Geographical sites:

  • Capua (click here to focus in map) (see also Pleiades #432754)
    Pleiades_icon Capua settlement, amphitheatre, arch Geocontext: S. Maria Capua Vetere
    Description: An important ancient city of Campania with Villanovan and Etruscan origins.


Text #107

Plutarch. Lives. Series: Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Vol. 3
[Plut. Crass. 8--11. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Harvard University Press. 1916. (11 Vols.) p. 335]


8. 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, who at this latter time also accompanied him in his flight, his country- woman, a kind of prophetess, and one of those possessed with the bacchanal frenzy, declared that it was a sign portending great and formidable power to him with no happy event.

9. 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 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, who stayed there to throw them down their arms, and after this succeeded in saving himself. The Romans were ignorant of all this, and, therefore, coming upon them in the rear, they assaulted them unawares and took their camp. Several also, of the shepherds and herdsmen that were there, stout and nimble fellows, revolted over to them, to some of whom they gave complete arms, and made use of others as scouts and light-armed soldiers.

Publius Varinius, the praetor, was now sent against them, whose lieutenant, Furius with two thousand men, they fought and routed. Then Cossinius was sent with considerable forces, to give his assistance and advice, and him Spartacus missed but very little of capturing in person, as he was bathing at Salinae; for he with great difficulty made his escape, while Spartacus possessed himself of his baggage, and following the chase with a great slaughter, stormed his camp and took it, where Cossinius himself was slain. After many successful skirmishes with the praetor himself, in one of which he took his lictors and his own horse, he began to be great and terrible; but wisely considering that he was not to expect to match the force of the empire, 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 puffed up with their success, would give no obedience to him, but went about and ravaged Italy; so that now the senate was not only moved at the indignity and baseness, both of the enemy and of the insurrection, but, looking upon it as a matter of alarm and of dangerous consequence sent out both the consuls to it, as to a great and difficult enterprise. The consul Gellius, falling suddenly upon a party of Germans, who through contempt and confidence had straggled from Spartacus, cut them all to pieces. But when Lentulus with a large army besieged Spartacus, 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 had much ado to escape himself, with the loss of a great many of his men.

10. When the senate understood this, they were displeased at the consuls, and ordering them to meddle no further, 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, 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 made them find sureties for their arms, that they would part with them no more, and five hundred that were the beginners of the flight he divided into fifty tens and one of each was to die by lot, thus reviving the ancient Roman punishment of decimation, where ignominy is added to the penalty of death, with a variety of appalling and terrible circumstances, presented before the eyes of the whole army, assembled as spectators.

When he had thus reclaimed his men, 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. He thereupon retired again from the sea, and established his army in the peninsula of Rhegium; there Crassus came upon him, and considering the nature of the place, which of itself suggested the undertaking, he set to work to build a wall across the isthmus; thus keeping his soldiers at once from idleness and his foes from forage. This great and difficult work he perfected in a space of time short beyond all expectation, making a ditch from one sea to the other, over the neck of land, three hundred furlongs long, fifteen feet broad, and as much in depth, and above it built a wonderfully high and strong wall. All which Spartacus at first slighted and despised, but when provisions began to fail, and on his proposing to pass further, he found he was walled in, and no more was to be had in the peninsula, taking the opportunity of a snowy, stormy night, he filled up part of the ditch with earth and boughs of trees, and so passed the third part of his army over.

11. Crassus was afraid lest he should march directly to Rome, but was soon eased of that fear when he saw many of his men break out in a mutiny and quit him, and encamped by themselves upon the Lucanian lake. This lake they say changes at intervals of time, and is sometimes sweet, and sometimes so salt that it cannot be drunk. Crassus falling upon these 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 repent that he had previously written to the senate to call Lucullus out of Thrace, and Pompey out of Spain; so that he did all he could to finish the war before they came, knowing that the honour of the action would redound to him that came to his assistance. 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 eminence, 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 hazard, had not Crassus immediately appeared, and engaged in a battle which proved a most bloody one. Of twelve thousand three hundred whom he killed, two only were found wounded in their backs, the rest all having died standing in their ranks and fighting bravely.

