Spartacus (ca. 109-71 B.C.)Spartacus (ca. 109-71 B.C.) - Slavery was a standard institution in the ancient world. Even Athens, perhaps the most enlightened ancient society on earth, had slaves. Human beings were simply considered part of the spoils of war. When two nations came into conflict, it was standard practice for the victors to kill the adult males (who were considered too strong-willed to turn into servants), and enslave the women and children. Male children could be raised to believe that slavery was their role in life making rebellion much less likely. However, since freedom is a natural yearning of man, slaves could not always be kept in check. And so it was for a Thracian by the name of Spartacus. We don't know much about his early life, so we don't know for sure how he came to be a slave. Some sources say he had been a soldier in the Roman army. If true, the historian, Florus, provides perhaps the most likely explanation as to how he went from soldier to slave. He writes, "one, who from Thracian mercenary, had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a deserter and a robber, and afterward, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator." In Roman society, the one thing that could spare an adult male from execution was being strong enough to fight in gladiatorial games, which Spartacus apparently was. He was being trained at a gladiatorial school near Capua when he, and many of the other slaves plotted to escape.


In 73 B.C., about 78 of them seized kitchen knives and fought their way out of the training school, killing the guards along the way. They found a weapons depot and armed themselves with heavier weapons and armor, then took refuge in the surrounding countryside, plundering and recruiting more slaves as they went. Eventually they made their way to Mt. Vesuvius; a smart move since the volcano was a highly defensible position (this was about a century and a half before it blew up). Once there, they organized themselves into a legitimate fighting force as opposed to a rabble of escaped slaves. Although Spartacus is the most famous member of the group, he was not the only one who was chosen to lead this "slave army." Most of them were from Gaul, and the Gaulish slaves Crixus, Oenomaus, Gannicus and Castus were also chosen for leadership roles, although the exact hierarchy has never been precisely determined. They set off what is known as the Third Servile War which would become the most threatening slave revolt in Rome's history. The previous two were minor in comparison. One thing that made this one so dangerous was its timing. Rome was already involved in wars in both Hispania and Pontus (the Mithridatic War), and its military was stretched very thin.


Initially, Rome did not even regard it as a serious matter and dispatched praetor Gaius Cladius Glaber along with a local militia to deal with the revolt. Rather than attack, Glaber simply camped near the base of Vesuvius and planned to starve the slaves into surrendering. But Spartacus and his men proved to be more resourceful than the Romans expected. They made rope out of plant vines, rappelled down the opposite side of the mountain, snuck around and attacked the Romans from behind; virtually wiping out the militia in the process. A second expedition was equally dismantled, and Spartacus' men acquired valuable arms in the wake of these victories. They also gained momentum. More and more slaves revolted and added to their numbers, and even some poor free citizens joined them. The army swelled to 70,000 and now represented a major threat. It was large enough to split into two forces, one led by Crixus and the other by Spartacus. The exact reason for the split is unclear as the accounts are contradictory. The most accepted explanation is that Spartacus wanted to cross the Alps and leave Roman territory, while Crixus wanted to stay and inflict more punishment.


Rome responded by raising two legions and placing them under consular command. They defeated Crixus near Mt. Garganus in the Spring of 72 B.C., then moved to face Spartacus. The legions divided in two, one blocked the fleeing army's path in the north, and the other pursued from the south. But once again, the Thracian proved to be too tough. Spartacus' likely military experience would have been invaluable and he showed himself to be a brilliant tactician. He stayed ahead of the southern legion by marching non-stop, and faced the northern first. Having defeated it, he then turned back and attacked the army pursuing him, and beat that one too. He topped it off by defeating the regional army stationed in Cisalpine Gaul. It should be noted that, contrary to modern depictions, there is no evidence that Spartacus was a freedom fighter who waged war against Roman slavery. In all likelihood, he was interested solely in self-preservation, and even committed atrocities himself. For example, according to Appian, after defeating the Romans on his march north, he made 300 survivors fight each other to the death in mock gladiatorial games to avenge the death of Crixus.


Now nothing stood between Spartacus and the Alps, and potential freedom. However their success had convinced most of his men that they could beat anything Rome threw at them, and they wanted to stay in Roman territory and keep fighting. Their forces grew to a massive 120,000 and Spartacus himself must have been lured by the prospect wealth and/or glory. For whatever reason, he turned south and headed back into the heart of Roman territory. Rome was through taking chances. Not since the days of Hannibal had its homeland been so threatened. The Senate appointed Marcus Luncinius Crassus (of later First Triumvirate fame) to end this slave revolt once and for all. He raised eight legions and revived the old tradition of decimation (killing every tenth soldier) as a form of discipline and motivation.


With his army ready in early 71 B.C., Crassus moved against Spartacus who had marched south. In their initial engagement, Crassus gained the upper hand and killed some 10,000 men, forcing the remainder of the rebel fighters to retreat further south. Spartacus and his army ended up in Rhegium which is on the very toe of the Italian peninsula. He had planned to pay off a fleet of Cilician pirates to evacuate as many men as possible to Sicily, but it never materialized. Meanwhile, Crassus built a rampart across the toe, trapping Spartacus. Now his army was in dire straights. However, Crassus faced new pressure himself. Pompey, who had been campaigning in Spain, returned in victory. The Senate immediately dispatched him to southern Italy to ensure that Spartacus could not escape. Crassus wanted the credit for ending the slave revolt.


Spartacus (ca. 109-71 B.C.)Things had become desperate in the slave camp and cohesion began to break down. Spartacus' forces broke through Cassius' fortification and attacked his army in chaotic fashion. The disciplined Roman troops cut down the rebel army and thoroughly defeated it. But there were so many slaves, that thousands managed to escape. They didn't get far though. Pompey's army arrived shortly after this battle and managed to hunt down the slaves that got away. Spartacus was killed sometime between the start of the battle and Pompey's arrival, but it's unsure exactly when and the historian Appian states that his body was never identified. Crassus took 6,000 of the surviving slaves and crucified them along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome. As he feared, Pompey claimed partial credit for ending the revolt and received a hero's welcome upon his return to Rome. He conquered Spain and was called upon to assist Crassus in ending a slave revolt. Crassus, for his part, received an ovation in the Senate. It marked the beginning of enmity between the two powerful Romans