Spartacus and the Slave Wars

Spartacus and the Slave Wars

Although some Romans argued that slaves should be treated better it was extremely rare for anyone to challenge the right to own slaves. Romans believed that, as most slaves had originally been defeated soldiers, they should be grateful they had been allowed to live. This was the reason that slaves became known as the "living dead".

Slaves were seen by the Romans as a subhuman species and therefore could be treated as badly as their owners wished. After all, it was claimed, you cannot tell people what to do with their own property.

Slaves made valiant attempts to fight back. They used a variety of tactics to undermine the system of slavery. This included working as slowly as possible, breaking tools, self-mutilation and in some cases, suicide.

There were also instances of slaves killing their masters. To stop this happening, a law was passed stating that if a slave murdered his or her master, all the slaves in the household would be killed.

There were also several slave revolts. The most famous of these was led by a slave called Spartacus. He was a shepherd from Thrace who had been captured by the Romans and sent to Capua to become a gladiator. In 73 BC Spartacus and eighty companions escaped from the gladiatorial school. The group then ambushed a convoy of carts taking weapons to another town.

When other slaves in the area heard about the success of the revolt, they ran away from their masters and joined Spartacus' campaign for freedom. During the next two years Spartacus' slave army defeated four Roman armies. After two years Spartacus' army numbered 90,000 men and controlled most of southern Italy. However, they were unable to break out of Italy and reach their homelands.

In 71 BC the Roman senate sent a large army to deal with Spartacus. Outnumbered, Spartacus' army was defeated at a place called Apulia. The 6,000 slaves who were taken prisoner were crucified along the Appian Way (the main road into Rome). Their bodies were left to hang on the crosses for several months as a warning to other slaves who might consider the possibility of rebelling against their Roman masters.

One of the slaves had broken a crystal cup. Vedius ordered his arrest and condemned him to a novel death, to be thrown to the gigantic lampreys he kept in his fishpond.

The Slave War broke out from the following cause. The Sicilians, being very rich and elegant in their manner of living, purchased large numbers of slaves. They... branded them with marks on their bodies...

on account of the immense wealth of those exploiting this rich island, practically all the very wealthy revelled in luxury... the hatred of the slaves burst forth one day... without pre-arrangement, many thousands quickly gathered together to destroy their masters.

1. Why did the Romans crucify 6,000 of Spartacus' army on the Appian Way?

2. How do the sources in this unit help to explain why slave revolts like the one led by Spartacus took place?

The Great Escape

Little is known about Spartacus although historians agree that he was probably a military leader and gladiator. He was born in approximately 111 BC around the Struma river in modern day Bulgaria, and there are suggestions that he once fought as an auxiliary in the Roman army in Macedonia. Spartacus ultimately ended up as a prisoner in Capua where he attended gladiatorial school. Again, sources don&rsquot agree on how he ended up in this situation. Some say he deserted the army while others suggest he led bandit raids against the Romans.

The story began in 73 BC when Spartacus led an escape from the school with 70-80 other gladiators. They apparently stole knives from a cook&rsquos shop and a wagon full of other weapons. The runaway slaves took refuge on Mount Vesuvius, and Spartacus emerged as a leader along with Crixus and Oenomaus. The band of runaways had luck on their side as the Romans initially didn&rsquot take the threat seriously. At that time, the Romans were dealing with a rebellion in Hispania and the Third Mithridatic War in Pontus.

This war was to become a long, bloody and drawn out affair. This is partly due to initial Roman complacency, but the military skill of Spartacus was also a major factor. Before retreating to the volcano, the slaves raided the countryside and terrorized landowners. A number of house slaves and field slaves joined the rebels so by the time they reached Vesuvius, Spartacus&rsquo ranks had swollen. Rome made a mistake by treating the incident as a crime wave instead of rebellion. Gaius Claudius Glaber was dispatched with a militia of 3,000 poorly trained men. They were only used to handling small riots and were completely ill-equipped.

Matters weren&rsquot helped by Glaber&rsquos blundering leadership. Instead of attacking Spartacus, Glaber blocked off the main route to the volcano in an attempt to starve the slaves. The rebels spotted a gap in the Roman blockade and created vines to climb down. The slaves surrounded the Roman camp and took them completely by surprise. The Romans were annihilated, and the rebels took the camp. This success led to further recruitment as shepherds and herdsmen from the surrounding area flocked to the cause. Spartacus found it easy to grow his army the countryside was filled with poorly protected towns that had a lot of slaves. As Spartacus insisted on sharing the spoils equally, fugitive slaves took up arms in their thousands.

Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History and Culture) (Book)

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Spartacus and the slave wars :a brief history with documents

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First Sicilian Revolt of Enslaved Persons

One leader of the revolt in 135 B.C. was a freeborn enslaved person named Eunus, who adopted a name familiar from the region of his birth—Syria. Styling himself "King Antiochus," Eunus was reputed to be a magician and led those enslaved in the eastern section of Sicily. His followers wielded farm implements until they could capture decent Roman weapons. At the same time, in the western part of Sicily, a manager or vilicus named Kleon, also credited with religious and mystical powers, gathered troops under him. It was only when a slow-moving Roman senate dispatched the Roman army, that it was able to end the long war with those enslaved. The Roman consul who succeeded against those enslaved was Publius Rupilius.

By the 1st century B.C., roughly 20 percent of the people in Italy were enslaved—mostly in agricultural and rural, according to Barry Strauss. The sources for such a large number of enslaved people were military conquest, traders, and pirates who were particularly active in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean from c. 100 B.C.

Third Servile War

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Third Servile War, also called Gladiator War and Spartacus Revolt, (73–71 bce ) slave rebellion against Rome led by the gladiator Spartacus.

Spartacus was a Thracian who had served in the Roman army but seems to have deserted. He was captured and subsequently sold as a slave. Destined for the arena, in 73 bce he, with a band of his fellow gladiators, broke out of a training school at Capua and took refuge on Mt. Vesuvius. Here he maintained himself as a captain of brigands, and he recruited as his lieutenants two Celts named Crixus and Oenomaus, who like himself had been gladiators. Other escaped slaves soon joined the band, and the Romans moved to eliminate the growing threat.

