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Spartacus as a Leader, From a Historic Perspective

Spartacus was a leader of Rome, who revolted against the Roman government from 73 -71 BCE. Spartacus was born in Thrace in a nomadic tribe. (Lendering, 1, 2009) Graham Stevenson in his writing points out that the Roman historians called him the descendant of the Royal Thracian family. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) He was sold as a slave in 73 B.C., to gladiators in Capua and was one of 78 escaped people.

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Roman society was heavily based on agriculture and war. (Lendering, 1, 2009) Agriculture was dominated by peasants who would cultivate lands according to their needs but as Rome expanded its territories more men were drawn to the army due to which the Roman citizens were now the farmers and the soldiers. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) They used to fight wars abroad and on their return, they would find that their land has gone bankrupt and was grabbed by the rich so they (common men) can pay their debts. This trend has led to their nomadic lifestyle as they had to sell their lands and move elsewhere. (Lendering, 1, 2009)

Warfare became the lifestyle of the Roman people and they were deprived of their role of farming. Many prisoners were caught during the wars and they were sent to Rome. (Graham Stevenson, 1, 2004)

The immigration of Roman citizens was mostly towards Italian cities which changed the pattern of small farms into large plantations where slaves used to work. The Greek historian Appian of Alexandria says the rich used to seize the property of the poor and adjoined it to their own forming it as great ranches. (Lendering, 1, 2009) These large estates were called latifundia. Land of one thousand acres was considered a small area. (Stevenson, 1, 2004)

They would then hire slaves and shepherds on these estates. The slaves had many children and due to the increase in their population as there wasn’t any birth control trend among the slaves and due to free labor the rich were deriving large profits. (Lendering, 1, 2009) These rich people dominated the government system of Rome so all the laws were in their favor. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) The Greek historian Appian of Alexandria describes the Roman society of that time in his work, The History of Civil Wars. He narrates that the rich persuade or force the poor to sell their property. Often, the properties were seized by them and adjoined it forming large ranches. They would then employ the slaves. Due to this, the powerful were becoming rich and the population of the slaves was increasing and directly affecting the Italian people to depopulation. Heavy taxes were imposed on them and they were not even provided jobs because slaves were hired on the land of the rich, making them poor. Their men were dragged to serve in the military. (Appian, 7, 1913)

Latifundia were highly vulnerable to armed attacks and they were mostly inflicted upon the slaves. This has aroused hostile feelings among the slaves towards their owners. A large number of slaves were brought into the countryside as prisoners of the war or bought from the pirates. The strong captives were used for fighting as gladiators. One of these fighters was Spartacus. (Lendering, 1, 2009)

Spartacus was sold to Lentulus Batiates in 73 B.C. because he was suitable as a gladiator because of his training as an auxiliary soldier. Lentulus Batiates taught at a school of gladiators which mostly had Thracians and Gauls as their students. (Gill, 1, 2008) He was an auxiliary trained soldier for the army of Macedonia. The slave war started by Spartacus was the largest slave outbreak in Rome shaking the Italian grounds. There had been two slave wars prior to this but they were brutally crushed in Sicily fought in 135-133 BCE and 104-100 BCE respectively.

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The cruelty faced by the slaves from their owners and the armed men gave birth to the hostile feelings towards the rich. The Spartacus revolt was welcomed by the slaves so that they could freed themselves from the inhumane pattern of life forced upon them. (Stevenson, 1, 2004)

Spartacus with his followers fought one of the greatest army of the world occupying large parts of Central and South Italy at a time. (Theodore, 1, 2000)

The slaves were confined in a close place by their rich owners. (Lendering, 1, 2009) Legitimate protest was denied and this in turn forced them to make violent attacks to combat against the government to free themselves. They wanted to break the system of latifundia so that debt could be removed from their shoulders which would as a result end the slavery which prevailed in the Roman society. (Stevenson, 1, 2004)

Spartacus led a riot at the school where two hundred of the slaves joined him but the plan betrayed them, and only 78 managed to escape comprising mainly of Thracians, Gauls and the Germans who acted upon time. They seized tools such as choppers and spits from the kitchen which they used as weapons but on their way they came upon a wagon carrying weapons of gladiators, they confiscated the wagon and looted it. The soldiers tired to stop them but they were defeated at the hand of Spartacus who took the better military weapons of the beaten soldiers.