Spartacus, after this discomfiture 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 had much ado 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 which Crassus was eager for. For news 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.

But though Crassus had good fortune, and not only did the part of a good general, but gallantly exposed his person, yet Pompey had much of the credit of the action. For he met with many of the fugitives, and slew them, and wrote to the senate that Crassus indeed had vanquished 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 so much as desire a triumph in its full form, and indeed it was thought to took but meanly in him to accept of the lesser honour, called the ovation, for a servile war, and perform a procession on foot.

Text #9481

Florus. The Epitome of Roman History
[Flor. . Loeb Classical Library. 1929]

2. 8. 20

We may, however, support 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 the war raised by the efforts of Spartacus I know not by what name to call, for the soldiers in it were slaves, and the commanders gladiators; the former being persons of the meanest 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 fencing school of Lentulus escaped from Capua, with not more than thirty of the same occupation, and, having called the slaves to their standard, and collected a force of more than ten thousand men, 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 penetrated to the very bottom of it; when, issuing forth by an outlet apparently impracticable, they captured, by a sudden attack, the camp of the Roman general, who expected no molestation. They afterwards took other camps, and spread themselves to Cora, and through the whole of Campania. Not content with plundering the country seats and villages, they ravaged, with terrible devastation, Nola and Nuceria, Thurii and Metapontum. Being joined by new forces day after day, and forming themselves into a regular army, they made themselves, out of osiers 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 wanting to the complement of the army, they procured cavalry by breaking in the herds of horses that came in their way, and conferred upon their leader the ensigns and fasces that they took from the praetors. Nor did he, who of a mercenary Thracian had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a deserter and robber, and afterwards, from consideration 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 obsequies of Roman generals, and obliged the prisoners to fight with arms at their funeral piles, 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 deliberated (which is sufficient disgrace for us) about assailing Rome. 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, betook themselves 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, on the swift current of the strait, to sail on rafts made of hurdles and casks tied together with twigs, they at last sallied forth, and died a death worthy of men. As was fitting for a gladiator captain, they fought without sparing themselves. Spartacus himself, fighting with the utmost bravery in the front of the battle, fell as became their general.

Text #9482

Appian. Roman History. Vol. 2
[App. BCiv. 1.8.111--1.8.121. Translated by Horace White. The Macmillan Company. 1912. (2 Vols.) p. 78]



111 The following year, which was in the 176th Olympiad, two countries were acquired by the Romans by bequest. Bithynia was left to them by Nicomedes, and Cyrene by Ptolemy Apion, of the house of the Lagidae. There were wars and wars; the Sertorian was raging in Spain, the Mithridatic in the East, that of the pirates on the entire sea, and another one around Crete against the Cretans themselves, besides the gladiatorial war in Italy, which started suddenly and became very serious.

116. 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 for a gladiator, and was in the gladiatorial training-school at Capua, persuaded about seventy of his comrades to strike for their own freedom rather than for the amusement of spectators. They overcame the guards and ran away, arming themselves with clubs 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 neighboring country, having for subordinate officers two gladiators named Oenomaus and Crixus. As he divided the plunder impartially he soon had plenty of men. Varinius Faber was first sent against him and afterward Publius Valerius, not with regular armies, but with forces picked up in haste 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 the horse of Varinius; so narrowly did a Roman praetor escape being captured by a gladiator.

After this still greater numbers flocked to Spartacus till his army numbered 70,000 men. For these he manufactured weapons and collected apparatus.

117. Rome now sent out the consuls with two legions. One of them overcame Crixus with 30,000 men near Mount Garganus, two-thirds of whom perished together with himself. Spartacus endeavored to make his way through the Apennines to the Alps and the Gallic country, 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 foot, 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, for no city had joined him, but only slaves, deserters, and riffraff. However, he occupied the mountains around Thurii and took 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 largely of 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 arms and continued in robbery for the time being. When they next came to an engagement with the Romans they were again victorious, and returned laden with spoils.