A hastily collected force of 3,000 men under either Claudius Pulcher or Claudius Glaber (sources vary) endeavoured to starve out the rebels. In an audacious move, Spartacus’s forces clambered down the precipices and put the Romans to flight. Groups of hardy and desperate men now joined the rebels, and when the praetor Publius Varinius took the field against them he found them entrenched like a regular army on the plain. Before the Romans could act, the rebels slipped away, and when Varinius advanced to storm their lines he found them deserted. From Campania the rebels marched into Lucania, a region that had opposed Rome in several significant conflicts, most recently the Social War (90–88 bce ). The country there was also better suited for the kind of guerrilla warfare tactics that favoured Spartacus and his band. Varinius followed, but was defeated in several engagements and narrowly escaped being taken prisoner. The insurgents reoccupied Campania, and with the defeat of Gaius Thoranius, the quaestor of Varinius, they obtained possession of nearly the whole of southern Italy. The cities of Nola and Nuceria in Campania were sacked, as were Thurii and Metapontum in Lucania. The Senate at last despatched both consuls against the rebels (72 bce ). The historian Appian suggests that at this point, Spartacus’s army numbered some 70,000 men.

A force of escaped German slaves under Crixus was soundly beaten at Mt. Garganus in Apulia by the praetor Quintus Arrius, but this defeat did little to check the revolt. According to Plutarch, Spartacus, with the main body of his army, defeated the consul Lentulus and then pressed towards the Alps. A force of some 10,000 men under Gaius Cassius, governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and the praetor Gnaeus Manlius was defeated at Mutina. Freedom was within sight, and Plutarch characterized Spartacus as holding realistic views about his army’s chances of defeating a fully mobilized Rome. Rather than crossing the Alps and returning home, however, Spartacus marched towards Rome itself. Instead of attacking the capital, he passed on again into Lucania.

The conduct of the war was now entrusted to the praetor Marcus Licinius Crassus. Upon taking command, Crassus is said to have carried out a decimation of the consular armies that had taken the field against Spartacus in an attempt to restore order one in ten of the men were selected by lot and killed. Spartacus defeated two legions under Crassus’s legate Mummius and withdrew towards the strait of Messina. There he intended to cross to Sicily, where the first two Servile Wars ( 135–132 bce and 104–99 bce ) had been fought. Spartacus hoped to reignite these rebellions and to bolster his forces by recruiting freed slaves to his cause. The pirates who had agreed to transport his army proved untrustworthy, however, and Spartacus quickly found himself trapped in Bruttium (modern Calabria). While Spartacus was attempting to carry his rebellion to Sicily, Crassus endeavoured to end the war by effectively besieging the entire “toe” of Italy. In short order, he erected an impressive ditch and rampart fortification system that stretched some 40 miles (60 km) across the neck of the peninsula, Denied both the ability to maneuver his army and ready access to fresh supplies, Spartacus saw that his situation was desperate. Under the cover of darkness and in the middle of a snowstorm, Spartacus’s army bridged the 15-foot- (5-metre-) wide ditch, scaled the wall, and forced the Roman lines. Once more southern Italy lay open to Spartacus, but disunion had gripped the rebel army. A force of Gauls and Germans, who had withdrawn from the main body and encamped some distance away, were attacked and destroyed by Crassus.

Crassus was now compelled to bring the war to a close on his terms and on an accelerated timeline. He had prevailed upon the Senate to reinforce his campaign by recalling Lucius Licinius Lucullus from Thrace and Pompey from Spain, but quickly realized the danger of such a move. Pompey was already a formidable force in the capital, and he had just completed the Roman reconquest of Spain by crushing a rebellion under Quintus Sertorius. By affording Pompey the opportunity to return to Italy with an army at his back, all the glory for defeating Spartacus would almost certainly accrue to him and not to Crassus. In Appian’s account, Spartacus acknowledged this rivalry in the Roman command and attempted to make a separate peace with Crassus, but his terms were rejected.

Spartacus took up a strong position in the mountainous country of Petelia (near Strongoli in modern Calabria) and inflicted a severe defeat on the vanguard of the pursuing Romans. His men, their confidence bolstered by this small victory, refused to retreat farther. Anticipating the decisive battle to come, Spartacus is said to have slain his horse, stating that if his army carried the day, he would have his choice from among the fine horses of the Romans, and if he lost, he would no longer have need of a mount. In the pitched battle which followed, the rebel army was annihilated and Spartacus was killed in combat. A small body of rebels escaped from the field, but they were met and cut to pieces at the foot of the Alps by Pompey. The remnants of the rebel army were captured, and thousands were crucified along the Appian Way as a warning to those who would rise against Rome. As Crassus had feared, Pompey claimed the credit of finishing the war, and received the honour of a triumph, while only a simple ovation was decreed to Crassus. Both men were jointly elected consuls in recognition of their victory.

Spartacus was a capable and energetic leader, and he did his best to check the excesses of the men he commanded. He is also said to have treated his prisoners with humanity. His character was often misrepresented by contemporary Roman writers, who invoked his name as a source of terror through the age of the Empire.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.


Spartacus: leader of an army of runaway slaves that shook Italy in 73-71 BCE. He was defeated by the Roman general Crassus.

Italian slavery

The Roman economy was based on agriculture and war. For centuries, a Roman citizen was a peasant and a soldier. During the Second Punic war (218-202 against the Carthaginian general Hannibal), this started to change. The Romans had to fight their wars overseas: in Hispania, and, after 200, Greece and Macedonia. Often, the soldiers had to stay abroad for a long time, and it often happened that on their return, they found that their farms had gone bankrupt. Under these circumstances, there was only one solution: sell the farm and move from the country to the city.

The Italian cities were rapidly growing, and the countryside also changed.Slowly, the small farms were replaced by large plantations (often called latifundia), where the work was done by slaves, who could not be recruited for military service. The Greek historian Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) describes the results:

In this way, the countryside became crowded with slaves: usually prisoners of war, but often simply bought from slave traders, who bought them from pirates. (A modern estimate: there were two million slaves on an Italian population of six million.) Strong captives were sometimes forced to fight as gladiators in the arena. The ancients really loved this bloody spectacle, something we could expect from the bellicose Romans (although gladiatorial contests were just as popular in the Greek world).