They elected three leaders of which Spartacus was the first and the other two were the Gaullish swordsmen, Crixus and Oenomaus as his lieutenants. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) He was strong and intelligent. In the work of Plutarch one finds the explanation of his strength as he tells the reader that a snake was coiled around Spartacus’s head during his sleep when he was taken to Rome for selling. His wife who was a prophetess claimed that this sign meant that he has great power but it will lead to his misfortune which we can see as we reach to the end of the Spartacus war. (Gill, 1, 2008)

Spartacus was joined by the slaves who had ran away to join the rebels. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) Shepherds and herdsmen joined him by increasing their number and helped them to overcome the militia. The number of people quickly began to swell up. (Lendering, 1, 2009) As they moved they fought with rural soldiers and defeated them too. Plutarch describes Spartacus in Life of Crassus as of Great Spirit, and physical strength. He also was very intelligent and cultured. He describes him saying he was more like a Greek than a Thracian. (Plutarch, 8-11, 1916)

In the beginning, the Romans refused to take it seriously but they do sent a man Gaius Clodius Glaber with an army of 3,000 men equal to half a legion. He was of least prominence in the Senate as none of his forefathers were either rich or the member of it. (Isaac, 1, 2008) The praetors made a weak attempt to stop the band of Spartacus, ignoring the fact that he has well organized them. Clodius with his army of 3,000 soldiers besieged the Spartacans on a mountain called Mount Vesuvius but Spartacans managed to escape. Only a narrow passage was open which was difficult to climb and was heavily guarded by the army of Clodius. The other sides of the mountain had slippery cliffs. The hilltop was covered with wild vines whose branches were used by Spartacans to make a strong ladder through which they climbed down to the plain surface surprising the Romans. From the back they attacked the army of Clodius throwing them into disarray. (Gill, 1, 2008) This small rebellion now was forming the shape of war also known as Third Servile War. (Isaac M, 1, 2008) Spartacus announced that the slaves would be freed by his armies. (Stevenson, 1, 2004)

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Next, Publius Varinus with his army of 20,000 men moved towards Spartacus under the deputy commander Furius. The bandits were confronted by the state’s army at Lucania which favoured them. It was difficult for the militia to march towards the opponent’s army because of the difficult terrain. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) Later he was joined by the army of Cossinius who was sent to aid them. They jointly tried to stop the army of Spartacus. But Spartacus observed the movements of Varinus closely and attacked him while he was bathing. He managed to escape leaving behind his baggage which was immediately seized by Spartacus, and later he captured the camp driving him out. This led to the great slaughtering of the army of the government and Cossinius was then killed. Spartacus, himself defeated the praetor after many attacks and captured his weapons and horse as war booty.

They had now full control over Campania, Lucania and Brattium. They had established their bases in these areas and the town of Nola and Nuceria were used for food supplements and other materials. They used to manufacture weapons during the winter time at the port of Thurii. He now started training his army and boosts their morale. Now the army of Spartacus reached up to 100.000 men. His experience as a soldier and a gladiator had led to his success in the slave war. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) Spartacus had grown powerful but he did not want to prove his powers against the whole Rome. (Plutarch, 9, 1916)

