Gladiators and Slave Revolts: Spartacus and the Largest Slave Revolt in Roman History

Servile Wars memes
The Third Servile War: 73 BC- 71 BC: Read time - 11 minutes 24 seconds

Gladiators and slave revolts - name a better duo

One of the largest slave revolts of all time, the mass purging of the senate, pirates, multiple civil wars, an invasion from an Anatolian king immune to poison – yeah the Roman Republic was going through some shit. Today though, we’re going to focus on my favorite gladiator, Spartacus, who led the largest slave revolt in all of Roman history (and one of the biggest in all of history).

Anatolia: Basically modern-day Turkey. Also known as Asia Minor. 

Spartacus: An enslaved gladiator who led the slave army in the Third Servile War.

*Please note that there are two main sources – Plutarch and Appian. In some parts the history significantly differs. If I pointed out every little difference, this article would be 100 pages long. I tried my best, please don’t crucify me 🙁

Roman collared slaves. — Marble relief, from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE. Them boys are thiccc
Roman collared slaves. — Marble relief, from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE. Them boys are thiccc

Rome over the course of its history developed a bad habit of conquering, looting, and enslaving people. The Roman system was such that it encouraged Roman leaders to be ambitious – to seek glory. The best way to have that sweet glory was to become Consul. As Consul you would be given an army to go conquer Rome’s enemies (among other administrative duties).

Consul: The highest rank in Rome – like the presidency. Two Consuls ruled at the same time (typically for one year) and were given armies. In addition to presiding over the senate, it was expected to use these armies to conquer new lands for glory and wealth.

*Many contemporary sources point to ambition as being the main downfall of the Roman Republic.

Conquering was the best way for a Consul to attain a massive amount of wealth. One could loot the treasure of entire kingdoms and most importantly – enslave the population. It’s hard to pin an exact number, but up to 10% of Rome’s entire population may have been enslaved. While some Roman slaves enjoyed more social mobility than say, slaves in the Americas, most were subject to harsh labor – especially in the mines.

Summer camp for gladiators

Our story starts with Spartacus, who was born a free man. Not much is known about his early life (or really anything outside this uprising). He was thought to be born around 110 BC in Thrace

Thrace: A region northeast of Greece. Was known to produce great warriors. Not officially part of Rome, but was under its influence.

Thrace mapped on modern borders.

Spartacus started out as a Roman soldier and was known to be an exceptional fighter. At some point though, he became discontent with the Roman army and deserted. He took to pillaging and looting the countryside until he was finally captured.

Desertion was a big no no in Roman society (surprise surprise) and usually deserters were clubbed to death (not for their skin arf arf). However, Spartacus’s captors saw how good of a fighter he was and decided to sell him into slavery to become a gladiator.

He attended gladiator school in Capua which is near modern day Naples. Gladiator school wasn’t some giddy summer camp where your biggest stressor was talking to the hot camp counselor. Rather, the gladiators were subject to strict and brutal training. While gladiators were well fed and received the best medical treatment, when not training or fighting they were shackled in a cramped cell – reminding them of their status as slaves.

Gladiator meme

In popular culture, Spartacus is known for being one of the best gladiators. While we can at least assume he was a good fighter, there are actually no records of any of his fights (we don’t even know if he fought in a single match). 

What we can assume is that Spartacus hated the Romans. I mean, I would be pretty pissed if I was enslaved and forced to fight for my survival in front of thousands of onlookers (or at least saw others doing so).

Enough was enough, and Spartacus escaped with his buddy Crixus and 70 or so other gladiators in 71 BC. They looted the kitchen looking for anything pointy. The Roman guards who opposed them were no match for the battle-hardened gladiators. Obviously, this ragtag group of men armed with kitchen knives would look quite suspicious, so their first order of business was to find someplace where they could lay low. Conveniently there was a giant ass active volcano right next to them – Mount Vesuvius

Crixus: A gladiator from Gaul that served as one of Spartacus’s commanders.

Mount Vesuvius: Yes, this is the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. AYE YOOO AYE YO.

Aerial view of Mount Vesuvius. As you can tell it’s pretty barren.

