Spartacus (109 BC to 71 BC) was a Roman slave that threatened the Roman powerhouse with a massive slave uprising during the 1st century BC. This arena where slaves picked up arms and inflicted crushing defeats to the greatest army on earth of the time (Roman army) is one of the most extraordinary and moving event of history in that time period.
At the time of Spartacus’ revolt, the Roman Republic was entering a period of torments which would eventually lead on the different Ceasars reigns. Roman territories extended from East to West; ambitious generals could make a name for themselves in war in Spain and Macedonia and then lead a political life in Rome. Rome was a militarist society: battles between gladiators were put on scenes in theaters under the guise of popular entertainment. Victorious gladiators became idols but in terms of status they were galley slaves or convicts and most of them just slaves. Slaves comprised almost one third of the italian population. While the death penalty for Roman citizens was rare and when executed, it was under humane condition, slaves were mostly crucified.
Spartacus was the chief, or at least one of the chiefs of the uprising among others known as Crixus, Castus, Gannicus and Oenomaus. All of them started a massive slave insurrection known as the Third Servile War or Gladiator war as named by Plutarch. Under the command of Spartacus mostly, a small band of rebel gladiators transformed itself in a huge revolutionary army numbering some 100,000 soldiers. At the end of that period, all the Roman army itself had to be used to crush the revolt.
There is little known about Spartacus and his origins as most of the records are not in accordance with each other on his birhtplace and also were written by the dominant elite Romans, although it seems he was originally from Thrace (today’s Bulgaria). It also appears that he had a military upbringing and training and just might have joined the Roman legions as a mercenary. Plutarch himself writes this on Spartacus (excuse the translation because I am translating from French): ” They seized a fortified site and elected three chiefs, with Spartacus as the first one. From a nomadic tribe of Thrace, he possessed a great strength of body and displayed an extraordinary courage that he joined with a caution and a softness superior to his downfall as a slave and that was also more representative of a Greek than a barbarian. ” (source: marxiste.qc.ca/théorie/histoire/776-spartacus-un-véritable-représentant-du-prolétariat-antique).
Spartacus was formed in a school of gladiators (ludus) near Capua that belonged to Lentulus Batiatus. That was where, in 73 BC, Spartacus lead a revolt of some 74 gladiators that took arms, killed their guards and fled. On their way out, they crossed a chariot carrying arms for the gladiators. They robbed the charioteer and when armed properly, the slaves-gladiators fled on the Vesuvius slopes near the modern city of Naples. The news of the escape spread rapidly and encouraged others to join them. A constant flow of slaves, gladiators and refugees joined the rebel mutineers. The group raided surrounding farms to stock up on food and furnishings. With this, the rebels won little battles which would eventually lead to bigger ones. They also defeated some Roman troops from Capua. After taking their armament, they threw out their gladiators arms and used only real Romans arms. This defeat led them to some type of euphoria as they did not see themselves as simple slaves and gladiators any more but as real soldiers.
Rome, in the meantime, when it heard about the revolt and having dealt successfully with two gladiators and slaves revolts in the preceding century, did not view Spartacus as a new and strong commander but rather as a simple gladiator. Instead of sending a legion to quell the revolt, it only sent a militia of some 3,000 men under the command of Claudius Graber. They strongly believed that it was a police operation and not a military one. But what they did not know was that the numbers of the rebels was now close to 100,000 and that slaves and gladiators alike fought for their lives so with much greater strength and alacrity than a Roman soldier. The Roman militia soon controlled the only passage in and out of the camp of the rebels on Vesuvius. Spartacus developed a brilliant tactical plan. At the top of mont Vesuvius, long wild vines were plentiful. The rebels cut them up, intertwined them and used them to climb down of the mount while one last rebel threw their arms down and then they surprised the Roman militia and camp by attacking both while they slept. Having taken more arms and now Roman armour, the rebels were indeed confident in their victory.
With this victory, it appears that Spartacus was indeed a military tactician, which tends to confirm the idea that he did serve as an auxiliary soldier under the banners of Rome at some point prior in his life. If that was the case, he knew Roman army tactics and this, coupled with daring and audacity was a necessary quality for a revolutionary and making him a formidable enemy. Nonetheless his army was composed of mainly labourers and slaves that were poorly armed and trained. This did indeed influence his tactics which were at the beginning mainly defensive. They hid themselves on the heavily wooded Mount Veusvius untl they were correctly formed for battles against the Roman legions.
Sensing the arrival and a new and more serious battle, Spartacus delegated to some of the gladiators the task of forming smaller groups of slaves and labourers for battle which then continued down the line until all some 140,000 (lastest estimates) of Spartacus’ army was totally versed in Roman battle tactics. The lack of actual battle experience was compensated by the heroism of the rebel’s army in battle having nothing to lose except maybe their chains or their life which was forfeited either way.
There were several other skirmishes with the Roman army: all of them victorious for Spartacus. Then Publius Varinius was sent along with 2,000 men against him. They were easily routed out by Spartacus’ army. Cossinius followed Publius with a considerable army of Roman soldiers: he was almost captured while he was bathing in Salinae. He escapes barely with his life while Spartacus was appropriating his possessions. The slave army pursued the retrating Romans and killed several of them. They attacked the main Roman camp and killed Cossinius.
Follow up on the second installment of Spartacus’ life in the coming week (I hope).