On Spartacus: The Legendary Gladiator and Slave Leader
Let me just say this outright – Spartacus is an absolute legend. Few men in history can be considered as brave and courageous as Spartacus was.
Most of us have heard of him thanks to a few popular television series and movies and whatnot. At least that was how I discovered the name of Spartacus, through a television series that aired on Starz. The series dealt with the life of Spartacus as a slave gladiator who eventually inspires and leads a slave uprising.
The series, no doubt, was amazing, and not just me but most of my friends discovered Spartacus through the same series.
For those of you who have not seen any series or movies or documentaries on the man, and have maybe never even heard of him until now, allow me to introduce him in this essay of mine.
So who was Spartacus, this slave who became a legend?
Well, Spartacus was an enslaved Thracian gladiator who, along with other enslaved gladiators, inspired and led a major slave revolt against the mighty Roman Republic.
Now, first of all, you may wonder what does Thracian mean? You see, Thracians were people who lived primarily in the Balkans and in Asia Minor, and other regions of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, in ancient history.
Before I go into the life of Spartacus, I want you to understand that historical accounts of his life are not all accurate and are often contradictory. In fact, very little is known about him beyond the slave uprising he led. But this lack of information shall by no means stop me from proceeding with this essay. I am quite foolish that way, as you might have already guessed by now.
So let us begin!
Plutarch described Spartacus as a Thracian of Nomadic stock, which is assumed to be a reference to the Thracian tribe of Maedi that occupied the region between Thrace and Paionia. The Greek historian Appian of Alexandria claimed that Spartacus was a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier in the Roman army.
A writer/historian named Florus described him as a Thracian mercenary who had become a Roman soldier and then had deserted and become enslaved and later made a gladiator.
From these accounts and several others, two things are generally agreed upon. One, Spartacus was a Thracian. And two, he was once a Roman soldier, maybe even an accomplished military leader, who somehow fell out of favor, was enslaved, and sold for a gladiator.
Plutarch also states that Spartacus’ wife, who was a prophetess of the Maedi tribe, was also enslaved with him. However, the accuracy of this claim could not be verified by learned historians, least of all by me.
The true account of how a Roman soldier ended up enslaved may most probably never be known to us. Unfortunately, it is a part of history that will forever be lost in history itself. Little is known of his time before he became a gladiator and a slave rebel leader, and all one can do to put the pieces together is merely speculate on the matter. And just like everyone else before me, speculate I shall!
So what happened to Spartacus once he was a captive taken by the legions?
Well, it is said that he was trained to become a gladiator in a gladiator school in Capua in Southern Italy that belonged to a Roman man named Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Vatia, also known as Lentulus Batiatus. At the school, he trained as a heavyweight gladiator. Heavyweight gladiators were known as murmillos, and they used a sword with a broad, straight blade about 18 inches long, and a large oblong shield.
Now how was Spartacus as a gladiator? one might wonder, including myself. My answer is simple, I do not know. I assume he was good, maybe even great, but that is merely an assumption based on the limited knowledge I possess through the series I watched. A dramatized version of his life can hardly be regarded as wholly accurate, and so here I humbly proclaim my ignorance.
Another reason that leads me to believe that he was a great gladiator was the fact that he inspired and led around 70 other rough and tough gladiators in their eventual escape from the school. Surely, he must have been great at what he did in order to command such respect from other hardened gladiators.
But, again, this is just a theory with no facts to back it up, much like most things relating to Spartacus’ life. Even historical accounts cannot help us much to recreate his life as an enslaved gladiator. Therefore, allow me to skip straight to the most dramatic and interesting part of his life, which is the actual revolt.
Sometime around 73 BC, Spartacus and a group of about 70 gladiators began plotting their escape from the school and thereby from slavery. Though the number they stood at could be considered insignificant to actually pose any serious threat to the Republic, the slaves managed to fight their way out of the school with the help of kitchen utensils such as choppers, knives, spits, etc, and by seizing several wagons with gladiatorial armors and weapons in them.
Upon their escape, the slaves managed to defeat the small number of soldiers that were sent after them and they plundered the region surrounding Capua. They eventually took up a defensive position on Mount Vesuvius. This would be the beginning of the rebellion that would come to be known as the Third Servile War, which, according to Voltaire, was the only just war in history.
Although their position on Mount Vesuvius was more of a spontaneous gathering of the escaped slaves rather than a well-organized military unit, a few among them, such as the Gallic gladiators Crixus, Castus, and Oenomaus, the Celtic gladiator Gannicus, and Spartacus himself, would come to assume leadership positions and serve as the military leaders of the rebel army in the oncoming war.
So why has the war come to be known as the Third Servile War? you may wonder. Well, it turns out that the war that would be waged by Spartacus and his men was not the first one attempted by slaves in the late Roman Republic. Two other slave revolts had taken place in the past, the first from 135 to 132 BC, and the second from 104 to 100 BC. Hence, Spartacus was responsible for starting, perhaps unknowingly, the third and most dangerous one yet.
The slave army easily defeated the small Roman force sent to recapture them and then equipped themselves with the captured military equipment, making them even more dangerous and strong.
As the initial revolt and raids occurred in and around Campania, a vacation spot for the rich and influential in Rome, the revolt quickly attracted the attention of Roman authorities, who first thought it to be a major crime wave rather than a serious armed rebellion or war.
The authorities, dismissing the rebellion as a mere policing matter, sent a militia of 3,000 men under the command of praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber. The militia besieged the slaves on Mount Vesuvius by blocking the only known way down the mountain.
Glaber decided to wait until starvation would force Spartacus and his men to surrender. But Spartacus turned out to be an incredible tactician, which lends some credibility to the fact that he previously had some military experience.