Started from the bottom now we here

Upon learning of the escape of the group of gladiators the Romans dispatched a Praetor to raise an army. The army was composed of 3,000 men, more or less a hastily assembled posse of local farmers.  They were given a sword and some armor and were told to take on some battle-hardened gladiators. Nice.

Praetor: The second highest position in Rome behind Consul. Served as magistrates and military commanders.

As you can tell, Rome didn’t really see Spartacus as much of a threat. They were mostly seen as escaped thugs. Rome was also a bit busy; most legions were busy fighting Mithridates in the east or quelling the uprising in Spain. What they also didn’t account for was that Spartacus’s force grew to number in the thousands (most of these were non-combatants).

Mithridates: He was a ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia. He was always a threat to Rome during his reign, invading Rome three times. He is famous for taking non-lethal doses of poison to build his immunity. 

Mount Vesuvius didn’t have much in the way of food, so the Romans decided the best option was to starve the escaped slaves out by blocking the single road that ran up the mountain. The mood among the Roman camp was that this would be an easy wrap and thought that they would go back to their daily peasant activities sometime soon.

Despite the Roman army being mostly farmers, Spartacus knew that his smaller force still couldn’t take the Romans head on. In one of his many displays of ingenuity, Spartacus had his force descend the steep cliffs with braided vines and caught the Romans by surprise. The Romans were routed in short order.

Third Servile War

The Roman camp was full of weapons, horses, and gold coins – many of the slaves had never owned anything since their enslavement. Their freedom was real. They would never return to their masters.

This would be only the beginning of the Third Servile War, in which over 80,000 would die.

Time to take off the gloves

It was time for Rome to get serious. They sent another Praetor who had 6,000 thousand actual Roman soldiers under his command. (Still not the  best soldiers though. The best were fighting in other wars as mentioned above).

By the winter of 72 BC, Spatarcus’s force had swelled to 40,000, too big to stay at Mount Vesuvius. The Romans planned to catch Spartacus once he descended to the open country – which they did and got their asses handed to them. This was their first victory against actual Roman soldiers.

While this victory was nice, cracks in the leadership started to form. Our sources seem to think that Crixus wanted to march on Rome, but Spartacus knew better. He had served in the Roman army himself and knew that the veteran legions in Spain and in the east would soon return. Even then marching on Rome would have probably seen the annihilation of the rebel army.

While we don’t know Spartacus’s exact motives, we can guess that he wanted to go home to Thrace and had the means to do so. His army now numbered around 100,000 – not just slaves but also Romans looking for a better life.

Crixus and Spartacus would split. Crixus would continue the war in the south, taking 30,000 men while Spartacus went north to attain his freedom.

Crixus Meme

In the meantime the Romans dispatched the best armies they had on hand – the consular armies of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus and Lucius Gellius. They first went after Crixus and his army. Crixus couldn’t rally and organize his troops like Spartacus and they were virtually wiped out in the spring of 72 BC.

Clodianus and Gellius: The two Consuls that Rome tasked to defeat Spartacus and the rebels.

A history we’ll never know 🙁

This is where the histories from Appian and Plutarch significantly differ so I’ll mention both.

Appian claims that Spartacus had a change of heart after his friend was killed and decided to continue the war. He got his chance when Gellius marched his army north to bar Spartacus’s path while Clodianus chased from behind. Spartacus quickly defeated Gellius, turned, and defeated Clodianus. The consuls regrouped in Rome and got their asses beat again. Spartacus considered invading Rome right then and there, but knew that his army still wasn’t up to the task.

Plutarch says that Spartacus defeated only the army of Clodianus and then moved north. There he would face the governor Cisalpine Gaul who had an army of 10,000 troops which Spartacus would also defeat.

Cisalpine Gaul: A region in northern Italy ruled as a province at this time. Basically where the Alps lay. 

Cisalpine Gaul marked in dark red. (The light red marks Rome at its territorial height which wasn’t at this time. I'm too poor to make my own maps).