One of those was Spartacus, the leader of a rebellion of gladiators and slaves that escalated to a full-scale war in the years 73-70. We have two main sources: Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122) describes this war in his Life of Crassus (text), and one generation later, Appian told the story in his History of the Civil wars (text). Both accounts describe more or less the same events in exactly the same sequence, and it is tempting to see the same source behind their stories, probably the Histories of Sallust or (less likely) Livy's History of Rome from its Foundation. It seems that Appian has abridged his account, whereas Plutarch has left out several stories about Spartacus' cruelty.


In 73, seventy-eight gladiators managed to escape from the fighting school of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. According to Plutarch, they were only armed with choppers and spits, which they had found in a kitchen. However, they soon discovered a transport of gladiatorial weapons. From now on, they were heavily armed, and they occupied a mountain.

Appian informs us that this was the Vesuvius, and that the gladiators elected three leaders: Spartacus, Oenomaus and Crixus. Probably, they represented ethnic groups: a Thracian, a Greek, and a German. According to Plutarch,

This last remark is a well-known cliché from ancient literature. Any non-Greek/Roman who had done something special, was said to be more intelligent than other barbarians. Other sources say that Spartacus could have so much success because he had once fought in the Roman auxiliaries.

Already at this stage of the revolt, runaway slaves, shepherds, and herdsmen must have joined the band of gladiators (our sources mention this at a later stage). We have to assume this, because otherwise, it is impossible to explain how the gladiators were able to overcome a militia sent by the Capuan authorities to deal with the runaways. The only result was that the gladiators now had real arms. Their numbers quickly swelled, because, as Appian tells us, Spartacus "divided the spoils in equal shares".

Glaber's expedition

The central government at Rome now had to intervene, and it sent the propraetor Gaius Claudius Glaber with an army of 3,000 hastily conscripted and untrained soldiers. Perhaps this was an underestimation of the power of the gladiators on the Vesuvius, but it is more likely that Rome was unable to send a stronger force. The empire was involved in two large wars: general Pompey was fighting against Sertorius in Hispania and his colleague Lucullus against king Mithridates VI of Pontus in the east. The city itself was restless because, due to these wars, grain had become scarce.

Although he had a small and untrained army, Claudius came close to success. He isolated the gladiators on a hill-top which was covered with vines, and it looked as if they were chanceless. However, the besieged made ladders from the branches of the vines, descended from the hill during the night, and managed to get behind the enemy lines. The Romans panicked and fled, and their camp was looted by the gladiators. They could start to give weapons to the runaway slaves who had joined them.

Varinius' expedition

"Rome" launched a second expedition against the gladiators, this time commanded by the praetor Publius Varinius. For reasons that are unknown to us, he divided his forces, and the divisions were easily defeated by the army of the gladiators. Varinius himself was humiliated: he lost the very horse that he rode, his lictors were taken prisoner, and Spartacus paraded their fasces through his camp.

The Roman author Publius Annius Florus, who published an Epitome of the great History of Rome from its Foundation of Livy, mentions that the army of gladiators and slaves "laid waste Nola, Nuceria, Thurii and Metapontum with terrible destruction" (text). These towns are all situated in the southern half of Italy. The shepherds of this region, real cowboys, joined the army of Spartacus. From now on, he could also employ cavalry.

The consular expedition

Next year, the Senate understood that this war was serious. According to Appian, Spartacus now commanded some 70,000 people, and although we do not know how he obtained this figure, we can be sure that the wealthy land-owners in the Senate understood that their slaves could also run away. Therefore, the senators ordered both consuls, Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus, to proceed against the bands of Spartacus.

According to Appian of Alexandria, Spartacus had used the winter to manufacture weapons. His army must have controlled the countryside of the entire Campania. It was his plan to cross the Apennines and move to the north, where his people could return to their homelands in Gaul, Germania, or the Balkans. It would be difficult to lead 70,000 people out of Italy, and it was necessary to march in separated columns.

This offered an opportunity to the Romans. In the spring of 72, consul Lucius Gellius Publicola unexpectedly attacked a division that is called "the German contingent" by Plutarch of Chaeronea, and "the force of Crixus" by Appian. The latter states that Crixus lost two-thirds of his 3,000 men in a battle, which took place in the neighborhood of modern Foggia. At the same time, consul Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus intercepted the main force of Spartacus' army somewhere in the Apennines. It was his task to wait for his colleague, so that their enemy would be under attack from two sides. But Spartacus defeated both armies separately, took their equipment, and continued his march to the Adriatic Sea.

At this point, there is a remarkable difference between the accounts of Plutarch and Appian. Plutarch tells how Spartacus "pushed on towards the Alps", Appian adds another detail.

It is likely that Plutarch ignored this cruel story because it did not suit in his description of Spartacus as "intelligent and cultured, being more like a Greek than a Thracian". The story is also told by Publius Annius Florus (and, in a slightly different form, the Christian author Orosius):

The two consuls were not defeated yet. They marched their armies back to Rome, briefly pursued by Spartacus, who may have wanted to create panic. But it was not his intention to march on Rome, and he brought his army to the Adriatic, continuing his march to the Alps. The consuls understood what was going on and the legions marched to the Adriatic as well. There were several excellent roads, and they arrived there first. Somewhere south of Ancona, the two armies fought again, and again Spartacus was victorious.

No escape

The gladiators and slaves now could escape, but there was one last obstacle: the army of Gallia Cisalpina, the Roman province along the river Po. At Modena, governor Gaius Cassius Longinus and his provincial army were defeated.

And now, something strange happened. Spartacus had reached his aim: his people could cross the Alps and go back to their homelands in Gaul, Germany, and the Balkans. And yet, this is not what happened. Instead, the enormous army turned south. Plutarch offers a lame excuse:

This is not incredible. In this age, the Roman legions were armies of pillager: the Social War, Sulla's first march on Rome, the First Mithridatic War, the first Civil War, and the conflicts after the death of Sulla all had resulted in terrible looting. The slaves simply did what the Romans did. However, it is likely that some refugees did not join this march, and did in fact cross the Alps and return to their homes.

