In the year 73 BC, Rome faced one of its greatest threats to its existence. An army of over 100,000 liberated slaves rose up in revolt and threatened the very fabric of the Roman Republic.
The revolt was led by a gladiator slave who lead his motley army and, to the astonishment of Rome, managed to defeat many Roman legions.
The end of this rebellion resulted in one of the most horrific displays in all ancient history.
Learn more about Spartacus and the Third Servile War, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand what happened in the Sparticus uprising, we first need to understand the institution of Roman slavery.
The Roman economy, and indeed all of Roman society, was heavily dependent on slavery.
Slaves were mostly taken from conquered lands. When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, which happened several decades after the events in this episode, it is estimated that he enslaved over a million Gauls.
While those represented the vast majority of slaves, people could be enslaved in other ways.
Very poor families were known to sell their children into slavery to survive.
If you were found guilty of a crime, the Romans didn’t have any prisons, so you could be enslaved.
If you deserted from the army, if you weren’t executed, you could be enslaved.
Slavery was also often used for people who defaulted on debts. You could literally use yourself or your children as collateral for a loan.
Slaves were used in almost every segment of the Roman economy. There were certainly plenty of slaves used for heavy manual labor, but there were also white-collar slaves as well who were doctors, teachers, and accountants.
Life as a slave ranged from bad to really really bad. If you worked as a domestic servant, you had no rights, but you probably wouldn’t be worked to death. If you were sent to work in the mines, your life expectancy would only have been a few years.
The number of slaves in Italy during the first century was astonishingly large. The Roman senate once had a plan to make all slaves wear special clothing so they could be easily identified. The idea was eventually quashed because they realized if they did that, the slaves would realize just how many of them there were.
It is estimated that 35 to 40% of the population in Italy during the first century BC were slaves. I very well may do an entire episode on Roman slavery in the future as it is a pretty involved topic.
While the Roman economy relied on slavery, they were also terrified of their slaves. Slave revolts were always a concern as were escaped slaves. As Rome grew and more territories were conquered, the slave population grew, rendering the threat of slave revolts ever greater.
The first such revolt, known as the First Servile War, occurred from 135 to 132 BC in central Sicily. The second uprising took place just 30 years later from 104 to 100 BC, and again it took place on the island of Sicily.
The third, final, and greatest slave uprising in Roman history began in 73 BC. Unlike the first two revolts, this one took place on the Italian peninsula.
It began with a group of slaves from a gladiator school in the town of Capua which is just north of Naples.
Gladiators, which is also on the list of future episodes, were not all slaves. About half of all gladiators were slaves, and many free gladiators had formerly been slaves.
Gladiator slaves were always considered to be very dangerous. While slaves were always a threat to rebel, gladiators were trained and had access to weapons.
A group of 70 gladiators escaped from their school and in their ranks was one gladiator named Spartacus.
Little is known about his early life. We know he came from Thrace, which is the region in Europe where Bulgaria, northern Greece, and European Turkey currency reside.
Many historians think he was not born a slave, but rather was enslaved after deserting the Roman army. It would explain how a Thracian became a slave and also how he was so accomplished in battle.
The gladiators used what weapons they could including kitchen utensils to overcome the guards at the school, and then captured a wagon full of weapons.
Once free, the gladiators elected Spartacus and two other Gauls as their leaders and began rampaging through the countryside around Capua. As they went from villa to villa, they freed the slaves they found, added to their numbers, and gathered supplies
When these slave revolts took place, normally a small number of units would be sent out and it would quickly be quashed because slaves were no match for trained Roman soldiers. This revolt was initially just considered a crime spree, not an existential threat to the republic itself.
However, when the small force was sent against Sparticus and his men, they beat the Romans.
Spartacus and his group kept growing and eventually took up camp on the slope of Mount Vesuvius. There, a Roman praetor named Gaius Claudius Glaber assembled a militia of 3000 men, not trained legions, and blocked the only exit off the mountain. His plan was just to starve them out.
However, Spartacus and his men were extremely clever. They created ropes and ladders and used them to scale down the cliff faces on the other side of Vesuvius, where it was assumed they couldn’t go. They then snuck around the Roman militia and slaughtered them.
The success seen by Spartacus and his army only encouraged more slave uprisings in southern Italy. Not only did slaves join the movement, but free people who didn’t like Roman rule did as well.
A second, larger group of two legions were sent out, again led by a praetor. This time the Romans split their forces trying to outflank the slave army, but Spartacus forces once again were victorious. Not only did they win, but they captured all of the Roman weapons and supplies.
By the winter of 73 and 72 BC, Spartacus had a group of over 70,000 men, women, and children. They spent the winter training and preparing their slave army, most of whom had never been in combat before.
There had never been anything like this in Roman history before. This was now well beyond a simple crime spree or a local slave uprising.
There are differing accounts of what happened in the year 72 BC, but what we do know is that Spartacus and his army moved north, evidently with the idea of escaping to Gaul.