118. This war, so formidable to the Romans (although ridiculous and contemptible in the beginning, considered as the work of gladiators), had now lasted three years. When the election of new praetors came on, fear fell upon all, 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. Whichever way it was, he demonstrated to them that he was more dangerous to them than the enemy. Presently he overcame l0,000 of the Spartacans, who were encamped somewhere in a detached position, and killed two-thirds of them. He then marched boldly against Spartacus himself, vanquished him in a brilliant engagement, and pursued his fleeing forces to the sea, where they tried to pass over to Sicily. He overtook them and enclosed them with a line of circumvallation consisting of ditch, wall, and paling.

119. Spartacus tried to break through and make an incursion into the Samnite country, but Crassus slew 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 fagots into the ditch and set them on fire and made their labor 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.

120. On account of this vote Crassus tried in every way to come to an engagement with Spartacus so that Pompey might not reap the glory of the war. Spartacus himself, thinking to anticipate Pompey, invited Crassus to come to terms with him. When his proposals were rejected with scorn he resolved 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 Brundusium with Crassus in pursuit. When Spartacus learned that Lucullus had just arrived in Brundusium from his victory over Mithridates he despaired of everything and brought his forces, which were even then very numerous, 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 slain. 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 6000, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome.

121. Crassus accomplished his task within six months, whence arose a contention for honors between himself and Pompey.

Text #9483

Orosius. Histories

5. 24. 1-8

1. In the six hundred and seventy-ninth year after the founding of the City, in the consulship of Lucullus and Cassius, seventy-four gladiators at Capua escaped from the training school of Cn. Lentulus. These immediately, under the leadership of Crixus and Oenomaus who were Gauls, and Spartacus, a Thracian, occupied Mount Vesuvius. Rushing down from there, they captured the camp of Clodius, the praetor, who had encircled them in a siege, and when he had been driven into flight, they turned their complete attention to plundering.

2. Then, going about through Consentia and Metapontum, they gathered together huge forces in a short time. For Crixus was reported to have had a multitude of ten thousand, and Spartacus three times as many; Oenomaus had already been killed in an earlier battle.

3. And so when the fugitives were confusing everything with slaughters, conflagrations, plunderings, and defilements, at the funeral of a captive woman who had killed herself out of grief for her outraged honor, they presented a gladiatorial performance with four hundred captives, that is, those who had been the ones to be viewed, were to view, namely, as trainers of gladiators rather than as commanders of troops.

4. The consuls, Gellius and Lentulus, were sent against them with their army. Of these, Gellius overcame Crixus who fought very bravely, and Lentulus, when overcome by Spartacus, fled. Later also, both consuls, after having joined forces in vain, fled, suffering heavy losses. Then the same Spartacus, after defeating C. Cassius, the proconsul, in battle, killed him.

5. And so, with the City terrified with almost no less fear than when Hannibal was raging at the gates, they became alarmed and sent Crassus with the legions of the consuls and a new complement of soldiers. 6. He presently, after entering battle with the fugitives, killed six thousand of them, but captured only nine hundred. Then, before he approached Spartacus himself in battle, who was laying out a camp at the head of the Silarus River, he overcame the Gallic and German auxiliaries of Spartacus, of whom he killed thirty thousand men with their leaders. 7. After he had organized his battle line, he met Spartacus himself and killed him with most of the forces of the fugitives. For sixty thousand of them are reported to have been killed and six thousand captured, and three thousand Roman citizens were recovered. 8. The remaining gladiators, who had slipped away from this battle and wandered off, were killed by many generals in persistent pursuit.

18-19. Apart from those three very vast wars, that is, the Pamphylian, the Macedonian, and the Dalmatian, although, too, that great Mithridatic War, by far the longest of all, the most dangerous, and the most dreadful, was concealed as to its true character; still, while the Sertorian War in Spain was not yet ended, rather while Sertorius himself was still living, that war against the fugitive slaves, to describe it more accurately, that war against the gladiators, caused great horrors which were to be seen by few, but everywhere to be feared. Because this war is called the war against the fugitive slaves, let it not be held of little consequence because of the name. Often in that war, individual consuls and sometimes both consuls with their battle lines joined in vain were overcome and a great many nobles were slain. Moreover, there were more than one hundred fugitives who were slain.

Text #9484

Badenov. "'As many enemies as there are slaves’: Spartacus and the politics of servile rebellion in the late republic"


A short essay on the politics (real and imagined) of the Three Servile Wars that shook the Roman Empire, with an emphasis on the rebellion led by Spartacus between 73 and 71 B.C.

