The legendary Spartacus: Gladiator and leader of slaves against the Romans – Part 1
Thracian born Roman gladiator, Spartacus is now considered the stuff of legend. To this day, books, movies, and TV shows have been created to highlight the strength of this rebel slave and the power of a good, common cause. But one should always be careful of the ways in which TV portrays the past. Who was Spartacus really? In truth, because of the discrepancies and biases of classical authors, this can never be fully known. What is known is his impact on the future of the Roman government, a picture painted not from the noble intentions the media would like him to be remembered for, but rather from the mere act of rebelling itself.
Spartacus began the great slave rebellion in 73 B.C (Source)
Who Was Spartacus?
Spartacus' story begins in Thrace, a region to the north of Greece, the west of Italy, and to the south of the Celtic tribes. His exact beginnings are up for debate: Plutarch states that he was of a nomadic tribe, while writer Florus claims he was a mercenary. However, what Plutarch, Florus, and only a half a handful of other relatively reliable classical sources agree on is that Spartacus somehow left Thrace and became part of the Roman army. Whether he was taken captive into their service or offered himself as a willing volunteer, Spartacus served in the legions for an undetermined period until some twist of fate landed him as a prisoner in Capua, where he attended the gladiatorial training school.
It is important to understand that the life of a gladiator was not as remarkable and glamourous as movies would like us to believe. It was not an honor to be a gladiator: gladiators tended to be either hardened criminals or slaves who had displeased or offended their masters. The training school was rigorous and discipline there was brutal; it was not a place ever willingly attended. Gladiatorial sport was one of the most common and exciting sporting events of ancient Rome; exciting only for those watching the event. The ancient Romans got a thrill from watching criminals meet their demise in real-time. Like our modern day quarterback and starting point guard superstars, there were many specific gladiators people would routinely cheer for, creating their own ancient form of "fan clubs".
Detail of mosaic depicting gladiators, Villa Borghese (Wikimedia)
However, though some gladiators enjoyed their temporary fame, that is all it was—temporary. They were trained in various forms of combat and were pitted against vicious animals, as half the entertainment was seeing how long it took before the gladiator was simply ripped to shreds. It was expected that the gladiators would die and, in some cases the games were rigged to ensure it, when certain men didn't fall. Gladiators lived the worst and roughest lives, and only some of them truly deserved such a punishment. How Spartacus came to become one of them is one of the many mysteries of his life up for debate.
Leading the Rebellion
Spartacus survived the gladiatorial lifestyle for an unknown period of time. Eventually because of the severe training routines, the insult of his demotion from Roman soldier, and the unfairness of being forced to fend for his life in an animalistic fashion, Spartacus rallied the gladiators to escape the Capua School in 73 BC. Using predominately kitchen supplies to fight their way out, Spartacus and seventy fellow gladiators pillaged Capua on their way out of the city and fled to Mount Vesuvius to set up a defensive position.
Murmillo gladiator helmet, the type Spartacus would have worn in arenas. (Education Portal)
It is based on his strategic moves that scholars are relatively certain Spartacus had some sort of formal military training. His maneuver to Vesuvius, and the looting of the city Capua, reveals that Spartacus was not merely a slave with a whim. The irony lies in that he had been trained in these maneuvers by the very men he was fleeing: the Roman legions. Following military example, Spartacus and his fellow slaves created their own form of hierarchy, splitting their group into two factions—one under himself, and the other under a Celt called Crixus, or "the one with the curly hair", his identifying feature in the classical texts. Though it is uncertain particularly why power was split, it was a clever idea to create a hierarchal regulation of power ensuring every man in Spartacus' and Crixus' armies were of equal status. Without such a regulation, the risk of an internal power struggle would have been threatening.
The Romans themselves were unable to stop Spartacus and his men from escaping to Vesuvius. Luck was on the gladiators' sides during the rebellion as many Roman legions were missing in action due to a revolt in Hispania and the Third Mithridatic War in Pontus, the final and longest of the three wars against Mithridates VI of Pontus in Armenia. However, we can once again cannot overlook Spartacus' military skills as, in the past, the previous two servile uprisings were dealt with as simple policing matters, not war crimes. Spartacus' attempt, however, necessitated the involvement of the remaining Roman legions. This after the failure of Praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber in besieging and starving Spartacus' camp on Vesuvius in 72 BC, and the subsequent massacre of Glaber's forces.
In the same year, the Roman Senate sent two other men—Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus—to accost Spartacus' and Crixus' factions. While Crixus was defeated, Spartacus took no time in eliminating the Roman generals and their armies. Although Spartacus and his men were lucky that so many Roman forces were absent in the Republic at the time, Spartacus had made such waves throughout Italy that the Senate was forced to send whichever armies were left after him. Lincinius Crassus, future one-third of the First Triumvirate of Rome, volunteered his services.
Coming next in Part 2: Spartacus – The Last Stand.
Appian "Civil Wars." Penelope: University of Chicago. June 20, 2013. Accessed October 31, 2014. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Appian/Civil_Wars/1*.html#120.
Appian. Roman History, Vol. II, Books 8.12-12. Translated by Horace White. (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 1912.)
Florus. Epitome of Roman History (London: W. Heinemann, 1947.)
Fox, Robin Lane. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian (New York: Basic Books, 2006.)
Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by R. Warner. (London: Penguin Books, 1972.)
Sallust. The histories, Vol.2, Books iii-v. Translated by Patrick McGushin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.)
By Ryan Stone