In this section you will learn

  • what little we know about the life of Spartacus
  • how he led a slave army in the Third Servile War
  • how his army defeated a number of Roman generals
  • his eventual defeat and the violent destruction of his army
Statue of Spartacus

The most famous gladiator of all is Spartacus. Although we know little of his actions in the arena or of his personality – in fact, we know far less about him than we do of other leaders of the two previous slave revolts (both of which occurred in Sicily) – we know quite a bit about the revolt he led. It took place on mainland Italy and Spartacus from 73-71 BCE and his followers caused havoc throughout the peninsula until they were destroyed by Marcus Licinius Crassus (Dives), the richest man in Rome at the time; this is the same Crassus who was killed along with most of his army at Carrhae.[1] Below are a number of sources that touch on the revolt; they all differ to some degree, including in the names they give of the first Roman commanders Spartacus defeated. The first is a biography of Crassus, the Roman general who finally defeated him, written by the Greek author Plutarch, who omits some of the stories about Spartacus’ cruelties and is the most sympathetic account we have.[2]

The rebellion of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus,[3] began in this way. A man called Lentulus Batiates trained a large number of gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who were kept imprisoned for this object of fighting one with another, not for any fault they had committed, but simply because of the cruelty of their masters. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but when their plan was discovered, seventy-eight men who became aware of the discovery in time to anticipate their master got chopping knives and spits from a kitchen and made their way through the city; encountering several wagons that were carrying gladiators’ arms to another city, they seized these and armed themselves. Seizing upon a place they could defend, they chose three leaders, of whom the chief was Spartacus, a Thracian from one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of great courage and brave, but in understanding and gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Greek than the people of his country usually are.[4] When he first was sold at Rome, they say a snake coiled itself upon his face as he lay asleep, and his wife, also a Thracian, who at this latter time also accompanied him in his flight, a kind of prophetess and one of those possessed with the bacchanal frenzy,[5] declared that it was a sign predicting great and formidable power to him with no happy result.

First routing those that came out of Capua to fight them, and so getting a quantity of proper soldiers’ weapons, they gladly threw away the ones they had as barbarous and dishonourable. Afterwards the praetor Clodius took command against them with a force of three thousand men from Rome, and besieged them within a mountain accessible only by one narrow and difficult passage, which Clodius kept guarded, surrounded on all other sides with steep and slippery precipices. Upon the top, however, grew a great many wild vines, and cutting down as many of their boughs as they needed, they twisted them into strong ladders long enough to reach from there to the bottom, and thus without any danger all of them but one they got down – one stayed there to throw them down their weapons, and after this succeeded in saving himself. The Romans were ignorant of all this, and, so when the gladiators attacked them from the rear, they assaulted them unawares and took their camp. Additionally some of the shepherds and herdsmen[6] who were there and were strong, nimble individuals, revolted also and the gladiators gave complete arms to some of these while making use of others as scouts and light-armed soldiers. The praetor Publius Varinius was now sent against them; they fought and routed his lieutenant, Furius, and his two thousand soldiers. Then Cossinius[7] was sent with considerable forces to give his assistance and advice, Spartacus barely missed capturing him in person as he was bathing at Salinae and Cossinius made his escape with great difficulty while Spartacus captured his baggage. Following the pursuit with a great slaughter, Spartacus stormed and captured his camp and Cossinius himself was killed in the camp. After many successful skirmishes with the praetor himself, in one of which he took the praetor’s lictors and horse, he began to be great and terrible; however, wisely considering that he could not match Rome’s force, he marched his army towards the Alps, intending, when he had passed them, that every man should go to his own home, some to Thrace, some to Gaul. But they, grown confident in their numbers, and over confident because of their success, would not obey him, but went about and ravaged Italy. The result was that now the Senate was not only moved at the indignity and baseness of the enemy and of the insurrection, but thought of it as a matter of alarm and potentially dangerous and sent both the consuls as if to a great and difficult enterprise.[8] The consul Gellius, falling suddenly upon a party of Germans,[9] who through contempt and confidence had wandered off from Spartacus, cut them all to pieces. But when Lentulus[10] besieged Spartacus with a large army, he sallied out upon him, and, joining battle, defeated his chief officers, and captured all his baggage. As he made toward the Alps, Cassius, who was praetor of that part of Gaul that lies about the Po, met him with ten thousand men, but being overcome in the battle, he barely escaped himself with the loss of a great many of his men.