There is arguably no other figure from Classical Antiquity that has been more lionized and idealized by posterity as the symbol of popular resistance in the face of oppressive injustice, than Spartacus. His life story has inspired people from wildly different backgrounds: from eighteenth century Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture, nicknamed the “black Spartacus”, to early twentieth century German Marxists (who formed the Spartacist League), to sixties American film directors. It is ironic however that this modern, and universally positive, view of Spartacus is ultimately derived from a few inconclusive passages in some ancient sources, which contradict each other in several respects, and barely form a coherent narrative. What this contradiction ultimately points to, is not necessarily that posterity has chosen to substitute historical facts for heroic tragedy, but rather that the historical facts themselves are tragically lacking. A reading of all the available sources will undoubtedly give us some valuable details as to the succession of events that constituted the Third Servile War, but will it reveal the intentions, hopes and plans of the people who fought with Spartacus against the legions of Rome? Ultimately, we are left to wonder if Spartacus and his troops were truly fighting against slavery and oppression, as popular myth seems to suggest, or if they were rather concerned simply with evading enslavement themselves without necessarily seeking to abolish slavery as an institution.

For this reason, in this essay, I will be analyzing in detail the available historical sources, with the purpose of understanding the motivations of Spartacus and the people who fought on the losing side in the war of 73-71 B.C. I will start with an in-depth discussion on the information pertaining to the Spartacus rebellion that we have available from ancient authors. To better frame and understand the real significance of these events, I will place the events of the Third Servile War in the wider context of conflict between slaves and slave-owners during the Republican period; this will reveal that while Spartacus’ rebellion was in many ways unique, it was by no means a singular event. The discussion will conclude with an evaluation of the literature pertaining to Spartacus, that will hopefully help reconstruct the personality and opinions of the Thracian leader, and put the ill-fated rebellion he helped lead in a new historical perspective.

One of the more complete, albeit not necessarily accurate, accounts of Spartacus’ exploits is given by Plutarch in his Lives, and more specifically in the chapter on Crassus. Here we learn that the last great slave rebellion of Antiquity started in fact as a minor disturbance at a gladiator school in Capua. Because of what Plutarch describes as the injustice of the school’s owner, two hundred slaves, mostly Thracians and Gauls, planned to rebel, but owing to treachery, only seventy-eight managed to escape, armed initially only with kitchen tools and improvised weapons.1 Among them was Spartacus, a Thracian, who is described by Plutarch as being of “great courage […] strength […] sagacity […] culture […] and more Hellenic than Thracian.”2 This is a great compliment coming from the Greek Plutarch, for whom “Greekness” was the most important quality that any great leader could possess,3 and although great leaders tended, as a rule, to come from Greek and Roman stock in Plutarch’s Lives, Spartacus is seen as the one great barbarian exception. It is ironic that even though this account is part of the Life of Crassus, Plutarch thinks very little of Crassus himself, and describes him as cruel and opportunistic,4 traits that stand in sharp contrast with Spartacus’ Hellenic quality.

Plutarch’s description emerges then as the basis for the myth of Spartacus as the noble barbarian warrior, and is perhaps largely responsible for how the rebel leader has been historically reappropriated by popular opinion. Plutarch’s account of Spartacus’ military prowess and conduct in battle also reinforce this view. We are told, for example, that while Spartacus was committed to obtaining freedom for himself and his fellow slaves, he never hungered for fame and glory and “took [the] proper view of the situation” when dealing with the numerically and militarily superior Roman army. It was only because of the overconfidence and small-mindedness that characterized some of his troops, that he was gradually weakened and ultimately defeated.