Either way, Spatarcus had beat at least one of the two big dogs of Rome. This was embarrassing for the Romans and the Consuls – the equivalent of getting your ass beat by someone half your size and showing up to school the next day. Both Gellius and Coldiniaus would be dismissed as commanders. 

At this point no Roman wanted to take on the rebels. There was nothing to gain and everything to lose. If you win, cool! You’re supposed to beat a slave army – they’re slaves. They don’t even have any treasure for you to plunder. If you lose, well then you show up to school with your face plastered all over WorldStar.

However, there was one man who answered the call – Marcus Liscinius Crassus.

It's my boy Jeff Bez – I mean Crassus

Crassus was the richest man in Rome. He was known to be a cunning businessman (and a total douche). If you needed to borrow money, Crassus was your man. Even Julius Caesar in his younger years borrowed a shit ton of money from Crassus.

He had many means of acquiring wealth, the most shady being his private force of firefighters. Back then people would often cook with open fires in their cramped apartments, so you can imagine fires ran rampant. When a fire broke out, Crassus would go to all the nearby homes and offer to buy them at a steeply discounted price. 

The homeowners, not wanting to lose everything for nothing, would sell their property. Then Crassus’s fire brigade would come in and put the fire out, salvaging anything they could. It was an instant profit. There’s no doubt in my mind that many fires were started intentionally.

Crassus meme

The main reason Crassus took the job was because he hated a certain man named Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, more commonly referred to as Pompey. He was a brilliant military general who led many great conquests. While not nearly the politician Crassus was, conquest is what gets you clout in Rome.

Pompey: Was a great Roman military commander who put down a rebellion in Spain, destroyed the Cilician Pirates, and won the Third Mithridatic War. Would later be the main opponent in Julius Caesar’s Civil War.

Pompey was off putting down the rebellion in Spain, presenting Crassus the golden opportunity to gain the military recognition he wanted. He was given the consular armies and raised troops who he equipped with his personal fortune. As Crassus said: “You’re not really rich unless you can raise an army of your own.”

Never Miss a History Buffs Article

👉That Time Theodore Roosevelt almost Died in the Amazon Rainforest

👉The Russian Peasant who Negotiated Peace with the Germans in WW1

👉The Second Oldest Civilization in Human History Located in… Peru?

If this is the history that makes you weak in your knees then you’re in the right place😉

Enter your email and we’ll deliver our weekly newsletter straight to your inbox

Freedom is for losers

Spartacus was nearing Cisalpine Gaul. Once he crossed, he would once again be free. Yet Spartacus would have a change of heart and turn around. Both Appian and Plutarch seem to point out that Spartacus himself wanted freedom, but much of his army wanted to march on Rome. Whether that was for the high-minded cause of ending slavery or just to loot and plunder is unknown. 

Touching on the actual goal of the army – we’re not sure. Maybe they wanted to end slavery or maybe they wanted to seize power for themselves. It seems that Spartacus himself often switched from wanting to return to Thrace to taking on the Romans.

Anyways, Spartacus swept down to southwestern Italy with speed as Crassus watched with a careful eye. Neither side would engage each other until spring came. 

Wanted to add a picture here so why not a statue of Spartacus in all his splendor. Sculpted by Denis Foyatier in 1830.

Decimation: Approved by 9/10 soldiers

Once spring came, it was time for Crassus to make his move. He sent two legions to flank Spartacus’s army from the south and push them north to where his main force was waiting. Crassus ordered the flanking legions to not engage under any circumstances. Surprise surprise, Mummius, the leader of the legions, decided to play hero ball aaaand promptly got his ass kicked and fled.

One of the many reasons the Roman legions were getting pummeled was because of low morale. Morale is often one of the most underrated aspects of war. Famous military figures such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon often cited morale as being more important than anything else.

Now there are two ways to go about this. You can either:

     A) Inspire your troops to fight harder for you.

     B) Strike the fear of God into your troops.

Guess what Crassus did. He brought back an ancient Roman form of punishment – decimation. The Romans would separate into groups of ten and draw lots. The one unlucky soldier would be beaten to death by the other nine. 

