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Politics & War

Politics & War






  • Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who led a slave revolt with an army numbering in the tens of thousands. He defeated Roman forces over half a dozen times, marching his people up and down the Italian peninsula until he was killed in battle in April 71 B.C.
  • Also, while Spartacus was a real person who has inspired revolutionaries and filmmakers, scholars do not have an abundant amount of information about him. Accounts from only about a dozen ancient writers survive to this day, and none of the surviving reports was written by Spartacus or one of his supporters.


  • According to the surviving sources, Spartacus was from Thrace, an area in southeast Europe that the Romans were often trying to subjugate during the first century B.C..
  • He appears to have served in a Roman auxiliary unit for a time, deserted and became either a bandit or insurgent against the Romans.
  • At some point he was captured, brought to Rome and sold as a slave to a man referred to at times as “Vatia.” This man owned a gladiator school in Capua, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) southeast of Rome. While at the school, Spartacus helped organize a breakout that led to more than 70 gladiators escaping armed with knives, cleavers and other makeshift weapons they got from the kitchen.


  • Spartacus and his small band of escapees acquired gladiator weapons from a passing cart and made their way to Mount Vesuvius.
  • On their way, Spartacus and his co-leaders, Crixus and Oenomaus, raided for supplies and recruited slaves in the countryside. Rome did not respond to Spartacus’ growing force seriously.
  • At the time of his breakout, the Republic’s military was fighting in Spain, southeast Europe and Crete. Furthermore, a group of escaped slaves were not seen as posing a serious challenge to Roman soldiers.


  • The Romans despatched a praetor named Gaius Claudius Glaber to form an army to crush the slaves. Glaber’s ad-hoc army didn’t even try to attack Spartacus.
  • Instead, they blocked off the main route up Vesuvius, pitched camp and tried to starve him out. Spartacus took the initiative, having his newly liberated slaves build rope out of wild vines so they could move down the mountainside to a spot the Roman had neglected to defend. The Romans, still in camp, never saw them coming.
  • The “slaves were able to surround them and to shock the Romans with a surprise attack. When the Romans fled, the slaves seized their camp.


  • Spartacus continued to ambush and defeat Roman units while freeing slaves in the countryside and gathering supplies.
  • Back in Rome, the senate grew impatient and sent a large army led by the consuls Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus. Each man may have commanded 10,000 troops.
  • By the spring of 72 B.C., Spartacus may have had 40,000 troops.The Roman force under Gellius caught up with Crixus, killing the leader along with many of his rebels.


  • Spartacus was trapped between two armies likely equipped with better arms and armor then he had. But one thing neither commander appears to have counted on was that Spartacus had built up a sizable cavalry force in the preceding months.
  • Thracians were known to be good horseman, able to tame even wild horses. “Spartacus suddenly rushed at them and engaged them in battle.
  • He defeated Lentulus’ legates and captured all of their supplies.


  • By the time Spartacus had reached the straits a new leader named Marcus Licinius Crassus had taken command of the Roman forces.
  • Rather than try and openly battle Spartacus in southern Italy he built a system of fortifications centred on the Melia Ridge in an effort to trap Spartacus and starve his troops..
  • Spartacus responded to the situation by offering Crassus a peace treaty which Crassus swiftly rejected. While Spartacus escaped Crassus’s trap he faced serious consequences.


  • Spartacus’s force was now divided and increasingly surrounded and the stage was set for the final battle.
  • In the spring of 71 BC things fell apart for Spartacus. Castus and Gannicus were defeated by Crassus, likely sometime before April, at the Battle of Cantenna.
  • Spartacus was now isolated further. After the battle at Cantenna he received news that Lucullus’s force had landed at Brundisium, crushing the hopes the rebels had for getting out of Italy by using that port. What happened next is hard to explain.


  • The final battle took place in April 71 BC. Strauss says that we cannot be sure where it was fought but it was likely somewhere in the Upper Silarus Valley.
  • Spartacus’s strategy appears to have been two-fold, use his cavalry to attack Crassus’s archers and missile throwers while Spartacus would lead his infantry in an attempt to kill Crassus himself, hoping to break up his army.
  • Crassus built trenches to block Spartacus’s cavalry prompting a wild melee when Spartacus’s men jumped in and tried to stop their construction. Eventually Spartacus lined up his men for battle and Crassus his.
  • While Spartacus’s uprising was ultimately crushed his memory lives on, more so than the Romans who fought against, or otherwise opposed, him.