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus

When the Senate heard this they were displeased at the consuls and, ordering them to meddle no further, appointed Crassus general of the war,[11] and a great many of the nobility went as volunteers with him, partly out of friendship, and partly to get honour. He stayed himself on the borders of Picenum, expecting Spartacus would come that way, and sent his lieutenant, Mummius with two legions ordering him to wheel about and observe the enemy’s movements, but upon no account to engage or skirmish with him. But Mummius joined battle at the first opportunity and was routed with a great loss of life of his men, a great many of whom only saved their lives by throwing away their weapons. Crassus rebuked him severely and when he had armed the soldiers again he made them find pledges for their weapons, that they would part with them no more, and the five hundred that were the beginners of the flight he divided into fifty tens, one of each which was to die by lot, thus reviving the ancient Roman punishment of decimation, where humiliation is added to the penalty of death, with a variety of appalling and terrible circumstances, presented before the eyes of the whole army, who had been assembled to watch. When he had thus reclaimed his men he led them against the enemy; however, Spartacus retreated through Lucania toward the sea, and in the straits meeting with some Cilician pirate ships, he thought about trying to get to Sicily, where by landing two thousand men[12] he hoped to rekindle the war of the slaves, which was but lately extinguished,[13] and seemed to need but little fuel to set it burning again. But after the pirates had struck a bargain with him, and received his pledge, they deceived him and sailed away. He then retreated again from the sea, and established his army in the peninsula of Rhegium; Crassus found him there and examining the nature of the place, which of itself suggested the undertaking,[14] he set to work to build a wall across the isthmus; thus keeping his soldiers at once from idleness and his foes from foraging.[15] This great and difficult work he perfected in a space of time shorter than any expectation, making a ditch from one sea to the other, over the neck of land, three hundred furlongs long, fifteen feet broad and deep, and above it he built a very high and strong wall. All which Spartacus at first ignored and despised, but when provisions began to fail and he tried to to pass further, he found he was walled in and no more was to be had in the peninsula; so taking the opportunity provided by a snowy, stormy night, he filled up part of the ditch with earth and boughs of trees, and so got a third of his army over.

The events of 72 BC, according to Plutarch’s version of events.

Crassus was afraid that Spartacus would march directly against Rome, but was soon relieved of that fear when he saw many of Spartacus’ men break out in a mutiny and leave him and camp by themselves upon the Lucanian lake. This lake they say changes at intervals of time, and is sometimes sweet, and sometimes so salty that it cannot be drunk. Falling upon these Crassus beat them from the lake, but he could not pursue the slaughter, because of Spartacus suddenly coming up and checking the flight. Now he began to regret that he had previously written to the Senate to call Lucullus out of Thrace and Pompey out of Spain; as a result he did all he could to finish the war before they came, knowing that the honour of the action would redound to the man that helped him out. Resolving, therefore, first to set upon those that had mutinied and encamped apart, whom Gaius Cannicius and Castus commanded, he sent six thousand men before to secure a little hill, and to do it as privately as possible, which that they might do they covered their helmets, but being discovered by two women that were sacrificing for the enemy, they had been in great danger if Crassus had not immediately appeared and engaged in a battle which proved to be a very bloody one. Of 12,300 whom he killed, two only were found wounded in their backs, the rest all having died standing in their ranks and fighting bravely. After this setback Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, but Quintius, one of Crassus’ officers, and Scrofa, the quaestor, pursued and overtook him. But when Spartacus rallied and faced them, they were utterly routed and fled, and struggled to carry off their quaestor, who was wounded. This success however, ruined Spartacus, because it encouraged the slaves, who now disdained any longer to avoid fighting or to obey their officers, but as they were upon the march, they came to them with their swords in their hands, and compelled them to lead them back again through Lucania against the Romans, the very thing Crassus was eager for. For he already had news that Pompey was nearby and people began to talk openly that the honour of this war would go to him who would come and at once force the enemy to fight and put an end to the war. Crassus, therefore, eager to fight a decisive battle, camped very near the enemy and began to make lines of circumvallation, but the slaves made a sally and attacked those who were there first. As fresh supplies came in on either side, Spartacus, seeing there was no avoiding it, arranged his army in battle order and when his horse was brought him, he drew out his sword and killed it, saying that if he was victorious he should have a great many better horses from the enemies, and if he lost, he should have no need of this. And so making directly for Crassus himself through the middle of weapons and wounds, he missed him but killed two centurions that attacked him together. At last being deserted by those that were about him, he himself stood his ground, and, surrounded by the enemy, was cut in pieces while bravely defending himself. But though Crassus had good fortune and not only fought like a good general but gallantly exposed himself to danger, yet Pompey got most of the credit of the battle. For he met with many of the fugitives and killed them, and wrote to the Senate that Crassus indeed had defeated the slaves in a pitched battle, but that he had put an end to the war. Pompey was honoured with a magnificent triumph for his conquest over Sertorius and Spain, while Crassus could not himself as much as desire a triumph in its full form and, indeed, it was thought that it reflected poorly on him that he accepted the lesser honour, called the ovatio, for a slave war and performed a procession on foot.