In response to the siege, the rebels made ropes and ladders from vines and trees growing on the slopes of Vesuvius and then used them to rappel down the steep side of the mountain opposite the Roman militia. Then they moved around the base of Vesuvius, outflanked the militia, and killed most of them.
This was their first major victory against the Roman army. Their second victory came after they defeated the second expedition sent after them, led by praetor Publius Varinius. Varinius split his militia into two under the command of two of his lieutenants. But the rebels managed to defeat the militia, nearly capturing Varinius, killing his lieutenants, and seizing the military equipment of the soldiers.
Unfortunately, around the time of these two successful battles, the rebels lost one of their main leaders, Oenomaus, most probably in battle.
These two decisive victories inspired more slaves, shepherds, and herdsmen in the region to join the slave army and take part in the rebellion, swelling their ranks to around 70,000.
The slaves continued with their raids, expanding their raiding territories to include the towns Nuceria, Metapontum, Thurii, and Nola. Keeping in mind the distance between these towns, it is speculated that the slaves probably operated in two groups commanded by Spartacus and Crixus.
During the winter months, the rebels trained, armed, and equipped their new recruits, and continued with their raids.
The Roman authorities now began to take the slave army seriously after they had proved their ability to withstand the Roman armies sent after them. Now, it was a war, not just a crime wave.
In the spring of 72 BC, the slave army left their winter encampments and made their way northwards. The Roman authorities, having learned their lesson the hard way, dispatched two legions after the rebels. At first, they proved successful after defeating a group of 30,000 rebels led by Crixus near Mount Garganus. However, the legions were soon defeated by the rebels led by Spartacus.
But the slave army suffered a great loss this time. Two-thirds of the rebels led by Crixus were killed, including Crixus himself.
Once again surprised by the slave army’s victory, the Roman Senate appointed General and Statesman Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was known as the richest man in Rome, to bring an end to the rebellion. Crassus was put in command of eight legions consisting of over 40,000 trained soldiers.
For reasons unknown to this day, Spartacus, who was leading his men northward, decided to retreat to the south of Italy and then again began moving northward in early 71 BC. The rebels were now on the defensive, and their situation would soon take a turn for the worse.
Crassus deployed six legions on the borders of the region and sent his legate with two legions to maneuver the rebels. In the engagements that would follow between the legions and the rebels, the legions were victorious in most of them, forcing Spartacus and his men to retreat further south. Crassus now had the advantage over the rebels and the rebels were in trouble.
By the end of 71 BC, Spartacus and his men were encamped in Rhegium, near the Strait of Messina. Crassus ordered his legions to build fortifications across the isthmus at Rhegium. The rebels were now under siege, cut off from their supplies, and with no route, land or water, to escape.
It is said that the rebels made some attempts at building ships and rafts to escape by sea, but Crassus took measures that made it impossible for them to continue with the plan. The rebels now had their backs against the wall, their numbers and morale decreasing every passing day.
Around this time, the legions of General and Statesman Pompey returned from Hispania and were asked by the Senate to help Crassus against Spartacus and his men. But Crassus was not happy with this new development which threatened to steal credit from him for ending the slave rebellion by himself.
Seeing this as an opportunity, Spartacus attempted a truce with Crassus but Crassus refused. In response, Spartacus and his men broke through the fortifications and made their way to Brundusium, with Crassus’ legions chasing them.
The legions managed to catch up to a portion of the rebels and separated them from the main army. This not only drastically reduced their numbers but also resulted in them losing discipline and morale. Small groups of rebels attacked the legions independently in a haphazard and disorganized manner, leaving them weak and vulnerable.
It was most probably at this point that Spartacus realized the rebels were doomed, signaling the end of the rebellion. Perhaps it was this realization that compelled him to turn his forces around and bring their entire strength to face the legions in a last and final stand.
Needless to say, being greatly outnumbered, low on morale and discipline, and disorganized, they were ruthlessly crushed and defeated by the legions, with the vast majority of them being killed on the battlefield.
However, the last, decisive battle took place on the bank of the Sele River in southern Campania, and it claimed the life of Spartacus and sealed the defeat and end of the slave rebellion. The 6,000 rebels who survived were captured and crucified along the famous Appian Way from Rome to Capua.
In this way, the Third Servile War, which was the only slave rebellion that truly and directly threatened the Roman Republic, came to a bloody end.
Now, one might wonder what was the real motivation and goal of the rebellion. What did Spartacus and his rebel army hope to achieve? Was it freedom? Was it an attempt to reform Roman society and end slavery? Was it to march to the city of Rome and capture it and rule it?
Maybe it was none of the above. The only true and accurate answer to these questions, based on the information we have managed to acquire over the centuries, is that no one knows for sure. The real goal of the rebellion might never be known.
It is difficult, almost impossible, to believe that all the rebels had the same goal in mind. Most likely, they all had different ones which were personal to them. Maybe they did not fight for any greater purpose at all but for individualistic causes only. Maybe some desired freedom. Maybe some wanted revenge. Maybe some wanted to march to Rome and capture it. And maybe some wished to raid and plunder away for the rest of their lives.
Who knows? We may never know. History will not let us know the truth. A large part of Spartacus’ life and of the Third Servile War shall always remain a mystery, shrouded with uncertainty and with more speculation than facts for us to digest.
And maybe that is why the legend of Spartacus still lives on and even continues to grow. Maybe that is why he is regarded as a heroic figure in history and his life has managed to inspire great figures such as Toussaint Louverture, the great leader of the slave revolt that led to the independence of Haiti, who was often called the Black Spartacus. Karl Marx considered Spartacus one of his heroes, describing him as the most splendid man in the whole of ancient history and a great general, noble character, and real representative of the ancient proletariat.
As I mentioned at the start of this essay, Spartacus is an absolute legend.