Excerpt from Lives of the Noble Romans
Published in Lives of the Noble Romans, 1959
Few societies in history have been as dependent on slavery as ancient Rome. In fact, Romans lived in terror of a slave uprising; in 73 B.C., their worst fears were realized when a slave named Spartacus led a slave revolt. Over the course of two years, approximately 120,000 slaves fought the Roman forces throughout Italy before finally being defeated in 71 B.C.
This conflict is known as the Gladiatorial War, because Spartacus and the others who began it were gladiators, or warriors who fought to their deaths in a ring while cheering spectators watched. Slaves like Spartacus were trained to be gladiators at a center run by Lentulus Batiates, in the southern Italian city of Capua.
Spartacus came from Thrace, which was located in the area that is present-day Bulgaria. Many of the other slaves at the school were either Thracians or Gauls. Gaul was the Roman term for the Celts, a tribal group that lived in areas to the north of Italy.
The gladiators of Capua may have started the revolt, but soon slaves from all over Italy joined the uprising. The senate, Rome's governing body, first appointed Clodius tolead the army against the slaves. Clodius was a praetor, an official whose powers were similar to that of a judge. (In Rome, every governmental figure also doubled as a military commander.) However, as reported by the Greek historian Plutarch (A.D. c. 46-119), in his Lives of the Noble Romans, Clodius was unable to defeat the rebels.
Italy is a peninsula (a body of land surrounded on three sides by water), and over the course of the war, the rebels moved up and down the country. At one point they reached the Alps, the high mountains that form Italy's northern border. From there, Spartacus hoped that they would all return to their homeland. His army overruled him and continued fighting. Rome dispatched two consuls, the top officials in the Roman government, against the rebel, but still the slaves kept fighting. It was then that Crassus (c. 115-53 B.C.) appeared on the scene.
Rumored to be the wealthiest man in Rome at the time, Crassus hoped that by defeating the slaves, he also could become the most powerful man as well. Soon, however, the slaves won a victory over his lieutenant Mummius at Picenum in eastern Italy. The rebels moved on to Lucania in the south, and from there, Spartacus hoped they could escape to Sicily, a large island off the southwestern tip of Italy. To that end, he paid a group of pirates from Cilicia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) for the use of their ships. The pirates, however, simply took the slaves' money and left them stranded.
The fighting continued. Crassus resolved to end the revolt when he learned that Pompey (106-48 B.C.), one of Rome's most distinguished generals, was on his way. He knew that Pompey might very well defeat the slaves and gain all the glory for himself; thus Plutarch noted that Crassus was "eager to fight a decisive [conclusive] battle."
Things to remember while reading
- The following excerpt is condensed from the chapter on Crassus in Lives of the Noble Romans, which was written by Plutarch. Among the parts omitted are accounts of the slaves' battles with several generals after the defeat of Clodius and before the appointment of Crassus. Also omitted are further details of the rebel army's battles with Crassus after their betrayal by the Cilician pirates and before the final showdown in Lucania.
- Because he was Greek, some of Plutarch's comments reflect his Greek viewpoint. The Greeks considered the Thracians—and indeed anyone who was not Greek—to be barbarians, or uncivilized people; therefore, by noting that Spartacus was "more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are," Plutarch was paying him high praise.
- As with Rome, the economy of Greece was dependent on slavery, yet Plutarch showed a degree of sympathy with the slaves when he wrote that they were put in the position of becoming gladiators "not for any fault by them committed," i.e., through no fault of their own. He also suggested that the fact that Spartacus was a slave did not make him less of a human being; hence his comment that the rebel leader was "in gentleness [honorable nature] superior to his condition."
- The translator of the text, English poet John Dryden (1631-1700), used British spellings such as "honour." The word "waggon" is a British variation on "wagon."