Crassus commander

Meanwhile, in Rome, the consuls were told to return to civilian life, and a new commander was chosen for the war: Marcus Licinius Crassus. The remains of two consular legions seem to have remained in the neighborhood of Ancona, and Crassus ordered their commander, Mummius, to join him further to the south. He was not to make contact with the enemy. However, Mummius believed that he saw a good opportunity, offered battle and was defeated. Crassus was angry, and punished the defeated soldiers harshly. They were to be decimated: every tenth soldier was to be killed by his comrades. The result was that the Roman soldiers learned that they had more to fear from their commander than from the runaways, and discipline was restored.

In the winter of 72/71, Spartacus arrived in Bruttium, the "toe" of Italy, and captured Thurii. (It was the only time he settled his people in a town.) This time, his intention was to conquer Sicily. There had been several major rebellions of slaves on the island: between 135 and 132, a Syrian slave named Eunus had ruled as a king, and more recently, in 104, a certain Salvius had been able to do the same, calling himself Tryphon. When he had died, his revolt had been continued by a man named Athenio it had lasted until 101.

Spartacus may have had the same plan, or an even better one, because he collaborated with the Cilician pirates. To them, a base on Sicily would be a great asset, because the Romans had not much naval experience and the Cilicians could loot and plunder the Italian coast without meeting opposition.


But apparently, something went wrong, because the Cilicians did not appear. Who did appear, was Crassus, and he ordered his men to build a large wall across Bruttium, from the Tyrrhenian to the Ionian Sea. It was sixty kilometers long, but his army consisted of eight legions or 32,000 men, and the job was done quickly. Spartacus was trapped.

A first attack of the gladiators was repulsed without difficulty: the Romans lost three men and killed 6,000 enemies (or so it was said). Now Spartacus decided upon smaller actions, and did his best to improve morale.

At first, Crassus was not in a hurry to attack the gladiators. They were trapped and it was winter, so that their supplies would run out. In the spring, he would attack the hungry runaways. However, the Senate felt that this was not an honorable way to conduct a war, and they called upon Pompey, the Roman general who had been fighting in Hispania and had just concluded the war. This forced Crassus into action. He was lucky, because Spartacus decided upon an attack, and although he managed to break through Crassus' lines, he had only one third of his men with him. The remaining two thirds were an easy target for the legions. Even better still, the gladiators who had broken through the Roman lines, were divided, and Crassus could inflict serious losses on one of the groups. However, Spartacus appeared just in time to prevent the annihilation of this contingent.

From now on, the Romans were superior in numbers. Crassus attacked Spartacus in a full-scale battle. After the defeats of the consular armies, this seemed a dangerous course and fighting was tense. The gladiators knew that they had to win or die, and fought bravely. After all, the death on the battlefield was preferable to crucifixion. But they were defeated. According to Crassus' body-count, 12,300 were killed, and only two of them were wounded in the back. note [In the Periochae of Livy's History, the number is given as 60,000: Periochae 97.2.]

Spartacus now moved to the "toe" of Italy again, to Petelia. He was hunted down by the Romans, but the gladiators were able to defeat two of Crassus' lieutenants, Quintus Marcius Rufus and Gnaeus Tremellius Scrofa. This was their last victory. According to Plutarch

It is likely that the gladiators were not over-confident, but simply wanted one single battle, and find a glorious and quick death.

The final battle

Crassus was only too willing to offer battle, and camped close by the enemy. He cannot really have been surprised when the gladiators suddenly appeared and attacked his army. Fighting was heavy again, but the outcome was never in doubt. The remaining 35,000 rebels were defeated and the Romans recovered five legionary eagle-standards, twenty-six other standards, and five fasces. Spartacus' body was never found.

This was the end of the war. There were still many fugitives in the mountains of Bruttium, and they organized themselves into four groups. This is the ultimate tribute to Spartacus' genius as an organizer: even after his death, his men were able to continue a disciplined struggle. However, they were eventually defeated, some by Pompey, others by Crassus.

Six thousand gladiators were captured alive. They were crucified along the Via Appia, the road between Rome and Capua. For years, travelers were forced to see the crosses: every thirty, forty meters, they saw how a body of a former slaves was rotting away, a prey for the vultures and dogs.


All ancient sources show Spartacus as a criminal and bandit, even worse than the other arch-enemy of Rome, Hannibal. (The exception is Varro, who states that Spartacus was innocently condemned to the arena.) This black image remained unchallenged in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

What was the impact of Spartacus' uprising on Rome?

One of the best-known figures in antiquity was Spartacus. His brilliance as a military tactician and strategist was recognized even by his enemies. He was a gladiator and the last great slave revolt to shake the Roman Empire (73-71 BCE). His uprising was crushed, and Pompey and Crassus's combined armies annihilated both him and his followers. The defeat of Spartacus and his followers was complete, but there is some argument over the legacy of the slave revolt. To many ancient historians, the rebellion of 73-71 BCE was a complete failure.

Howe, despite the military defeat of Spartacus, some believe that his revolt changed the Roman Empire. It led to the rise of Crassus and the devastation of much of southern Italy. This article will argue that Spartacus’ rebellion succeeded in changing the Romans' perception of slaves that led to improvements in the lives and status of slaves and a move away from slavery, especially in landed estates.


Slavery was widespread in the Roman world. It seems that a significant proportion of the population were slaves. The institution of slavery had legal status in Roman law, and any slave was their owner's property. The owners had immense power over their ‘property’ and controlled life and death over them. Their masters exploited slaves in every conceivable way, but many slaves were also released by their masters and became freedmen. The role of slaves varied in Roman society, and they worked as domestic servants, agricultural workers, miners, and even artisans. Many slaves were educated and worked as administrators or as teachers. Their numbers had greatly expanded during the 2nd and 1st-century BCE. [1]

The number of slaves grew as Rome conquered various kingdoms in the Mediterranean. Rome often took slaves from the armies that they conquered. These wars led to an increase in the number of slaves in Rome and Italy. Large numbers of them worked on large landed estates as agricultural laborers. There were significant populations of slaves in the South of Italy and Sicily. [2]

Because of their large numbers, the Romans also used many of them as gladiators. The Romans ensured the obedience of their slaves with brutal and draconian measures. However, these measures failed to prevent two Servile Wars in Sicily in 135 BC and140 BC. This war involved thousands of escaped slaves who fought the Romans and devastated large areas of the Sicilian countryside [3] .

