The legendary Spartacus: Gladiator and leader of slaves against the Romans – The Final Stand (Part 2)
The Final Stand
Led by the Roman gladiator Spartacus, the Third Servile War stretched on from 73-71 BCE – it was an attempt by thousands of Roman slaves to escape the gladiatorial ring. As a Thracian, forced into slavery by the Roman legions he had once fought beside, Spartacus was angered by the stripping of his freedom and took matters into his own hands by gathering his fellow gladiators in rebellion. Having successfully fled their training school in Capua, Spartacus and his men plundered their way through Italy, defeating Roman legion after Roman legion. With the Senate believing that the Roman state was truly in danger, Marcus Licinius Crassus was chosen next to bring the slave revolt to an end.
Crassus' Crusade Against Spartacus
A Roman politician and former general under Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a powerful and distinguished Roman general, Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome. Crassus offered to prepare and train new troops with his own finances, strategically setting himself up for political maneuvering if he were to return to Rome successful. Crassus took his troops to "the borders of Picenum, expecting to receive an attack of Spartacus… Mummius, however, at the first promising opportunity, gave battle and was defeated." Following this decisive moment, when Crassus' best legate (a general in the Roman army born of the senatorial class) saw failure and lost many of Crassus' men, Crassus himself led his armies against Spartacus.
One of the great mysteries of Spartacus begins here, as it appears Spartacus was leading his men back into southern Italy for unknown reasons after having just beaten Publicola out of Gaul. He went instead to the sea with the intent to take Sicily, according to Plutarch, by starting another servile war there. Spartacus bargained with the Cilician pirates to take him and his men across to the island, thereby also escaping the efforts of Crassus. Instead, he was betrayed for his money and left behind.
Around this time, the wars in Hispania and Pontus were coming to an end, both Roman successes. In 71 BCE, the successful general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (‘Pompey the Great’) returned to Rome and took an interest in Spartacus' uprising. According to Appian, Pompey was asked by the Roman Senate to provide backup for Crassus' army, as they believed the threat of Spartacus was still growing and Crassus wasn't yielding the best results quickly enough. Because of this second, and somewhat more fearsome legionary threat, Spartacus attempted to reach an agreement with Crassus to avoid complete decimation. Crassus, however, aware of the prestige that would come with defeating Spartacus, wanted the glory for himself as much as he wanted to ensure Pompey wouldn't obtain it. He rebuffed Spartacus' proposal, choosing to take his chances with continued war.
In the wake of this denial, Spartacus attempted to flee a final time to Brundusium with Crassus hot on his tail. However, upon Spartacus' arrival, he learned that the general who had led and defeated Mithridates, Lucullus, was present in the same region, having also returned from war and summoned as reinforcements. Caught between two powerful Roman military leaders, Spartacus and his men took a last stand in 71 BCE, choosing to face Crassus' army over Lucullus'. With half of his army dead or captured from attempting to attack Crassus on their own, Spartacus and his remaining men faced Crassus's army by the River Sele for one final battle.
There is little written record about the battle itself, especially as the story of the war was undoubtedly skewed by the victorious leader Crassus on his return to Rome. It is generally believed that Spartacus died on the battlefield among his comrades. Appian claims that Spartacus "was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him…until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain." Though Spartacus' body was not recovered to the knowledge of modern scholars, it is generally agreed by the ancient sources that he did indeed die on the battlefield. His surviving men were taken by Crassus, and all 6,000 were crucified along the Appian Way as symbols of his victory and warnings to any other slaves who dared risk challenging the Roman state. Spartacus may have been a skillful warrior with numerous defeats of Roman troops on his record, but at the end of the Third Servile War it was the Romans who endured - a matter that Crassus did not want to be easily forgotten.
6,000 of Spartacus' followers were crucified between Rome and Capua. Fyodor Bronnikov, 1877. (Public Domain)
What was Spartacus Fighting For?
What remains most interesting about Spartacus, aside from the curiosities about his historical beginnings and his exact moment of death, were his motivations. Many would like to believe Spartacus led his revolt in an effort to stop slavery and the inhumane gladiatorial games altogether. But Spartacus' actions, and those of his men, were much less noble. Much of their time was spent plundering cities and the countryside, and it is believed he wanted to go to Sicily to pillage their riches as much as start another rebellion there. This may not be the case, however, and the plundering and looting may have been intended to keep up morale and restore much of the wealth that many of the slaves had lost. There is a theory that he had been attempting to return many of the men to their homes—accounting for his sudden turn back to southern Italy not long before his death. But neither theory has been recorded by any of the ancient scholars who have written extensively on the subject.
Nevertheless, Spartacus remains an intriguing character for modern historians and classicists to examine. His motives are at the heart of many analyses, but his revolt against Rome still stands as one of the most successful rebellions recorded. Furthermore, if not for the victory of Crassus over Spartacus, much of the beginnings of the Roman Empire might have been different as well. Spartacus' revolt is a highlight of the history of Rome, but the impact of his rebellion is much more far-reaching than realized at first glance.
Featured image: A mosaic depicting gladiators (Source)
Read Part 1.
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.)
Plutarch. Life of Crassus, Chapter X. Translated by Aubrey Stewart & George Long. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1892.)
Sallust. The histories, Vol.2, Books iii-v. Translated by Patrick McGushin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.)
By Ryan Stone