What Plutarch has to say about Spartacus’ ultimate goals is little and confusing. We are told that Spartacus was originally intent on ensuring for his men safe passage to their countries of origin (most being from Gaul and Thrace), but that this plan was largely sabotaged by some factions of his armies who were more content with the idea of ravaging through Italy indefinitely. After retreating to Southern Italy, Spartacus’ long-term strategy changed to a suspiciously more aggressive one; Plutarch tells us that he was bent on crossing into Sicily where he intended to rekindle servile unrest, but was betrayed at the last moment by the Cilician pirates that were supposed to ensure safe passage for him and his troops. It is doubtful however that the slave rebellion of the Second Servile War, which had occurred almost thirty years before Spartacus’ time, was still alive and needed “only a little additional fuel.” Adding to that was the lack of cohesiveness inside Spartacus’ own camp, and the fact that his rebellion had not managed to inspire any solidarity movements in Rome or anywhere else in Italy. We can only speculate therefore as to what Spartacus’ plans for Sicily would have been, but it is likely that he himself did not know for certain, and that crossing into Sicily was a desperate move in an attempt to avoid a war with the superior Roman forces.

One other account that deals in some detail with Spartacus’ rebellion comes from Appian, who, although writing in a markedly more ambivalent tone than Plutarch, still manages to give us some precious details concerning the conduct and character of the rebel leader. Appian’s account confirms the number of seventy-eight initial insurgents found in Plutarch, and also mentions that Spartacus was soon joined by a number of “freemen from the fields”5 (Plutarch refers to them specifically as herdsmen and shepherds). It is also revealed that Spartacus had been formerly a Roman soldier, something which helps explain his tactical intelligence on the battlefield. Unlike Plutarch however, Appian emphasizes the fact that this was first and foremost a slave rebellion; we are told thus that no Italian city joined the rebellion by choice; that those individuals who did, were mostly slaves and “riff-raff,” and that Spartacus personally refused many Roman deserters who “offered themselves to him.”

While the portrait of Spartacus found in Appian’s account is by no means exhaustive or more complete than that found in Plutarch, it does offer us certain intriguing details. Although Appian describes Spartacus as an efficient and brave leader (without explicitly praising him), he also gives us a somewhat more nuanced picture of the servile leader. For example, we are told that after a successful move against the Romans, Spartacus sacrificed 300 prisoners “to the shade of Crixus,” one of his officers, who had fallen in battle, and began marching on Rome with the remainder of his troops. This is in stark contrast with the picture of the almost excessively rational and prudent Spartacus that we find in Plutarch. It could be that Appian was simply not as convinced of Spartacus’ Hellenic character, but the ways in which his account differs from that of Plutarch do not always cast a bad light on Spartacus. We are told in fact that Spartacus soon abandoned his plans to march on Rome, realizing that this would be a suicidal endeavour, and, more interestingly, that while he occupied the city of Thurii, Spartacus “prohibited the bringing in of gold or silver by merchants, and would not allow his own men to acquire any.” As Barry Baldwin has observed, this is one of the few aspects of Spartacus’ strategy that can be seen to somewhat justify the image of him as a supporter of an utopian ideal.6 Spartacus’ insistence to keep the rebellion a slave rebellion, something which can be inferred both from Plutarch’s as well as Appian’s accounts, also seems to support the idea that the slave leader could have been motivated to a degree by a sense of class consciousness. It would be inappropriate and anachronistic however, to assign a specifically class-based and revolutionary agenda to Spartacus, and, as a discussion of the first two Servile Wars will reveal, slave rebellions in ancient Italy were generally not concerned with, and perhaps even opposed to, abolishing slavery as an institution.

Despite Appian’s ambivalent tone, Spartacus is ultimately presented as a shrewd and able leader. Appian even claims that Spartacus tried to strike a peace deal with Crassus, who, we are told, scornfully rejected it; this suggests that despite his occasional ruthlessness (something which is not found in all accounts, and certainly not in Plutarch), Spartacus was not by any means a blood-thirsty tyrant, and was equally open to diplomatic, as well as military, solutions.

