Spartacus: Gladiator and Leader of Slaves Against the Romans – Part 1
The Thracian born Roman gladiator known as 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 heroic rebel slave and the power of a good, common cause. However, historians consistently emphasize the need for caution in evaluating TV's historical interpretations.
In truth, it’s almost impossible to know who Spartacus was in reality, due to the discrepancies and biases of classical authors. What is evident is his profound impact on the future of the Roman government. But, this picture is based on the act of rebellion itself, rather than on the noble intentions for which the media prefer to remember him.
Spartacus began the great slave rebellion in 73 BC. Relief of a barbarian battling a Roman Legionary. (René-Gabriel Ojéda / RMN-Grand Palais-Musée du Louvre)
Hero, Rebel, Slave or Gladiator: 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. Nevertheless, the specifics of his early life remain a subject of debate. Plutarch states that he was of a nomadic tribe, while writer Florus claims he was a mercenary. However, what Plutarch, Florus and a handful of other relatively reliable classical sources agree on is that Spartacus somehow left Thrace and became part of the Roman army.
Whether Spartacus was taken captive and forced into their service or offered himself as a willing volunteer, he served in the legions for an undetermined period until some twist of fate landed him as a prisoner in Capua. It was here that 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, as they 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 the audience 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.
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. Gladiators lived the worst and roughest lives, and only some of them truly deserved such a punishment. How Spartacus came to be counted among their ranks is one of the enduring mysteries of his life.
Detail of mosaic depicting gladiators, Villa Borghese. Spartacus is said to have attended gladiatorial training school. (Public domain)
Spartacus and His Famed Rebellion: The Servile Wars
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. Historic accounts claim that they fled to Mount Vesuvius to set up a defensive position.
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.
A bronze gladiator helmet, the type Spartacus would have worn in arenas. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
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.
- Gladiators: Ancient Romans Loved Their Deadly Games
- Nameless Immigrants and Slaves in Rome, Who Were They? Where Did They Come from?
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.
Top image: Photo of a statue of Spartacus by Denis Foyatier, on display at the Louvre, combined with a 4th-century mosaic depicting gladiators. Source: Public domain
Appian. 1913. “The Civil Wars” in The Histories of Appian. Penelope: University of Chicago. Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Appian/Civil_Wars/1*.html
Appian. Translated by Horace White. 1912. Roman History, Vol. II, Books 8.12-12. Harvard University Press: Harvard.
Florus. 1947. Epitome of Roman History. London: W. Heinemann.
Fox, R. L. 2006. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. New York: Basic Books.
Plutarch. Translated by R. Warner. 1972. Fall of the Roman Republic. London: Penguin Books.
Sallust. Translated by Patrick McGushin. 1994. The histories, Vol.2, Books iii-v. Oxford: Oxford University Press.