Third Servile War

Spartacus was a Thracian, and he had once fought with the Romans. According to Plutarch, he was enslaved by them after he had deserted. He was trained as a gladiator but due to his strength and combat skater.

In 73BC, he plotted an escape from his gladiatorial school near Capua in southern Italy. He was joined in the conspiracy by up to 100 other gladiators. [4]

The plot was discovered, and only 50 of the gladiators escaped. The escapees elected Spartacus and Crixus a Gaul as their leaders. [5] Spartacus emerged as the leader of the slaves, but other commanders were essential to the revolt. Spartacus and his men established a camp on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in the south of Italy. [6]

The Romans sent two armed expeditions to subdue the ex-gladiators and end the rebellion. The ex-gladiators who by now have been joined by other escaped slaves were a formidable force. Under the leadership of Spartacus, they managed to defeat both Roman expeditions. The rebels were fortunate because many Roman legions were engaged in the war against Mithridates. [7] Their success against the two Roman forces led to even more slaves joining their ranks.

There is some speculation that the slaves split into two groups, one commanded by Spartacus and the other by Crixus. In 72 BCE, the slaves defeated a force of praetorian guards under the command of two consuls. This defeat caused panic in Rome, and many expected Spartacus to march on the city.

Instead, Spartacus marched to the south to search for loot. When they did march towards Roman again, they defeated another Roman force. Crassus, one of Rome's leading figures and probably the richest, offered his service to the Senate. He raised several legions and advanced upon Spartacus and his rebel army. [8]

Crassus was a shrewd tactician, and he engaged the slaves in several small encounters, which he won. He forces Spartacus to retreat further south, into the ‘Toe’ of Italy. By 71 BC, the former were encamped by the Strait of Messina. Plutarch states that Spartacus planned to ferry his army to Sicily. However, he was unable to secure the necessary ships. [9]

Spartacus ordered his army to turn back north, but as they made their way, Crassus and his legions met them. The Romans had built a series of fortifications, and they had effectively confined Spartacus to a small area with dwindling supplies. [10]

Spartacus tried to reach an agreement with the Romans, but Crassus was eager for battle. At the same time, Pompey was also approaching with his legions. Crassus ordered a general attack, and after fierce fighting, the army of Spartacus broke and fled. The army's remnants made a last stand at the River Sele. [11] Crassus attacked the slaves and demolished them. It is believed that Spartacus died in this battle. The Romans later crucified some ‘six thousand slaves on the main road to Rome.’ [12] This was to deter future slave revolts. Pompey the Great mopped up some of the stragglers from the battle and tried to claim the credit for Spartacus' defeat. [13]

The rise of Crassus

The defeat of Spartacus was largely a result of the leadership of Crassus. His strategy was to contain Spartacus and then weaken him by defeating elements of his army. He could restrict the Thracian and his forces to a small area before forcing them into a decisive battle. Unlike other Roman commanders, he did not underestimate the Thracian, and this was essential. [14]

In the aftermath of the defeat and death of Spartacus, the leadership of Crassus was widely praised. Previously, Crassus had been influential in Roman public life on account of his vast wealth. [15] After his role in Spartacus' defeat, many hailed him as Rome's savior and became famous.

This popularity allowed him to become consul and later establish the First Triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey. The First Triumvirate was a political arrangement that dominated Rome for several years and was a crucial step in the fall of the Roman Republic. [16]

Impact on Rome

As it was known at the time, the Third Servile War was the largest slave revolt in the ancient world. It seemed at one time that Spartacus could bring the Roman Republic to its knees. The war devastated much of southern Italy, and many towns and landed estates were destroyed. Many slaves had been freed or escaped, and many local herdsmen had joined the rebellion.

It took many years for the South of Italy to recover, and banditry became endemic. Even if it was defeated, the revolt by Spartacus possibly helped to undermine the system of landed estates that had dominated much of the Italian countryside. [17] In the wake of the revolt, many landowners in the south of Italy were bankrupt or had their properties destroyed. The latifunda system, as it was known in the south of Italy, was undermined. It appears that in the wake of the revolt that many landlords adopted a new strategy. [18]

The years after Spartacus coincided with a sharp fall in the slave population. Instead of using slaves, landowners instead rented out portions of their land and received rent and a share of the crops grown in return. This was a system that was similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe. While many estates used slave labor, they gradually reduced the number of slaves. Spartacus's revolt had shaken the Roman elite's confidence that they turned to new strategies for controlling their labor. Spartacus and his men had shown that slaves made an unreliable and even dangerous labor force. [19]

They were rebellious at the best of times, and parties searching for escaped slaves were a common sight in many Italian districts. This persuaded the elite to move away from slave labor, which led to the emergence of a semi-feudal system in many Italian areas. This may have led to an overall fall in the number of slaves grown dramatically in the previous decades. It should be noted that some historians disagree with this assessment. However, the revolt of Spartacus did not undermine the institution of slavery, and it continued to flourish until the fall of Rome. [20]

Perceptions of Slavery

Spartacus's revolt changed the way that the Romans viewed slavery. There is certainly a great deal of respect and even admiration for the Thracian in Roman histories. Plutarch stated that Spartacus was a gifted leader and general and compared him favorably to the Roman generals he faced. Some later writers argued that the revolt of Spartacus led to long-term shifts in Roman society's view of slavery.