Although Plutarch and Appian do not give us a definitive picture of who Spartacus was and what he hoped to achieve, their accounts are unfortunately the most complete ones that have been preserved. If we are however to attempt a synthesis of all the different perspectives on Spartacus that ancient authors have to offer us, into a more coherent and authentic portrait of the slave leader, it will be useful to look at other more fragmented accounts as well. In a short and poorly preserved fragment from The Histories, Sallust, closest chronologically, out of all those who wrote to some extent about the events of the Third Servile War, gives us a glimpse into the character of Spartacus as military leader. We are told that while Spartacus’ officer, Crixus, wanted to recklessly engage the enemy at all costs, Spartacus himself proposed a strategy of “[moving] out into wider plains […] where chosen men would increase their numbers before [the Romans] could arrive with a fresh army.”7 Some slaves, we are told, preferred however to engage in pillaging, raping and looting, “things [that] Spartacus was powerless to prevent although he begged them with frequent entreaties.” We can see here a picture which, although severely incomplete, tends to converge with Plutarch’s description of Spartacus as an evenhanded, pragmatic, and even compassionate leader, and it is of course possible, and likely, that Plutarch had access to, and was influenced by, a more complete version of Sallust’s account, that is now lost to us.

Livy also mentions the Spartacus rebellion, in passing, indicating that the revolt started with seventy-four (as opposed to the seventy-eight mentioned by Appian and Plutarch) gladiators in Capua, and soon grew large enough that Crixus was in charge of 20,000 men (Appian purports a figure of 30,000) when he was defeated by the praetor Quintus Arrius.8 For the final battle between Spartacus and Crassus, Livy advances a figure of 60,000 troops on the rebels’ side, a figure which rises to 90,000 in the pro-Crassus account of Velleius Paterculus.9 One of the more decidedly anti-Spartacus accounts is that of Lucius Annaeus Florius, writing in the second century A.D. He agrees with Appian that Spartacus had initially been a mercenary in the service of Rome before ending up as a gladiator in Capua, but carefully avoids presenting the Thracian as a hero (although he concedes that Spartacus fought his last battle with great bravery, in a manner befitting a Roman general).10 For Florus, writing at the height of Rome’s imperial power, an army of slaves was no more than an abomination, a pack of “ravening monsters.” He argues that Spartacus’ supreme goal was to march on Rome, something which he was dissuaded from only by the timely intervention of Crassus’ forces. This is probably a distortion of Appian’s account however, in which Spartacus, before confronting Crassus, briefly considered the option of marching on Rome but soon dismissed it as unrealistic. Keith Bradley has argued that whatever ambition the rebels may have entertained of occupying Rome, the plan to do so, if ever there was one, cannot be conclusively attributed either to Spartacus or to any of his officers as the rebels effectively lacked a unified war strategy or single long-term goal.11 Barry Baldwin has suggested that Spartacus was probably “in much the same dilemma as Hannibal after Cannae,” and that given his military prowess, attested to, among others, by the ancient military historian Frontinus,12 Spartacus would most certainly have been aware that he lacked the siege weapons necessary to take a major city like Rome, and the manpower to keep the newly arriving Roman legions at bay.

The remaining sources that deal with Spartacus are either combinations of sources that we have already discussed, like Orosius, a fifth century A.D. historian who borrows from Appian, Sallust and Florus in his short treatment of the Third Servile War,13 or offer us so little information (sometimes no more than a sentence) that it is hard to infer what the author’s opinion concerning Spartacus truly was. From this latter category, the more noteworthy references are from Varro, who stated that Spartacus “was an innocent man, [but] was condemned to a gladiatorial school,”14 Diodorus Siculus, who praised Spartacus for his altruistic and moral character,15 and Athenaeus, who compares Spartacus to Eunus, the man who had led the slave rebellion in Sicily during the First Servile War.16 This final reference leads us into a discussion on the two major slave rebellions that preceded that of Spartacus, both of which took place in Sicily, a discussion which will better help us understand both the success of Spartacus’ revolt as well as the reasons for its ultimate failure.