Plutarch, Crassus 8-11

The next source, Florus, was (probably) a friend of Emperor Hadrian. He wrote an epitome of Roman history, which concentrated on the wars up to the reign of Augustus, summarizing the work of earlier historians in a concentrated form. As you can see from the first few lines Florus felt that Spartacus and his war were entirely evil and against the settled order of how things should be.

We may, however, live with the dishonour of a war with slaves, for though they are by their circumstances subjected to all kinds of treatment, they are yet, as it were, a second class of men, and may be admitted to the enjoyment of liberty with ourselves. But I know not by what name to call the war started by the efforts of Spartacus, for the soldiers in it were slaves and the commanders gladiators; the former being persons of the lowest condition and the latter men of the worst character, and adding to the calamity of their profession by its contemptibleness. Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus breaking out of the ludus of Lentulus escaped from Capua with not more than thirty other gladiators, and, having called the slaves to their standard and collected a force of more than 10,000 were not content with merely having escaped but were eager to take vengeance on their masters. The first theatre for action that attracted them was Mount Vesuvius where, being besieged by Clodius Glaber, they slid down a passage in the hollow part of the mountain by means of ropes made of vine branches, and reached its very bottom; when, bursting out from an apparently impossible outlet they captured the camp of the Roman general, who expected no assault, by a sudden attack. They afterwards took other camps, and spread to Cora, and through the whole of Campania. Not content with plundering villas and villages, they ravaged, with terrible devastation, Nola and Nuceria, Thurii and Metapontum.[16] Being joined by new forces day after day and forming themselves into a regular army, they made themselves out of willows and beasts’ hides a rude kind of shield, and out of the iron from the slave-houses forged swords and other weapons. And that nothing proper might be forgotten for fitting out their army, they got a cavalry by breaking in the herds of horses that they encountered and gave their leader the ensigns and fasces that they took from the praetors. Nor did he, who had gone from being a mercenary Thracian to a Roman soldier, from a soldier to a deserter and robber, and afterwards, because of his strength, a gladiator, refuse to receive them. He afterwards, indeed, celebrated the funerals of his own officers who died in battle with the ceremonies used for Roman generals, and obliged the prisoners to fight with arms at their funeral pyres, just as if he could atone for all past dishonour by becoming from a gladiator an exhibitor of shows of gladiators. Engaging next with the armies of the consuls, he cut to pieces that of Lentulus near the Apennines and destroyed the camp of Gaius Cassius at Mutina. Elated by these successes, he thought (which is sufficient disgrace for us) about attacking Rome.[17] At length, an effort was made against this swordsman with the whole force of the empire, and Licinius Crassus avenged the honour of Rome, by whom the enemies (I am ashamed to call them so) being routed and put to flight, fled to the furthest parts of Italy. Here, being shut up in a corner of Bruttium and attempting to escape to Sicily, but having no ships, and having in vain tried to sail across the swift current of the strait on rafts made of hurdles and casks tied together with twigs, they at last sallied out, and died a death worthy of men. As was fitting for a gladiator leader, they fought without sparing themselves. Spartacus himself, fighting with the utmost bravery in the front of the battle, fell as became their general.

Florus, Epitome 2.8.20

The next source, Appian, a Greek historian from Alexandria who became a Roman citizen, relates the story of Spartacus as part of his narrative of the wars of the last century of the Republic. Some of his details are clearly incorrect and do not match up with other information we have; we know, for example, that Crassus was praetor in 73, not 72, as Appian suggests.