Appian of Alexandria, the Greek historian has highlighted the cruel features of Spartacus in his work. While describing his movements towards Alps he discusses the cruel detail of him. He says after defeating these two praetors he moved towards Alps by sending 300 Roman prisoners to Crixus and moved towards Rome with the army of 120,000 men on foot. He burnt all the equipment and killed the rest of the prisoners and the animals. (Appian, 117, 1913)In another account by another author Orosius describes his cruelty on the eve of his celebrations when he inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Roman armies. In a slight different manner, it is discussed by Publius Annius Florus. Spartacus had demanded his captives to fight on the pyres of his dead men as he held their funeral rites similar to those of the Roman generals. (Florus, 8, 1926)

So he decided to head towards Alps with the band of 70,000 slaves where he would disband his army and send them to their pre-slave homes. (Gill, 1, 2008) But due to the confidence, his men refused and advised him to move towards Italy where they created havoc by destroying everything. (Plutarch, 9, 1916)

The war lasted for three years and had caused Romans great concern. The senate appointed two Consuls to defeat Spartacus. First, was Gellius, who destroyed the German contingent of Spartacus army who in their confidence had moved further away leaving the rest of the army behind. They were then surrounded by the army of the second consul, Lentulus. Spartacus now with his army joined the battlefield and gave a crushing defeat to Lentulus and captured his weapons.

On his way to Alps, he was confronted by Cassius, the governor of Gaul, who was having an army of 10,000 men. Cassius was also defeated and escaped with great difficulty. (Plutarch, Life of Crassus)

This had brought shame to Senate who regarded the Spartacans lowly as they were the run away gladiators. Senate in anger dismissed the consuls from their post. They decided to appoint other general but everyone showed reluctance until Licinius Crassus came forward. According to Appian in The History of Civil War judged this statement as a step to maintain his family status. (Lendering, 1, 2009) He took the post and led ten legions, six new and four old ones against Spartacus. At that time the army of Spartacus had moved towards Picenum. Crassus surrounded him by taking up the position at the borders where he decided to meet the army of Spartacus. He instructed one of his commander, Mummius to follow the enemy but not to attack or bully them. Mummius felt over-confident and started a battle. He was defeated and many of his men were killed. Mummius was received with great shame and dishonour. (Stevenson, 1, 2004) He was punished harshly. (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 1, 1916)

Crassus appointed two consular for his legions. When they were repeatedly defeated at the hands of Spartacus, he punished them by killing every tenth men. When his own barrack of army was defeated he gave them the same punishment without being concerned about reducing number of his army.

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This created fear among his people and led to their victory against the army of 10,000 Spartacans. (Sylvester, Theodore L, 1, 2000) During this time Spartacus managed to slip away and marched towards the sea where he formed a deal with the pirates to take him to Sicily. He would then start another slave revolt over there but to his disappointment the pirates betrayed him and sailed off. (Lendering, 1, 2009)

Spartacus marched back from the sea and reached the peninsula of Rhegium. (N.S.Gill, 1, 2008) There he was confronted by Crassus who started building fortifications which deprived the opponents from the supplies. A ditch of six kilometres long and five kilometres wide was built between the two seas. In the beginning Spartacus did not take it seriously but soon he realized that he had got himself into trouble. He on one night managed to get his one-third of the army cross the ditch. This feared the Crassus who thought that Spartacus would march towards Rome but was satisfied when he came to know that differences had arise among the army of Spartacus. Many of his men left him and set their camps near a lake where they were attacked by a division of the enemy’s army. ((Lendering, 1, 2009) They killed two-third of Spartacans and marched towards Spartacus

Spartacus now growing weak fled towards the sea with the intention of fleeing away from battlefield by sailing across to Sicily. But he was overtaken by Crassus and was held in the ditch. Spartacus made a desperate attempt of forcing his way out so that he could reach to Samnite country, but he failed. (Gill, 1, 2008)

Spartacus now was waiting for the cavalry which was on its way to aid the army of Spartacus. The weakening of his army did not let him make attack on the opponents with full force. But he made the opponents’ work difficult by setting fire to the bundles of wood piled around the ditches. (Lendering, 1, 2009)