The First Servile War (135–132 B.C.) began with a rebellion led by a Syrian slave, Eunus, which rapidly spread to the city of Enna, and then to most of Sicily. The main source that deals extensively with these events is the work of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus but Livy, Florus and Appian, among others, also discuss the revolt. Diodorus traces the causes of this uprising to a background of brigandage perpetrated by mistreated, and increasingly numerous, slaves, whose masters were however too powerful to be prosecuted or in any way held responsible by the Roman governors and magistrates in charge of administering the affairs of the province. Appian confirms the notion that the landed Sicilian aristocrats were largely to blame for the events of the First Slave War, by suggesting that they relied heavily on the use of slave labour and avoided as much as possible employing freemen (who were subject to the military draft), a problem which, as we well know, concerned not only slaves but also Roman reformers like Tiberius Gracchus. Diodorus also points out that many of the slave-brigands were usually employed as herdsmen by their masters, which recalls Plutarch’s account of Spartacus’ revolt, where we are told that amongst the first to support the rebellion where the shepherds and herdsmen of the various regions of Italy that Spartacus passed through. This suggests that the living conditions of Italian slaves were similar to those of Sicilian slaves, and this is one possible explanation for why a rebellion started and led by a group of gladiators, found great support amongst the wider slave population of the peninsula.

There are also some interesting, albeit somewhat conjectural, similarities between the leader of the first Sicilian revolt, Eunus, and Spartacus. We are told for example that the former was known in Enna as a magician and prophet and that prior to the revolt he claimed that a “Syrian goddess appeared to him, saying that he should be king.” Spartacus too had associations with mystic prophecy; Plutarch recounts that when the Thracian was first brought to Rome to be sold into slavery, “a serpent was seen coiled about his face as his slept” and that his wife, a prophetess of Dionysos, interpreted the incident as “a sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.” Eunus, we are told, most probably made up such mystical stories himself to impress gullible audiences, and it is very likely that the prophesy reported by Plutarch, is a popular myth that Spartacus himself had nothing to do with. What this similarity nonetheless tells us, is that slave rebellions were often tied in with religious fervour, and that whatever chances the slaves thought they stood against the Roman legions, going to war in the first place required the sanctioning of divine providence.

Unlike Spartacus however, Eunus never even pretended to be fighting for any type of social justice; all he presumably desired was to defeat the slave-owners at their own game. Diodorus tells us that he crowned himself king and that he traveled around with an entourage suitable to a real monarch; when he was later captured, Eunus had with him a personal massager and a buffoon, both presumably his slaves. This points to what is perhaps the most confusing feature of the first two servile wars (and arguably of the third one as well), namely that they did not express in any manner a mass opposition to slavery per se, on moral and ethical grounds. As Peter Green has argued, it would be a mistake for modern historians to ascribe to the Servile Wars any sort of primitive socialist agenda, as the slaves had no noticeable desire to own and manage the means of production in an egalitarian fashion; rather they sought to appropriate “the existing institutions and natural amenities of an exceptionally fertile island, and presumably to hold it against all comers.”17

This explanation could easily be extended to other revolts if we remember that the one led by Eunus, despite its extremely short-sighted goals and its leader’s flamboyant persona, inspired a series of similar rebellions at the time all throughout Italy (including Rome itself) as well as in some Eastern provinces like Attica. If it was not ideology that inspired these uprisings, it must have been the power of example; for all his megalomania, Eunus represented a success story of armed resistance against the Roman landed elite. Why then, we may ask, was Spartacus not only unable to inspire even one copycat would-be rebel leader, but unable even to create a clear hierarchy of power amongst his own followers? Why did he not declare himself king in the manner of Eunus and pursue a campaign of terror against the general populace?

One possible answer could be that Spartacus could not command the same respect and authority from his own followers as the mock king of Sicily, but the great number of men that remained with him even after the defeat of Crixus, and the fact that almost all ancient authors writing about the Third Servile War agree on Spartacus’ bravery and strength of character, if on nothing else, seem to make that answer implausible. Another possibility is that Spartacus had in fact a much more subtle strategy that did not resonate with the opportunistic short-term goals of previous rebellions, especially after the escapist plan of returning to his homeland had proven unrealistic. We can infer that Spartacus found some support with the population of freemen that he encountered across Italy from the fact that his armies grew considerably in the span of only a few months despite the absence of any concomitant slave uprisings.18 The fact that the Spartacan cause managed somewhat to bridge the divide between proletari and slaves, suggests that it did perhaps contain ideological promises of a more just and egalitarian societal order. There is no way of knowing for certain of course, but given the available historical evidence, it does stand out as a remarkable possibility. The fact however remains that the principal way in which slave rebellions became influential, and thus dangerous to the stability of the state, in the ancient world, was through the power of example. This is reinforced by the events of the Second Servile War (104-100 B.C.) which mirror those of the First to such an extent, that some modern historians have suggested that the latter is in fact no more than a literary afterthought on the former, concocted by ancient Greek and Roman historians.19