After the end of the Third Servile War, there were no more great slave revolts. It has been argued that the revolt of 73-71 BC so shook the Roman elite that they adopted a new view of slaves. They were more inclined to see them as beings endowed with reason and a soul. [21]

With Spartacus, they encountered someone with all the virtues that they admired in men. It is impossible to state with any degree of certainty if Spartacus changed the Roman elite’s views of their slaves. However, it is undeniable that the revolt by Spartacus was the last of the great Servile Wars. [22] Rome avoided future wars even though many more slaves were imported into Rome from Gaul and elsewhere in the following decades.

There is a real possibility that the Thracian gladiator's success and his many victories so impressed the Romans that they adopted a new strategy to prevent future insurrections. There was a conscious effort by the elite to treat their slaves in a more humane way to prevent a repeat of the Spartacus revolt. [23]


The revolt by Spartacus is one of the most well-known events in the ancient world. It was in many ways a decisive defeat, and slavery remained very common in its aftermath. However, the revolt was significant in the history of Rome. It led to instability and economic contraction in southern Italy and politics. It led to the rise of Crassus. The revolt may have even managed to change the way that masters treated their slaves.

The revolt demonstrated that slaves could be dangerous, and Spartacus showed that they could be the Romans' equals. Some elite members were encouraged to treat their slaves with more compassion to prevent another slave insurrection.

The revolt of 73-71 BCE may even have led in the longer-term to changes in the legal system that gave some rights to slaves. The devastation caused by the ex-slaves and gladiators in southern Italy led to a temporary slave shortage. This led to a move away from slave labor on landed estates to an early form of feudalism. The significance of this was that it might have reduced the slave numbers in many regions.

Featured Article About Spartacus From HistoryNet Magazines

Rome trembled at the grave rumors in 73 BC that the city was about to be attacked by a rabble army of gladiators and rebelling slaves. The vaunted Roman legions had been defeated, their noble standards captured. News of atrocities against slaveholding landowners dominated conversation in Rome’s marketplaces and public buildings. The very name of the slave rebellion’s leader, Spartacus, generated terror.

Slave insurrections were not really new to Rome. Extreme cruelty to slaves had sparked a revolt on the island of Sicily in 135 BC. More than 70,000 slaves had taken up arms and effectively battled local militia until a Roman army triumphed over the rebels two years later. A second servile war erupted on the island in 104 BC, when 40,000 slaves rampaged through its farmlands. After four years of bloody fighting, the last remnants of that rebel horde were captured by Roman consul Manius Aquillius and shipped to Rome to fight wild beasts in the arena.

But those revolts had been in far-off Sicily. The new insurrection threatened Rome itself, a city where a great percentage of the inhabitants were slaves. To make matters worse, several legions had already been demolished by the slave army.

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Forming the nucleus of the threat were gladiators—prisoners of war, convicts and slaves specially trained to fight and kill one another as entertainment for crowds packing amphitheaters throughout Latin lands. Notoriously tough and highly skilled, the gladiators surging toward Rome had little to lose. Facing death in the arena on an almost daily basis, these warrior-slaves felt their only key to freedom lay in crushing Rome itself.

Combats between trained warriors had first surfaced to commemorate funerals during the First Punic War in 264 BC. In 174 BC, 74 gladiators fought each other during a three-day span as part of special funeral ceremonies for wealthy Romans. The first officially sponsored gladiatorial games were held nearly 70 years later, and they were an instant success with the public. As the Roman appetite for blood sports grew, thousands of prisoners captured in Rome’s numerous wars of conquest were trundled off to specially constructed training centers, or schools, to prepare them for the games.

The gladiators took their name from the Latin word gladius, the short sword favored by many of the combatants. Early gladiators were outfitted with an ornately wrought visored helmet, a shield and an armored sleeve worn on the right arm, after the fashion of Samnite warriors defeated by Rome in the late 3rd century BC.

Samnite-style gladiators relied on their swords. Other gladiator styles evolved from the national themes of the lands conquered by Rome. Thracian-style gladiators, for instance, carried a sica—a curved, short-bladed scimitar—and a round buckler. Gaul-style gladiators wielded long swords and rectangular or oval shields. Another gladiator type, more exotically accoutered and called retiarius, fought with a trident, a dagger and a fishing net strung to the wrist by a thong and designed to ensnare an opponent and draw him into harpooning range.

Pairing the warriors was done by drawing lots. Mercy was rarely offered in the arena, with crowds often controlling the immediate fortunes of a wounded gladiator by signaling or calling for life or death. While several noted Roman writers applauded the games as invigorating spectacles, the writer-philosopher Seneca abhorred them, commenting: “I come home more greedy, more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings….Man, a sacred thing to man, is killed for sport and merriment.”

A number of gladiator training schools sprang up throughout Italy, concentrated near the town of Capua, north of present-day Naples. At such schools, gladiators received training in a variety of weapons, though they usually specialized in one. Diets were carefully observed, and a strict exercise regimen was maintained. Discipline and punishment were harsh.

It may have been pure brutality that convinced 78 gladiators to rebel at the school of Lentulus Batiatus, near Capua, in 73 bc. The gladiators, who had been severely mistreated, sallied from their quarters and overpowered their guards with cleavers and spits seized from some kitchen, reported Roman historian Plutarch. After scrambling over the school’s walls, the slaves were fortunate to find a wagon transporting gladiators’ weapons to another city. Armed with these familiar–if not military-issue–weapons, the little band had suddenly become a dangerous fighting force.

Masterminding the revolt, according to the sources, was Spartacus, a Thracian by birth who may even have once served as an auxiliary in the Roman army before being sold into slavery. Sharing command were two Gauls: Crixus and Oenamus. The triumvirate raided the countryside, terrorizing landowners in the lush Campania farming district. Field hands and house slaves, many armed with farm tools and kitchen utensils, declared their own freedom by joining the gladiators.

As word of the insurrection spread, Spartacus led his force up the slopes of the dormant volcano Vesuvius. Close on his heels was a hastily assembled army of 3,000 militia under the command of Clodius Glaber. Poorly trained and untested, the militia was usually sent to control riots or outbreaks of brigandage, while the solid legions of the regular army were used primarily in foreign conquests.

