(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman rebellion leader{$I[g]Roman Republic;Spartacus} A gladiator of great courage and capacity for leadership, Spartacus was the main leader of the largest and most violent slave insurrection in the history of Roman civilization.

Early Life

There is little reliable information about the early life of Spartacus (SPAHR-tah-kuhs). He grew up in Thrace, then an independent region in which various ethnic tribes were struggling against the imperialistic ambitions of the Roman Republic. For a short period, Spartacus served as a Roman soldier, but he deserted and apparently joined a group of brigands. Captured by the Romans, he was condemned to a life of slavery, a common fate of criminals, prisoners of war, and any rebels who opposed Roman hegemony. A skillful and experienced fighter, Spartacus was purchased by Lentulus Batiates, the owner of a large school of gladiators in the city of Capua, about 130 miles south of Rome on the Appian Way.

In training to become a gladiator (from the Latin word gladius, which means “sword”), Spartacus was entering a profession in which he would be required to fight to the death in either public arenas or private homes. These violent exhibitions had originated at Roman funerals, because many Romans believed that those who died in combat would serve as armed attendants in the afterlife. By the time of Spartacus, gladiatorial shows had long been a popular form of entertainment, and many of the larger contests would feature approximately three hundred pairs of combatants. Only a small minority of Romans expressed any concerns about the way that crowds of thousands enjoyed the savage combats. Even Cicero, a sensitive moral philosopher, believed that the shows were socially useful as long as only convicted criminals killed one another.

Although a few men voluntarily chose to become gladiators for financial reasons, the vast majority, like Spartacus, were forced into the deadly work as a form of punishment. Not surprisingly, the gladiatorial schools had to maintain constant vigilance to prevent rebellion or escape. Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579) reports that Batiates’ school in Capua had an especially bad reputation for its cruelty. Before Spartacus, there had been sporadic cases of gladiatorial uprisings in southern Italy, and the island of Sicily had experienced two large slave revolts in 136-132 b.c.e. and 104-100 b.c.e.

Life’s Work

In 73 b.c.e. Spartacus, along with two hundred other gladiators, mostly of Thracian and Celtic background, attempted an escape from Batiates’ school, and seventy-eight, including Spartacus, succeeded. Contrary to several historical novels and a popular film, there is no documentary evidence that Spartacus ever had any idealistic vision of abolishing the institutions of slavery or gladiatorial contests. Rather, it appears that his first goal was to regain freedom for himself and his associates and to return to his home in Thrace. The historical sources also suggest that Spartacus had not entirely given up the ways of the brigand and that he wanted to steal as much wealth as he could from the Romans. Although the Romans considered Spartacus as nothing more than a ruthless criminal, Plutarch later described him as “a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition.”

At first, the fugitives were armed with only kitchen knives, but they had the good fortune of capturing wagons that transported gladiatorial arms. After leaving Capua, the escapees selected Spartacus as their main leader, and they also chose two Gauls, Crixus and Oenomaus, as lieutenant commanders. In desperation, the group sought refuge on Mount Vesuvius, but Roman officials soon learned of their location. One of the praetors, Clodius Glaber, pursued them with a small contingent of well-armed soldiers, and the soldiers soon blockaded the accessible parts of the mountain. The rebels, however, managed to descend a steep cliff by holding onto wild vines, and they were then able to rout the Romans with a surprise attack from the rear. Shortly thereafter, the rebels also defeated small detachments of soldiers commanded by two other praetors, L. Cossinius and Publius Varinius, and Spartacus captured Varinius’s horse. With each victory, the rebels captured valuable weapons that could be used in future confrontations.

As word of the initial successes of the rebellion spread, the rebels were soon joined by numerous slaves and landless laborers from the latifundia...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)