He crucified a Roman soldier to evoke some fear in his men as it could be their destiny, if they lost the battle. (Appian, 119, 1913)

On the request of Crassus, Roman government sent another dispatch of an army under the leadership of Pompey who had recently returned from Hispania after defeating the opponent. When Crassus came to know about this he forced his army to make urgent attacks on Spartacus. He regretted the idea of asking the aid of more dispatches under the command of Lucullus and Pompey as he feared that Pompey would steal his glory of crushing the strongest rebellion of Roman history. (Stevenson, 1, 2004)

In haste Crassus decided to attack the two factions of the Spartacus’s army who separated themselves from the rest of the army. He sent a dispatch of 6,000 men to surround and observe them without being noticed. They failed to hide themselves and were in great trouble if Crassus had not sent more armed aid. This was the most stubborn battle and hundreds of personnel were killed on both sides.

Here Spartacus defeated the Roman army. He now moved towards the mountains of Petelia. Quintus, officer of Crassus and quaestor Scrophas followed him. Soon Spartacus attacked them and Scrophas was heavily wounded. This victory led to his misfortune of Spartacus as now the slaves started feeling over-confident. They refused to withdraw from the battlefield and started disobeying their commanders. They now forced their commanders to march back towards the sea to fight against Romans. (Lendering, 1, 2009)

Here many of the Crassus men were in support of Pompey who was about to join them. They proclaimed that now the victory belongs to Pompey who would fight against Spartacus.

But Crassus was eager to fight and set his camps near the enemy. They started digging the trench but the slaves came out and fought with them soon they were surrounded by more men of Crassus. This made Spartacus realized that he was now in more trouble than ever before. He made a final attempt to save himself and his men. He invited Crassus for negotiation but he refused.

Spartacus with his new cavalry jumped into the battlefield to fight against Crassus. He showed his bravery till the last battle. (Theodore, 1, 2000) Plutarch in his work describes his bravery by quoting a scene of the battlefield in which Spartacus had slain his horse while saying that he does not need this horse anymore as he will be capturing the foe’s horse if victorious and if he lost the battle then he would not need a horse. The last battle was long and bitter. Spartacus was wounded by spear on the thigh which made him fall on one knee. He showed his bravery, his expertise of gladiators and the training as an auxiliary soldier till his last breathe. (Lendering, 1, 2009) The simple hope for life aroused the strength of fighting against his attackers. He was then killed with a great number of his followers. The rest of his army was operating in a haphazard way and many were killed in the battlefield till only 6,000 of them were left.

Later they were taken as prisoners and were crucified all the way to Capua. The body of Spartacus was never found. (Theodore, 1, 2000) This was to teach the people of Rome that the revolts would be crushed with stern hand and no rebellions against the government would be tolerated as it will harm the peace in the area. [Appian, The History of the Civil Wars]

In ancient times, Spartacus was depicted as a criminal and the enemy of Rome. But during Renaissance this black image was changed. In 1760 Bernard Joseph in his play presented him as a noble hero. Karl Marx, the founder of Marxist theory was impressed after reading the Appian version of Spartacus. Since then he is considered as the symbol of emancipation. During the Cold War he was highly regarded by the poor and the working class especially in the Communist countries. (Lendering, 1, 2009)


Appian (1913), History of Civil Wars. Web.

Florus (1926), The Epitome Of Roman History. Web.

Jonna Lendering (2009), Livius Articles by Ancient History. Web.

N.S. Gill (2008). Articles on Ancient/Classical History. Web.

Isaac M Mc Phee (2008). Rome’s Third Servile. Web.

Ed. Sonia Benson (2006). Spartacus Biography, Slavery Biographies Sylvester Theodore L. Web.

Graham Stevenson (2004). Spartacus- The leader of the world’s most successful slave revolt. Web.

Plutarch (1916), Life of Crassus. Web.

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