There are however sufficient differences to warrant the view that the Second Servile War was a real and distinct event. One such difference lies in its causes, which, as Diodorus tells us, had to do with a crisis brought on by the Senate’s decree to free from slavery all citizens of allied states. This was done in response to the increasing inability of some vassals, like the king of Bithynia, to meet the military quota imposed on them by Rome. Eight hundred slaves were freed in Sicily as a consequence, at the governor’s request, and the remaining slave population of the island, many of whom probably had vivid memories of Eunus and his men, grew increasingly restless. An armed rebellion soon followed, divided initially into two main factions that later merged under the rulership of one Salvus. Like Eunus and Spartacus, Salvus was connected to spiritual activity and divination, and like Eunus, he was a self-interested and short-sighted leader who was unable to take full advantage of his initial military successes.

Spartacus’ failed attempt to take Sicily marked not only the end of major slave uprisings on that island, but throughout all of Italy. This was due in part to the improvement in the working conditions on the Italian and Sicilian latifundia during the period following the Servile and Social Wars, but also to what was visibly the dead-end strategy that had informed the leaders of the great slave rebellions. Eunus and Salvus had been moderately successful in their efforts against the slave-owning landed gentry of Sicily, but their intentions had never been to replace the oppressive and dehumanizing system of slavery with something better; ultimately, their attempts to beat the slave-masters at their own game were bound to fail. In the case of Spartacus’ failure, the explanation is harder to delineate. As I have argued in this essay, it is possible, and even likely, that the military pragmatism of the Thracian leader, coupled with his ability to quickly raise impressive numbers of troops both from amongst slaves as well as freemen, suggest that his long-term plans were far more sophisticated and nuanced than the monarchical travesty of his Sicilian predecessors.

Unfortunately however, the “Sicilian strategy” was in many ways the norm that most rebel slaves would have adopted in the case of an uprising, and we clearly see in Crixus (as well as in Oenomaus, Spartacus’ other dissenting general) the tendency to replace any notion of class-based warfare with the short-termed benefits of looting and pillaging. What Spartacus’ real intentions were, during those couple of years of desperate fighting and retreating, we can only speculate within the bounds that historical evidence and common sense suggest, viz. the self-indulgent opportunism of Eunus on one extreme, and the idealized stoic revolutionary of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece on the other. What emerges however, out of such speculation, is bound to be, more or less, the picture of a person trapped, through a sudden chain of events, in a no-win situation, trying to make ends meet; a picture which, as the embodiment of human precariousness, helps perhaps explain the enduring legend that is Spartacus.

Vlad S. 2010

  1. Plut. Cras. 8.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing, 2008), 68.
  4. Plut. Cras. 10-11.
  5. App., BC, I. 116.
  6. Barry Baldwin, “Two Aspects of the Spartacus Slave Revolt,” The Classical Journal 62 (1967): 291
  7. Sallust, The Histories, III. 3.96 (Maurenbrecher)
  8. Livy, Periochae, 96.
  9. Valeius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, 2.30.5-6. Paterculus even argues that it was Crassus, not Pompey, who finished off the war and celebrated a triumph in Rome.
  10. Florus, Epitome of Roman History, 2.8.
  11. Keith Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), 96.
  12. Sextus Julius Frontinus, Strategies, 1.5.20-22, 2.5.34.
  13. Paulus Orosius, History against the Pagans, 5.24.
  14. Varro in Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, trans. and ed. by Brent D. Shaw (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), 156
  15. Diodorus Siculus in Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, 156.
  16. Athenaeus in Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, 155.
  17. Peter Green, “The First Sicilian Slave War,” Past and Present 20 (1961): 20
  18. Michael Parenti, “Roman Slavery and the Class Divide: Why Spartacus Lost” in Spartacus: Film and History ed. Martin M. Winkler (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 147.
  19. Brent D. Shaw, ed. Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents, 107.

Please view our Legal Notice before you make use of this Database.

See also our Credits page for info on data we are building upon.