Glaber deployed his troops at the base of Vesuvius and blocked the sole road leading to its crest. In his mind, the gladiators were effectively cut off from the plains and could be starved into submission. Not about to be besieged, however, Spartacus ordered his men to hack the abundant vines growing near the crest and fashion them into crude ladders. After sunset, the slaves descended on their ladders and fell upon the few sentries Glaber had bothered to post. In minutes, the gladiators were slashing their way through the slumbering Roman camp, routing the militia and seizing valuable stocks of military arms and armor.

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Two legions of militia under the command of the praetor Publius Varinius then were dispatched from Rome to track the insurgents and bring them to justice. Unknown to the Romans, the gladiators’ army had swollen to nearly 40,000, including bands of shepherds who were familiar with the countryside and acted as scouts. Lacking knowledge of the terrain, Varinius was further hampered by disease brought on by damp autumn weather, as well as an outbreak of insubordination among his own troops. Perhaps even worse was his own refusal to consider the slaves a serious fighting force.

Spartacus was determined to crush the Romans. Near Vesuvius, he surprised an advance column of 2,000 men under Varinius’ lieutenant Furius and annihilated it. Using his scouts to good advantage, the gladiator discovered another party of Romans under Cossinius at a camp and bath near Herculaneum. In a swirling battle, Spartacus nearly captured Cossinius, then pursued him as he fled. The Roman and the remnants of his column were brought to bay and slaughtered.

Slipping southward, Spartacus’ army continued to grow. Varinius trailed him into Lucania, where he suddenly found the rebels deployed in battle formation. The insubordination that had plagued Varinius earlier now flared up once more. Some soldiers refused to advance, while others fled. The Roman praetor (a magistrate next below the rank of consul) continued his attack but was badly mauled. Varinius escaped, though his horse and his official standards and insignia were seized, adding to the Roman humiliation. Captured legionaries were forced to fight each other as gladiators or were crucified, just as some Romans crucified captured slaves.

Spartacus and his army marched north, reoccupying Campania and destroying a Roman corps under Gaius Thoranius that had been left there by Varinius to restore order. Spartacus undoubtedly realized that his ragtag force had been lucky so far. It had defeated several Roman forces, but the rebels had not yet faced the rugged veterans of wars in Spain, Gaul and Germany. The Thracian advocated marching his horde to the Alps to escape from Rome’s long reach. Unfortunately for the slaves, another faction, this one led by the Gaul Crixus, was full of confidence after helping to crush the Roman militia and argued that Rome itself should be attacked. Taking as many as 30,000 men, including a contingent of German and Gallic gladiators, Crixus broke with Spartacus to plunder neighboring villages and towns.

No longer considering the gladiator uprising as a mere outbreak of brigandage, the Roman senate decided to send two more armies against the slaves in the spring of 72 bc. Commanded by the consuls Lucius Gellius and Gnaeus Lentulus, four Roman legions took to the field. It was relatively easy to follow the trail left by Crixus and his band as they levied tribute in the Apulia region at the heel of the Italian peninsula. Gellius sent two legions under his praetor Quintus Arrius to hem in the gladiators against the coast. Surprised by the Romans near Mount Garganus, Crixus found himself surrounded. Despite furious fighting, the Gaul and two-thirds of his army were cut down.

Spartacus, meantime, had made good use of his winter respite while camped in the Appenines. His men scoured the area, raiding estates and towns, particularly in search of horses. The slave leader hoped to build and train a cavalry unit to be his eyes as his rabble marched toward the Alps. Towns such as Consentia and Metapontum were stormed, their newly released slaves joining ranks with Spartacus and swelling the army to more than 70,000. Any freed slaves capable of bearing arms received rudimentary training.

In the spring of 72 bc, the gladiator army trekked northward, pursued by the consuls and their legions. In three separate engagements, Spartacus first defeated Lentulus, who had attempted to surround the slaves, and then both Gellius and the praetor Arrius, who had recently slain Crixus and his Gauls. At Mutina in the Cisalpine Gaul region of northern Italy, the governor, Caius Cassius, futilely attempted to stem the slaves’ trek with an army of 10,000 men. Spartacus’ horde collapsed Cassius’ center, slaying many of the legionaries, and Cassius barely escaped with his life. To appease the ghost of Crixus, 300 Romans were sacrificed or forced to fight each other as gladiators.

With Cassius’ army demolished, the path to freedom over the Alps now lay clear. Surprisingly, Spartacus chose to lead his slaves back into Italy. Perhaps a contingent of his gladiators preferred looting the peninsula as Crixus had, and Spartacus may have feared that a further division of his force could be disastrous if Roman legions pursued them and forced them into battle. He may have even entertained the idea of raiding Rome, the source of enslavement of so many peoples. For whatever reasons, the Thracian led his mob southward.

Rome was beside itself with anxiety. The gladiator army was estimated at between 75,000 and 125,000. With the losses of the various legions, the city was short of available troops and able commanders. The most experienced generals, such as Quintus Metellus and Gnaeus Pompey, were stationed with their battle-hardened legions in rebellious Spain, while Lucius Lucullus kept an eye on troublesome Asia Minor. For the moment, only poorly trained local levies remained to defend Rome.

The Roman senate finally gave supreme military command to the praetor Marcus Crassus, the only man who offered to take the post. A multimillionaire, Crassus had built his fortune through astute real estate deals. More important, he had gained valuable experience while serving under the command of the great Roman general Sulla, who died in 78 bc.

Crassus inherited the remnants of the legions of Publius Varinius that had fled the battlefield in their earlier disastrous engagement with the gladiators, in addition to several newly raised legions.

News then reached the Romans that Spartacus was marching through Picenum, along Italy’s central Adriatic coast. Crassus ordered his lieutenant Mummius to lead two of the new legions in a circle behind the slave rabble, but, as Plutarch notes, not to join battle nor even skirmish with them. Unfortunately for Crassus, Mummius unwisely attacked the gladiators from the rear, obviously thinking that he would have the advantage of surprise. In the ensuing melee, many of the legionaries were slain, and hundreds of others broke rank and fled.

