Who was Spartacus?

January 15, 2010

The gladiators decided to "strike for their own freedom rather than for the amusement of spectators," according to the Roman historian Appian.

MANY OF us have heard the name Spartacus, if only because of the famous scene in the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film by that name, where the Roman General Marcus Lucinius Crassus, played by Lawrence Olivier, demands that the bedraggled remnants of the defeated slave army hand over Spartacus. As Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas, stands up to say, "I'm Spartacus," his best friend Antoninus (Tony Curtis) jumps up, along with dozens of others, all exclaiming, "I'm Spartacus."

Who was the real Spartacus? He was a Thracian soldier who was captured and sold into slavery by the Romans, and forced to train as a gladiator. There, he led a slave rebellion in 73 B.C.

In the whole of history, there have been only four recorded slave revolts on the scale of a genuine war: Two in Sicily (135-132 B.C. and 104-100 B.C.), one in Italy (73-70 B.C.), and one in Haiti in 1804. Only Haiti's slave rebellion--the one Pat Robertson disgustingly claims was the result of a "pact with the devil"--was successful.

Slaves were drawn from different places, spoke different languages and shared different cultures. The punishment for revolt was death, and slaves had no legal means or the right to organize. They therefore had to plot in complete secrecy--for detection at any time before the revolt meant certain failure.

Even if slaves were able to organize on one plantation, it was extremely difficult for them to organize other plantations. That explains why in Rome, the rebellion was begun and led by gladiators, trained in arms and military maneuvers. But it also explains why major slave revolts have rarely gotten off the ground.

All it took was one loyal slave to reveal the conspiracy or one captured slave to confess under pain of torture or the hope of leniency, and it was all over. It was therefore extremely difficult, if not impossible, to unite slaves--or for slaves to organize and unify in a class-conscious way and assert their collective desire for freedom.

That is what makes Spartacus' revolt all the more impressive. At its height, he led an army of 70,000 slaves, an army that beat off seven separate Roman armies sent against them, only to be defeated by the eighth.

THE REVOLT began in 73 B.C. at a gladiator school in Capua where Spartacus was being trained. Gladiator fights by this time had become well established in Rome as a form of entertainment put on by consuls and rich private citizens to buy votes and popular allegiance.

When Julius Caesar was Aedile in Rome in 65 B.C. (on his way to becoming Consul), he organized games that were going to pit so many gladiator pairs against each other that his opponents rushed a bill through the Roman assembly limiting the number of gladiators anyone could keep in Rome. As a result, Caesar was forced to limit the spectacle to only...320 pairs!

Caesar celebrated a triumph over his enemies in the civil war in 46 B.C. by staging wild beast hunts and a full-fledged gladiatorial battle in the Circus Maximus, with 500 infantry, 30 cavalry and 20 elephants on either side. Under the Roman imperial system established after Caesar's death, the games became even more barbaric, pitting literally thousands of gladiators against each other.

As the Roman historian Appian accurately put it, the gladiators decided to "strike for their own freedom rather than for the amusement of spectators."

Spartacus and about 77 other gladiators broke out using cooks' chopping knives and spits. Commandeering a few wagonloads of gladiator weaponry, they retreated to Mount Vesuvius.

At first, the Romans did not take the revolt seriously--it was derided as an army of slaves, no match for Roman legions. So they first sent underlings leading smaller forces, who were easily defeated and only provided more arms to the insurgents.

The first Roman army of 3,000, commanded by Praetor Clodius thought it had Spartacus bottled up on the mountain. But the slaves used vines to slip down the mountain undetected and surprised the Roman camp, defeating them and gathering up more weapons. They then defeated an army of 2,000 men, and another of "considerable force."

Spartacus, not expecting that he could beat the Romans, started marching his army north toward the Alps to escape Rome, so that the slave army could disperse and go home, but other leaders from Gaul and elsewhere became puffed up with success and wanted to march on Rome.

Along the way, Spartacus picked up not only slaves from the countryside, but also poor freedmen. He beat a "large army" under Lentulus, and another army led by Cassius of 10,000 men. He had now defeated five different armies. Fearful, the senate decided to send Crassus in command of six legions, joined by a whole number of volunteers from the nobility.

Crassus was a man you love to hate. He was thought to be the richest man in Rome in his day. According to Plutarch: "Certainly, the Romans say that in the case of Crassus, many virtues were obscured by one vice, namely avarice: and it did seem that he only had one vice, since it was such a predominant one that other evil propensities which he may have had were scarcely noticeable." Crassus once said that a man could not be considered rich unless he could "support an army out of his income."

Plutarch explains one of the ways Crassus got rich:

Crassus...observed what frequent and everyday occurrences in Rome were fire and the collapse of buildings owing to their size and their close proximity to each other. He therefore bought slaves who were architects and builders, and then, when he had more than 500 of them, he would buy up houses that were either on fire themselves or near the scene of a fire; the owners of these properties, in the terror and uncertainty of the moment, would let them go for next to nothing. In this way, most of Rome came into his possession.

SPARTACUS CRUSHED the first two of Crassus' legions sent under the command of his lieutenant Mummius. In punishment, Crassus took 500 of the troops who retreated from the battle, divided them up into groups of 10 and chose by lot one from each group to be killed--a punishment known as "decimation." Appian says that according to some of his sources. Crassus actually decimated an entire army, killing 4,000.

"Whichever way it was," says Appian, "he demonstrated to them that he was more dangerous to them than the enemy."

Crassus wasn't taking any chances. Deploying eight legions (about 40,000 troops), he built a wall and giant ditch across the Rhegium peninsula in Southern Italy, bottling Spartacus in. Spartacus hoped to find ships to take his troops to Sicily, but the Cilician pirates who he had paid to carry the army deserted him. Even still, Spartacus defeated another army sent against him, led by one of Crassus' officers.

Plutarch describes the final battle in which Spartacus and his army finally fell:

As fresh supplies came in on either side, Spartacus, seeing there was no avoiding it, set all his army in array; and when his horse was brought him, he drew out his sword and killed him, saying, if he got the day, he should have a great many better horses of the enemies', and if he lost it, he should have no need of this.

And so, making directly toward Crassus himself, through the midst of arms and wounds, he missed him, but slew two centurions that fell upon him together. At last, being deserted by those that were about him, he himself stood his ground, and, surrounded by the enemy, bravely defending himself, was cut in pieces.

The remaining captured rebels were crucified along the Appian Way, the main route from Capua to Rome, to set an example. In the end, Pompey, who was sent after Crassus to mop up the remnants of the army, ended up with more credit than Crassus for defeating Spartacus. You'll be happy to know that the overconfident Crassus later died attempting to conquer the Parthians in Asia.

The rebellion that Spartacus led, though there are scarcely 10 pages written about it by ancient historians, still thrills us with its size and the way in which it humbled, even if for only a few years, the greatest empire of the day.

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