Imagining this is particularly gruesome. This man would be your ally, your friend who you fought shoulder to shoulder with. The killing was a personal one, done with your fists or clubs. You would be able to hear the crack of the bones under your blows. I couldn’t imagine the dread of being one of the unlucky one or even the lucky nine

Anyways, it seems to have worked – the Roman soldiers now feared Crassus more than Spartacus.

Decimation meme

The newly motivated Roman Army marched on Spartacus and defeated him. The remnants of Spartacus’s army fled towards the tip of Italy. To their front was to Crassus’s army and to their back was to the sea. 

There was nowhere to run.

Gladiators, slave revolts, and… pirates?

The Roman legions were basically playing Fortnite in real life (sorry for the cringe). In war time, Roman soldiers were known for being able to construct large structures in short order. Crassus constructed a 40 mile wall complete with a 15 foot deep and long moat in a matter of days. 

Map of the positions of Spartacus and Crassus

Spartacus had the ocean to his back and a seemingly impenetrable defense in front of him. It wouldn’t be long until the rebels ran out of food and they would be annihilated if they faced Crassus head on. 

However they still had one option…

Rome had a pirate problem. Cilician Pirates from Anatolia had plundered the Mediterranean since the 2nd century BC. It would later take the might of Pompey to finally end the problem. 

Cilician pirates: Pirate strongholds that littered the southern coast of Anatolia. Came into being after Rome defeated Carthage as there was no longer a major naval power to keep pirates in check.

This was Spartacus’s only chance. He wanted to go the island of Sicily, the home of the first two Servile Wars and inspire another slave revolt. To do this, he gave most of his riches to the Cilician Pirates to ferry them to the island.

If you ever find yourself in the same situation, a great rule of thumb is to never trust pirates. Once he paid the pirates, they left Spartacus stranded on the Italian shore. 

There was no option left except to fight.

Current Objective: Survive

Crassus had heard rumors that Pompey was almost done putting down the rebellion in Spain. Crassus knew that if Pompey came and wiped out the trapped rebels, he would get all the credit, but for now Crassus had time and would wait.

Winter rolled around and while Crassus had all the supplies he needed, Spartacus’s army was slowly starving. He knew he had to act, and the golden opportunity would come when a snowstorm rolled in. Yeah I was surprised to learn that this region gets snow too, but the more you know.

In the low visibility, Spartacus filled a section of the moat with sticks and dirt and scaled the wall. The Romans couldn’t see the rebels until they were right on top of them. They broke through the Roman lines and fled north. This wasn’t without loss as 12,300 were cut off from the main army and killed.

Sources point to Spartacus wanting to return home as he almost did a year ago. However much of his army thought they could still win and conquer Rome. Spartacus crucified a Roman soldier with his entire army watching. He said that if we fight and lose – this is what will happen to all of us. However, their resolve remained unchanged. 

They would fight Crassus – or die trying.

As Crassus’s army approached, Plutarch would write of Spartacus:

“When his horse was brought to him, he drew his sword and said, that if he won the battle he should have plenty of fine horses from the enemy, and if he was defeated he should not want one; upon which he killed his horse, and then he made his way towards Crassus himself…”

Plutarch in Parallel lives: Life of Crassus 

The rebel army charged with Spartacus at its head. Taking a page out of the book from Alexander the Great, Spartacus charged straight towards Crassus. 

Spartacus Crassus
Man if only Spartacus had Za Warudo

He and his best fighters cut through the Roman line and were within sight of Crassus before a Roman soldier pierced Spartacus’s leg. It wasn’t long until he and his men were butchered.

The Battle of Silarius River fought in early 72 BC marked the end of the slave revolt. It was a massacre. The Romans sustained only 1,000 deaths while nearly all of Spartacus’s army was killed or captured

A more realistic depiction of Spartacus’s death. Death of Spartacus depicted by Hermann Vogel,1882

Rip Crassus

While Rome won, Crassus didn’t. Near the end of the battle when Crassus was wrapping things up – his biggest fear happened. Pompey arrived with his legions from Spain. He came in and killed around 5,000 stragglers. Then Pompey pops into Rome and was like “hey I ended the slave revolt.” Pompey would have yet another Triumph when Crassus did all the work. Feels like a group project.