The events of 72 BC, according to Appian’s version of events.

At the same time Spartacus, a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold to become a gladiator and was in the gladiatorial training-school at Capua, persuaded about seventy of his comrades to fight for their own freedom rather than for the amusement of spectators. They overcame the guards and ran away, arming themselves with clubs and daggers that they took from people on the roads and took refuge on Mount Vesuvius. There many fugitive slaves and even some freemen from the fields joined Spartacus and he plundered the neighbouring country, having Oenomaus and Crixus, both gladiators, as his lieutenants. As he divided the plunder impartially he soon had plenty of men. Varinius Faber was first sent against him and afterward Publius Valerius[18] – these did not have regular armies, but forces gathered quickly and at random, for the Romans did not consider this a war as yet, but a raid, something like an outbreak of robbery. When they attacked Spartacus they were beaten. Spartacus even captured Varinius’ horse; that was how close a Roman praetor came to being captured by a gladiator. After this even more people flocked to Spartacus till his army numbered 70,000 men. For these he manufactured weapons and collected gear.

Rome now sent out the consuls with two legions each. One of them defeated Crixus and his 30,000 men near Mount Garganus; two-thirds of his men died with him. Spartacus tried to make his way through the Apennines to the Alps and Gaul, but one of the consuls anticipated him and hindered his march while the other hung upon his rear. He turned upon them one after the other and beat them in detail. They retreated in confusion in different directions. Spartacus sacrificed 300 Roman prisoners to the shade of Crixus, and marched on Rome with 120,000 infantry, having burned all his useless material, killed all his prisoners, and butchered his pack animals in order to expedite his movement. Many deserters offered themselves to him, but he would not accept them. The consuls again met him in the country of Picenum. Here was fought another great battle and there was too, a great defeat for the Romans. Spartacus changed his intention of marching on Rome. He did not consider himself ready as yet for that kind of a fight, as his whole force was not suitably armed because no city had joined him, but only slaves, deserters, and riffraff. However, he occupied the mountains around Thurii and captured the city itself. He prohibited the bringing in of gold or silver by merchants, and would not allow his own men to acquire any, but he bought mainly iron and brass and did not interfere with those who dealt in these articles. Supplied with abundant material from this source his men provided themselves with plenty of weapons and continued as robbers for the time being. When they next came to an engagement with the Romans they were again victorious, and returned laden with spoils.

This war, so formidable to the Romans (although ridiculous and contemptible in the beginning as it was thought of as the work of gladiators), had now lasted three years. When the election of new praetors came on, everyone was afraid and nobody offered himself as a candidate until Licinius Crassus, a man distinguished among the Romans for birth and wealth, assumed the praetorship and marched against Spartacus with six new legions. When he arrived at his destination he received also the two legions of the consuls whom he decimated by lot for their bad conduct in several battles. Some say that Crassus, too, having engaged in battle with his whole army, and having been defeated, decimated the whole army and was not deterred by their numbers, but destroyed about 4,000 of them. However it happened, he demonstrated to them that he was more dangerous to them than the enemy. Presently he overcame 10,000 of the Spartacans, who were camped somewhere apart from the main army, and killed two-thirds of them. He then marched boldly against Spartacus himself, defeated him in a brilliant battle, and pursued his fleeing forces to the sea, where they tried to get to Sicily. He overtook them and enclosed them with a line of circumvallation consisting of ditch, wall, and paling.

Spartacus tried to break through and make an incursion into the Samnite country, but Crassus killed about 6,000 of his men in the morning and as many more towards evening. Only three of the Roman army were killed and seven wounded, so great was the improvement in their morale inspired by the recent punishment. Spartacus, who was expecting from somewhere a reinforcement of horse no longer went into battle with his whole army, but harassed the besiegers by frequent sallies here and there. He fell upon them unexpectedly and continually threw bundles of twigs into the ditch and set them on fire and made their labour difficult. He crucified a Roman prisoner in the space between the two armies to show his own men what fate awaited them if they did not conquer. When the Romans in the city heard of the siege they thought it would be disgraceful if this war against gladiators should be prolonged. Believing also that the work still to be done against Spartacus was great and severe they ordered up the army of Pompey, which had just arrived from Spain, as a reinforcement.