Along the way, he defeated not one, but two armies led by Roman consuls separately, and then defeated the two combined armies at the Battle of Picenum.
It was somewhere in northern Italy, around the modern-day city of Modena, that he changed his mind and took his wandering army of now 120,000 people south.
This is one of the biggest riddles in the entire Spartacus story. No one is quite sure why he turned around. He was on a roll and could have quite easily made it to Gaul or Germany, and once he got to that point, the Romans might have just let them go.
Some historians think he was intending to escape by sea to the south, and some think he wanted to march on Rome itself.
It was at this point that Rome totally lost it and went to DEFCON 1.
The Romans had been busy putting down a rebellion in Spain and fighting a war in Asia Minor, in what is modern-day Turkey.
They hadn’t expected an enemy force to just suddenly appear in the middle of their heartland, let alone one that could defeat multiple Roman legions.
Moreover, if Spartacus tried to march on Rome itself there could be huge problems because Rome was home to several hundred thousand slaves. If the slaves in Rome thought their liberation was at hand, there wouldn’t have been anything stopping them from going on a killing spree inside the city walls, and opening the gates to Spartacus.
To solve this problem they turned to one Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Crassus was an extremely wealthy man. Prior to the Roman imperial period, he was arguably the richest person in Roman history. While he had wealth, what he lacked was military success, which was vital to any Roman seeking status in Roman society.
Crassus was given somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 troops to deal with Spartacus.
Spartacus had moved past Rome and quite far into southern Italy by this time and moved north to meet Crassus and his army.
During one of the first battles between Crassus and Spartacus, Crassus had a smaller force under the command of his legate Mummius maneuver behind Spartacus’s army with orders not to engage them.
Mummius decided to disobey the order and engage, and his men fled the field.
Crassus eventually was able to engage and won a victory, killing 6,000 of Spartacus’ men.
The legions under Mummius were punished harshly. Crassus brought back the ancient punishment of decimation. 500 men were selected, of which 50 were chosen by lot and beaten to death by their comrades.
From this point, the war started to turn.
Spartacus supposedly tried to hire pirate ships at the straight of Messina to take his followers to Sicily where he could liberate more slaves to grow his army.
However, the pirates doubled crossed him after taking his money. They took his money and left the slave army stranded in the toe of Italy.
At this point, Crassus took measures to ensure they couldn’t escape by sea and began building fortifications across the entire peninsula to make sure the slave army couldn’t escape.
As this was happening, and Crassus was nearing his long-awaited military glory, his main rival Pompey was returning with his legions from Hispania. They were told to just skip Rome and head to the south to reinforce Crassus.
Moreover, the Senate sent even more troops from Rome to reinforce Crassus.
This was bad for Crassus and Spartacus. Crassus didn’t want anyone else getting credit, and Spartacus didn’t want more legions arriving to make a bad situation even worse.
Spartacus broke through the Roman lines and made a dash to the north up the toe of Italy.
This was the point when things began to fall apart for the slave army. They had reached their limit after two years of running.
Discipline fell apart as small groups went out to attack the Romans. One large group was split apart from the main army and over 12,000 of the rebels were killed.
Finally, Spartacus risked everything in a valiant last stand at the Battle of the Silarius River.
The Romans routed them and showed no mercy. 5,000 rebels tried to flee and were slaughtered down to the last man. Spartacus himself was killed in battle, although his body was never found.
The “I Am Spartacus” scene from the movie is total fiction.
There were only 6,000 survivors after everything was over.
Crassus took those 6,000 survivors and subjected them to the cruelest form of execution that the Romans knew: crucifixion. All 6,000 survivors were crucified along the Apian Way from Capua to the gates of Rome.
That distance is about 120 miles or 193 kilometers, which means that the was one crucifixion every 32 meters or 100 feet.
The Spartacus uprising had several long-term repercussions for Rome.
For starters, Romans began, at least initially, to treat their slaves better out of fear of another uprising.
Also, many of the large estates which were formerly run by slaves were now run by freedmen, sometimes in sharecropping arrangements. Although not a result of the Third Servile War, over the next several centuries, most reforms with regards to slaves were all in the direction of better treatment and more rights.
The institution existed through the fall of the western empire, and over time as Christianity came to dominate Western Europe, slavery sort of just morphed into serfdom.
While slavery never disappeared in Rome over the next 500 years, this was the last great major slave revolt.
As for Crassus, both he and Pompey were given credit, and both of them marched their armies and camped outside the walls of Rome. They were both elected consult the next year, and their rivalry was part of a series of events that lead to the fall of the republic.
Spartacus has been celebrated throughout history. There has been a movie, a miniseries, and a full TV series about him. Spartacus has been a popular name for football teams in former Communist countries.
He has been the subject of ballets, jazz compositions, rock operas, video games, and has been a character in many novels.
Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was known as the Black Spartacus. The difference, of course, was that his slave revolt was actually successful.
While ultimately unsuccessful, Spartacus has been remembered for over 2,000 years as leading one of the greatest fights against slavery and for freedom in world history.