldiers each.

The rank of consul was the highest magistrate in the Roman Republic. In modern society, a consul can be compared to a president or prime minister. By sending both consuls to face Spartacus, the Senate finally appreciated the threat Spartacus posed to Rome. But, even the well-trained forces of the Roman consuls were not enough to defeat Spartacus.

According to Plutarch, Spartacus marched with a large force, maybe sixty thousand, northward towards the Alps. He planned to cross the mountains and return his troops to their homelands, some to Thrace and some to Gaul. This plan never came to fruition, and there are differing views as to why.

Oenomaus had died plundering in the first year of the rebellion, but Crixus was still Spartacus’ most trusted commander. As Spartacus marched north, Crixus stayed with thirty thousand troops in the south of Italy. Crixus’ army engaged in battle and without Spartacus, was destroyed.

One consul, Clodianus, stood in the way of Spartacus’ journey northward, and Publicola, the consul that had killed Crixus, marched from behind Spartacus. Spartacus, to avoid being captured, decided to take on each consul one by one.

Spartacus’ army traveled quickly forward and met Clodianus’ consular army in battle. Sheer numbers plus strong leadership from Spartacus led to an easy victory. Having handily dispatched the first consular army Spartacus turned his attention towards Publicola’s army, and he quickly routed them.

A Change of Heart

Spartacus proved his might, and it is possible he even considered marching on Rome itself. He decided against it, but he also abandoned his plan to escape to permanent freedom through the Alps. Instead, after the defeat of the consuls, he marched south.

It is unclear why Spartacus chose to march south, but there are a few possibilities. It is possible he thought better of going through the Alps in winter. Perhaps his growing numbers of troops convinced him that he could continue to battle the Roman Republic. Whatever the reason, Spartacus had a change of heart, and escape north was abandoned.

According to Appian, after the consuls' defeat, Spartacus sacrificed three hundred Roman prisoners to his deceased commander Crixus. A group of deserters approached Spartacus to join his ranks, and he refused them.

I think that freedom was not enough for Spartacus anymore. With the command of a large army, it is possible that Spartacus thought he could defeat whatever the Roman Republic could throw at him. He may have regretted the death of Crixus and been resolved to fight for revenge and glory on the battlefield.

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"Spartacus by Sanesi — Public Domain"

The End of Spartacus

In 71 BC, the brutal fighting of the Third Servile War continued. This time, the Roman Senate was not going to take any chances. They ended up sending three large armies after Spartacus to deal with their largest threat.

The newly elected praetor Crassus assembled a formidable army of nearly fifty thousand well-trained and disciplined soldiers. He began to march towards Sparticus’ army.

Although Spartacus had more troops, he knew a head-on fight with Crassus was not a good idea, but fighting raged. Spartacus’ troops got the better of some exchanges, but whenever Spartacus was not with a group of his men, they were handily defeated by Crassus. Spartacus returned to guerilla tactics and managed to escape with many of his troops from a cornered position, but his days were numbered.

To ensure a decisive victory, the Roman Senate sent two more armies, led by Lucullus and Pompeius. Word of these armies reached Spartacus, and he realized he was surrounded. Capture meant death, so his only option was to fight.

Spartacus’ army turned on Crassus’, and after Spartacus ceremonial sacrificed his horse, his army charged into battle. The fighting was brutal, and Spartacus fought bravely at the front lines trying to find and kill Crassus.

According to Plutarch, he cut down two centurions guarding Crassus but was unable to reach Crassus himself. Appian adds that Spartacus was wounded by a spear-thrust that made him drop to one knee. He held his shield to balance himself and fought off attackers until he was surrounded.

After Spartacus’ death, his army was quickly decimated. According to Appian, only six thousand of Spartacus’ army survived the battle. These men were taken prisoner and crucified along the road from Rome to Capua.

It took three years, but the Roman Republic defeated the slave rebellion and ended the Third Servile War. As happens most often in history, the oppressors defeat the oppressed. When Spartacus chose freedom, he knew it was likely that he was choosing death.

Takeaways

Spartacus’ story is one that is not easily forgotten. He lived and died over two-thousand years ago, but his name is still known by many throughout the world, and he continues to be depicted in literature, television, and film.

He never escaped his enslavers. Even while he fought as a free man for three years, he could never return home. He was hunted from the day he escaped to the day he died in battle. Although his story inspired many slaves searching for their freedom, it also served as a warning to enslavers about underestimating their slaves.

Spartacus’ story teaches that a person's circumstances do not define their capabilities. Spartacus was a slave and a gladiator, but he was much more than that. He was an ingenious tactical commander with an unbreakable spirit who threatened the mighty Roman Republic's existence.

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