The last events of the war in 71 BC, where the army of Spartacus broke the siege by Crassus’ legions and retreated toward the mountains near Petelia. Shows the initial skirmishes between elements of the two sides, the turn-about of the Spartacan forces for the final confrontation. Note the legions of Pompey moving in from the north to capture survivors.

On account of this vote Crassus tried in every way to come to an engagement with Spartacus so that Pompey might not get the glory from the war. Spartacus himself, hoping to anticipate Pompey, invited Crassus to come to terms with him. When his proposals were scornfully rejected, he decided to risk a battle, and as his cavalry had arrived he made a dash with his whole army through the lines of the besieging force and pushed on to Brundisium with Crassus in pursuit. When Spartacus learned that Lucullus had just arrived in Brundisium fresh from his victory over Mithridates, he despaired of everything and brought his forces, which were even then very large, to close quarters with Crassus. The battle was long and bloody, as might have been expected with so many thousands of desperate men. Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and killed. The remainder of his army was thrown into confusion and butchered in crowds. So great was the slaughter that it was impossible to count them. The Roman loss was about 1,000. The body of Spartacus was not found. A large number of his men fled from the battlefield to the mountains and Crassus followed them thither. They divided themselves in four parts, and continued to fight until they all perished except 6,000, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome. 121. Crassus accomplished his task within six months, which created a contention for honours between himself and Pompey.

Appian, Civil Wars 116-212

The next source is a little different than the others. It is not a history but a collection of successful military strategies compiled by Frontinus (30-104 CE), who also wrote a treatise on military matters (no longer extant). He intended this collection for the use of officers who wanted to educate themselves on how others had dealt with problematic situations.

When Marcus Crassus had built a ditch around the forces of Spartacus, the latter filled it at night with the bodies of prisoners and cattle that he had killed, and marched across it. The same Spartacus, when besieged on the slopes of Vesuvius at the point where the mountain was steepest and because of that, unguarded, plaited ropes of willows from the woods. Letting himself down by these, he not only made his escape, but by appearing in another area struck such terror into Clodius that several cohorts gave way before a force of only seventy-four gladiators. This Spartacus, when surrounded by the troops of the proconsul Publius Varinius, placed stakes at short intervals before the gate of the camp; then setting up corpses, dressed in clothes and furnished with weapons, he tied these to the stakes to give the appearance of sentries when viewed from a distance. He also lit fires throughout the whole camp. Deceiving the enemy with this empty show, Spartacus silently led out his troops during the night.

Frontinus, Stratagems 1.20-22


Media Attributions

  1. His head was later used as a theatrical prop in Euripides’ Bacchae by the Parthians.
  2. No ancient account of a slave war is going to be very sympathetic: generally speaking, those who are inclined not to believe Spartacus was a font of all evils argue that he was unfairly condemned to slavery.
  3. Now it is often called the Third Servile/Slave war.
  4. The Greeks considered Thracians barbarians and feared them greatly.
  5. The worship of Bacchus (=Dionysus) featured frenzied and manic actions and states.
  6. Most of these were probably slaves also.
  7. Lucius Cossinius was another praetor; we know nothing else about him.
  8. The date is now 72 BCE. They were probably given 2 legions each, the standard for a consular army.
  9. Led by Crixus; Spartacus seems to have had an endless problem in getting the various ethnic groups who made up his army to stick together.
  10. The consul; not to be confused with Lentulus Batiates who owned the gladiatorial school that Spartacus broke out of.
  11.   Crassus had been praetor in 73 and appears to have put a lot of effort into getting himself appointed commander of the new campaign against the slaves. He was given 2 legions (the usual for a praetor/propraetor was 1) and raised 6 more using his own resources.
  12. It seems very unlikely that Spartacus planned to try and take Sicily with only 2,000 men and desert the rest of his own troops, if only for the reason that it would take far more men to take Sicily.
  13. There had been two previous major slave wars in Sicily.
  14. It was a narrow peninsula.
  15. Supply problems were always acute even for official Roman armies; they must have been much worse for Spartacus’ forces.
  16. If this is true then Spartacus was besieging and sacking towns, a rather remarkable feat for an army created as his was and one without proper equipment.
  17. This seems rather unlikely: although he had taken smaller towns, there is no way he could have thought that he would capture Rome without proper siege equipment.
  18. This is an error by Appian; it should be Varinius; Appian seems to gotten Glaber mixed up with Varinius.


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