Writing about my visit to Italy, Vesuvius, Capua and Rome has reminded me of the story of Spartacus.
Admired by, among others, Karl Marx and Che Guevara, Spartacus was the most famous leader of the Roman slaves in a major uprising against the Republic in the Third Servile War but although the iconic leader of the uprising has become a cult and a legend little is known about him beyond the events of the rebellion and surviving historical accounts of the Roman historians Plutarch and Appian that were written at least a hundred years after his death and are sometimes contradictory.
Contemporary sources all agree that Spartacus was a Thracian, which in ancient times occupied the area on the southwestern fringes of present-day north-eastern Greece and south-western Bulgaria. Plutarch described him as ‘…of Nomadic stock, more Hellenic than Thracian’. Appian provides some more detail and says he was ‘a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been sold for a Gladiator’. Florus described him as one ‘who from Thracian mercenary, had become Roman soldier, deserter and robber, and afterwards gladiator’.
According to the differing sources therefore there are two explanations of how he became a Gladiator. Spartacus was either an auxiliary from the Roman legions later condemned to slavery, or a captive taken in war. Whichever is true, it is generally agreed that Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school near Capua, which became the site of the second largest Roman Amphitheatre after Rome.
In 73 BC, Spartacus was involved in a plan to escape and about seventy men seized improvised weapons, fought their way free and seized several wagons of gladiatorial supplies. They defeated a small force sent after them, plundered the region surrounding Capua, recruited many other slaves into their ranks and eventually encamped on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
The gladiators chose Spartacus and Crixus as their leaders and most probably they lived and fought together as a matter of convenience rather than as a single homogenous unit. Classical historians were divided as to what the motives of Spartacus were, Plutarch believed that he merely wished to escape northwards into Gaul but Appian and Florus wrote that he intended to march on Rome itself. There is no real evidence however that he had any noble ambition or aimed at reforming Roman society or abolishing slavery.
Events in late 73 and early 72 BC suggest independently operating groups of slaves, it seemed that some preferred to plunder Italy rather than escape over the Alps, and modern historians have identified a factional split between those under Spartacus and those under Crixus, who wished to stay in southern Italy to continue raiding and plundering.
The response of the Roman authorities was hindered by the absence of the army, which was fighting a revolt in Iberia. The Romans considered the rebellion a trivial incident and a simple policing matter. Rome dispatched militia under a praetor, which besieged the slaves on the mountain, hoping that starvation would force them to surrender but was outmaneuvered by Spartacus who left the mountain and attacked and defeated the unfortified Roman camp from the rear. The slaves also defeated a second praetorian expedition and with these successes, more and more slaves flocked to the rebel forces increasing their numbers to an estimated seventy thousand.
Spartacus was an excellent tactician and although the slaves lacked formal military training, they displayed ingenuity in their use of available local materials and in imaginative tactics when facing disciplined Roman armies. They spent the winter of 73–72 BC training, arming and equipping new recruits and operating in two groups under Spartacus and Crixus and expanding their area of influence.
In 72 BC, they began to move northwards and at the same time, the Senate, alarmed by the defeat of the praetorian forces, dispatched two consular legions which were initially successful, defeating a group of thirty thousand slaves commanded by Crixus but then were subsequently defeated by Spartacus.
Worried now by the rebellion and a perceived threat to Rome (it was one thing to deal with an uprising in Spain or Germany but this was only a few kilometres from the capital itself) the Senate charged Marcus Crassus with ending the rebellion and he was given command of eight legions, approximately fifty-thousand trained Roman soldiers. Crassus engaged Spartacus in a running battle forcing him farther and farther south as he gradually gained the upper hand and by the end of 72 BC, Spartacus was running out of options and getting trapped against the sea near the Strait of Messina.
If his objective was to cross the Alps it is unclear why he moved south in the first place (perhaps Crixus got the upper hand) but he began to move north again in early 71 BC and Crassus deployed six of his legions on the borders of the region and detached his other two legions to move in behind Spartacus in a pincer movement. Spartacus had some initial success against the legions behind him but after this Crassus’ legions were victorious in several engagements, killing thousands and forcing Spartacus to retreat south once again to the straits near Messina.
Spartacus tried to escape to Sicily but he was betrayed by pirates after having negotiated and paid for a passage for himself and two thousand men and then thwarted by Crassus who took strategic measures to prevent a crossing to Sicily and Spartacus was forced to abandon this plan and retreat further south. Crassus’ legions followed and built fortifications and the rebels found themselves under siege and cut off from their supplies.
At this time the legions of Pompey returned from Spain and were ordered by the Senate to march south to assist. Crassus feared that Pompey’s arrival would rob him of the glory and Spartacus unsuccessfully tried to exploit this and reach an agreement with him but after this failed the rebel army began to disintegrate and flea toward the mountains with the legions in pursuit. When the army caught up discipline among the slave forces broke down as small groups were independently and ineffectively attacking the oncoming legions. With few options, Spartacus turned his forces around and brought his entire remaining strength to bear in a desperate last stand, in which the slaves were completely routed and defeated. The eventual fate of Spartacus himself is unknown, but he is reported by historians to have died in battle along with his men.