Lives of the Noble Romans
The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiates trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping-knives and spits, and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several waggons that were carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are. When he first came to be sold at Rome, they say a snake coiled itself upon his face as he lay asleep, and his wife... a kind of prophetess ... declared that it was a sign portending great and formidable power to him with no happy event.
First, then, routing those that came out of Capua against them, and thus procuring a quantity of proper soldiers' arms, they gladly threw away their own as barbarous and dishonourable. Afterwards Clodius, the praetor, took the command against them with a body of three thousand men from Rome, and besieged them within a mountain, accessible only by one narrow and difficult passage, which Clodius kept guarded, encompassed 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 had need of, they [the slaves] twisted them into strong ladders long enough to reach from thence to the bottom, by which, without any danger, they got down all but one,
...[Later,] they appointed Crassus general of the war, and a great many of the nobility went 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, to wheel about and observe the enemy's motions, but upon no account to engage or skirmish. But he [Mummius], upon the first opportunity, joined battle, and was routed, having a great many of his men slain, and a great many only saving their lives with the loss of their arms. Crassus rebuked Mummius severely, and arming the soldiers again...he led them against the enemy; but Spartacus retreated through Lucania toward the sea, and in the straits meeting with some Cilician pirate ships, he had thoughts of attempting Sicily, where, by landing two thousand men, he hoped to rekindle the war of the slaves, which was but lately extinguished, 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 earnest, they deceived him and sailed away...
...[N]ews was already brought that Pompey was at hand; and people began to talk openly that the honour of this war was reserved to him, who would come and at once oblige the enemy to fight and put an end to the war. Crassus, therefore, eager to fight a decisive battle, encamped very near the enemy, and began to make lines of circumvallation; but the slaves made a sally and attacked the pioneers. 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 towards 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....
What happened next...
Spartacus's death in battle was not only a heroic act, but in light of what happened to the slaves after their defeat by Crassus's army, it was probably also a wise choice. The soldiers took some six thousand rebel slaves prisoner and subjected them to a form of punishment common in Rome at that time: crucifixion. They hung their bodies at intervals of one hundred paces along the Appian Way between Capua to Rome, a distance of some ninety miles. To the remaining slaves in Rome, the message was clear: any further revolt would be met with the harshest punishment possible.
The Gladiatorial War set in motion a chain of events that made it one of the most significant, if not well-known, conflicts in history. Having established himself as one of the most powerful men in Rome, Crassus, along with Pompey and Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.), formed a triumvirate, or government of three. Though Rome still called itself a republic—meaning that it was governed by elected officials—in fact all power rested in the hands of the three men that formed the triumvirate.
Slavery in Rome did not so much end as it faded away. Once Rome quit making overseas conquests in the A.D. 100s, it no longer had a source for slaves. In addition, as the Roman economy declined, few people could afford to keep slaves. The feudal system, under which powerful landowners virtually owned poor farmers (called serfs), took the place of slavery during the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500).
Did you know...
- The Romans called their slaves "speaking tools." indicating that they considered them less than human.
- In the 1960 film Spartacus, Kirk Douglas played the title role, with Laurence Olivier as Crassus and Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Batiates. The director was Stanley Kubrick, acclaimed for a number of later films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The screenwriters took some liberties with history, adding a love affair between Spartacus (who in their version was unmarried) and a slave girl named Virgilia, played by Jean Simmons.
- The name of Spartacus has remained a powerful symbol for armies of poor and oppressed people intent on overthrowing the existing political system. In 1919 a group of rebels called the Spartacus League led an unsuccessful uprising in Germany.
For more information
Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Romans. Translated by John Dryden, edited by Edmund Fuller. New York: Dell Publishing, 1959, pp. 152-57.
Hadas, Moses. Imperial Rome. New York: Time-Life Books, 1965.
Houghton, Eric. They Marched with Spartacus. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
"Ancient History Sourcebook: Slavery in the Roman Republic." http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/slavery-romrepl.html (accessed on December 1, 1999).
Spartacus (motion picture). Universal Studios Home Video, 1960.