Crassus was livid with anger. Assembling the shattered remains of Mummius’ legions, he ordered 500 men accused of cowardice to be divided into 50 groups of 10 each. Lots were drawn in each group, with one unlucky soldier chosen for execution. The entire army was forced to witness the deaths of their comrades as warning to any others who considered disobedience.

With discipline re-established, the new general proceeded to retrain and rearm his troops. Each soldier became proficient in the use of the short-bladed gladius, ideal for either thrusting or slashing. In addition, the Roman levies were drilled in the use of the pilum, an iron-headed spear whose metal neck, extending to a wooden shaft, would snap downward after hitting an object to prevent its being thrown back by an enemy. The legions were also divided into regiments, called cohorts, of 480 men each and were instructed how to maneuver on the field of battle. A complete legion stood ready for action with roughly 5,000 men.

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With eight new legions under his command, Crassus pursued Spartacus the length of Italy, getting the best of him in a running battle in the Lucania region in the south. Stung, the gladiator army limped through Bruttium on the toe of the Italian peninsula, finally reaching the coastal city of Rhegium across the Strait of Messina from Sicily. Spartacus managed to contact Sicilian pirates, paying them handsomely from gold and treasure looted from countless estates to ferry thousands of his men to Sicily, where he hoped to rekindle the slave rebellion that had erupted there barely a generation earlier. The pirates, however, deceived the rebels. They accepted the payment but failed to take their fleet to the approved rendezvous. For the moment, the gladiator army was literally left high and dry on the Bruttium peninsula.

Crassus, in the meantime, realized he had the slaves trapped. Rather than face the cornered gladiators in a pitched battle, he ordered his legions to construct a wall completely across the peninsula to hem in the enemy and starve them into submission. The legionaries excavated a ditch 15 feet deep and wide across the 32-mile distance, then fashioned a wood and stone wall along one edge of the ditch.

Spartacus, for a time, ignored the Roman wall. He desperately searched for some other means to transport his army but could not devise one. With winter setting in and supplies running low, he determined his only recourse was to smash through the barricade across the peninsula. The Thracian waited for a snowy night and a wintery storm, noted Plutarch, when he filled up a small portion of the ditch with earth and timber and the boughs of trees, and battered his way through.

With the freed gladiators once more tramping toward Lucania, Rome panicked. The senate authorized the return of Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from his recent wars with Mithridates to bolster the legions of Crassus. Fearing the glory of subduing the gladiators would be won by those political rivals, Crassus redoubled his efforts.

Fortunately for the Romans, the gladiators were once again weakened by internal squabbling. Two more Gauls, Ganicus and Cestus, broke away from the main army to plunder area villages and estates. Encamped at the Lucanian Lake, this splinter band was surprised by Crassus and his legions. With no retreat possible, the gladiators fought with the desperate fury of cornered men. More than 12,000 rebels fell in the battle before Spartacus arrived to rescue the survivors.

Pursued by the Romans, Spartacus led his army to the mountains of Petelia. Several legions under Crassus’ lieutenants Scrophas and Quintus harassed the slaves by making several daring attacks on their rear. Suddenly Spartacus wheeled his force about and fell on the Romans. In the furious battle that followed, Scrophas was wounded, and his legionaries barely managed to drag him to safety. The defeat became a rout, as Romans streamed away by the score.

News reached the slaves that Pompey and Lucullus had been dispatched with their legions and were at that moment marching to put an end to the insurrection. Spartacus advised his followers to continue their retreat through the Petelian heights, but many of his officers advocated heading south to Apulia to reach the seaport of Brundisium on the heel of the Italian peninsula. There, it was hoped, they could capture merchant ships in a desperate escape attempt.

With the legions of his political rivals rapidly approaching, Crassus was determined to bring Spartacus to a decisive battle. His legions hounded the gladiators as they fled southward. Stragglers were rapidly picked off and executed. When word reached him that Lucullus had landed at Brundisium and was marching inland, Crassus knew he had the Thracian at his mercy.

Spartacus found himself trapped between the two armies, with the legions of Pompey still on their way. Drawing his force up to face Crassus, the weaker of the two opponents. Spartacus commanded that his horse should be brought to him. Drawing his sword, the slave leader stabbed the animal to show his men that there would be no further retreat–only victory or death.

Sweeping forward in a wave of humanity, the slaves sought to overwhelm the Romans by sheer numbers. Seeing Crassus through the confusion, Spartacus fought to reach the Roman general. With weapons flying around him, the Thracian nearly reached his goal, slaying two centurions in individual combat before being surrounded by the enemy. Ancient Roman sources agree that although he was severely wounded, he continued to wield his spear and shield until the Romans swarmed over him and a small contingent of bodyguards.

The Roman victory was complete. Almost the entire gladiator army was annihilated, its remnants scattering to the nearby hills. Although Crassus was accorded the victory, his own decimated legions were unable to track down all the fugitives. That dubious honor was left to Pompey, who had recently arrived on the scene. Rebel slaves were hunted without mercy throughout southern Italy, many of them fighting until they were cut down by the legions. More than 6,000 captured slaves, according to Appian, were crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome.

The Spartacus rebellion was the last of the major slave insurrections that Rome would experience. The fear engendered by the revolt, however, would haunt the Roman psyche for centuries to come. During the reign of Nero (54-68 ad), panic erupted when gladiators at Praeneste attempted a breakout. Their army guards overpowered them before the revolt could spread, according to one historian, but the Roman public, as always terrified or fascinated by revolution, were already talking of ancient calamities such as the rising of Spartacus.

Gladiator games, in spite of the dangers posed by strong-willed warriors such as Spartacus, continued to grow in popularity. The Roman public became so thirsty for the spectacle that politicians often sponsored elaborate games to win votes. During the Emperor Trajan’s rule, 4,941 pairs of gladiators saw combat through 117 days of festivities. By the time the games peaked in the 4th century ad, 175 days a year were devoted to the sport.

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Societal changes and the influx of barbarian peoples into the Roman Empire ultimately ended the popularity of the gladiator contests. About 404 ad, the Emperor Honorius banned the games.

This article was written by Kenneth P. Czech and originally appeared in the April 1994 issue of Military History magazine.

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