Triumph: A celebration for a Roman commander who had won an overwhelming victory. He would march through the streets of Rome with his army, captives, and spoils of war. Considered one of the greatest honors a Roman could have.

*Pompey celebrated so much success that he had a servant whose job it was to whisper in his ear “you are still mortal.”

Old Crassus meme

Crassus did however capture 6,000 of the rebels. On a highway that ran from Rome to where Spartacus had started the revolt – Capua, crosses lined the sides for a hundred miles. Side by side the rebels hung, crucified – just as Spartacus had said.

*Crucifixion was seen as a cruel punishment even by Roman standards. Seriously  look up the details, it’ll ruin your appetite.

*Another side note, 11 years later, Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar, would form an alliance called the First Triumvirate.

Moral of the story – the hero doesn’t always win. Dang that’s a sad ending.

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes - Sources

*Most dates are approximate*

131 – 132 BC: First Servile War happens in Sicily 

104-100 BC: Second Servile War happens in Sicily again

110 BC: Spartacus is born in Thrace

78 BC: Spartacus serves in the Roman army

73 BC: Spartacus trains as a gladiator

73 BC: Spartacus escapes with 78 gladiators 

73 BC: Spartacus camps out on Mount Vesuvius and defeats two Praetorian armies

72 BC, Winter: Spartacus and co descend the mountain and defeat a Praetorian army.

72 BC, Spring: Crixus splits with 30,000 men and is wiped out by the consular armies of Gellius and Clodianus.

72 BC: Spartacus defeats both consular armies or defeats one consular army and the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

72 BC: Crassus assumes command over the war.

72 BC: Mummius defies Crassus’s orders and is defeated. Crassus brings back decimation.

72 BC (near the end): Spartacus is defeated by Crassus’s army and retreats to the tip of Italy.

72 BC: Spartacus is betrayed by the Cilician Pirates and is stranded.

71 BC: Spartacus breaks through Crassus’s wall during a snowstorm 

71 BC: Spartacus’s army is defeated once and for all at the Battle of the Silarus River. Pompey takes credit for the victory and Crassus crucifies all the captured rebels.

Anatolia: Basically modern-day Turkey. Also known as Asia Minor. 

Cilician pirates: Pirate strongholds that littered the southern coast of Anatolia. Came into being after Rome defeated Carthage as there was no longer a major naval power to keep pirates in check.

Cisalpine gaul: A region in northern Italy ruled as a province at this time. Basically where the Alps lay. 

Clodianus and Gellius: The two Consuls that Rome tasked to defeat Spartacus and the rebels.

Consul: The highest rank in Rome – like the presidency. Two Consuls ruled at the same time (typically for one year) and were given armies. In addition to presiding over the senate, it was expected to use these armies to conquer new lands for glory and wealth.

Crixus: A gladiator from Gaul that served as one of Spartacus’s commanders.

Mithridates: He was a ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia. He was always a threat to Rome during his reign, invading Rome three times. He is famous for taking non-lethal doses of poison to build his immunity. 

Mount Vesuvius: Yes, this is the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. AYE YOOO AYE YO.

Pompey: Was a great Roman military commander who put down a rebellion in Spain, destroyed the Cilician Pirates, and won the Third Mithridatic War. Would later be the main opponent in Julius Caesar’s Civil War.

Praetor: The second highest position in Rome behind Consul. Served as magistrates and military commanders.

Spartacus: An enslaved gladiator who led the slave army in the Third Servile War.

Thrace: A region northeast of Greece. Was known to produce great warriors. Not officially part of Rome, but was under its influence.

Triumph: A celebration for a Roman commander who had won an overwhelming victory. He would march through the streets of Rome with his army, captives, and spoils of war. Considered one of the greatest honors a Roman could have.

And win free stuff 🙂

Share!

Facebook
Twitter

Want to win a free historical figure sticker? Send in a meme related to this article. The dankest 30 memes are posted on the website and receive a free sticker. Find out more.