Spartacus and the Slave Revolt

Spartacus artwork. (Credit: zhuzhu via DeviantArt)

The name Spartacus was part of trend for original baby names a few years back. And well, if one does not find it particularly pretty, he or she may be interested in the name’s background.

Spartacus was born circa 111 B.C. a Thracian, originating from Indo-European tribes living near the Roman Republic positions in southeastern Europe. Little is known about his childhood but he surely ate enough to gain strength and finally either get enrolled in the Roman Army, or raid Roman legions himself.

Anyways, in both cases he eventually got captured by the Romans (thus, either for desertion or for not-having-respected-Roman-supremacy-in-the-area) and enslaved. He was then sold to a man running a gladiator school near Capua (southern Italy) where he received training, along with a gladius (sword) and a scutum (shield), very similar to the Roman legionaries’ equipment.

But Spartacus was not planning on staying there forever. In 73 B.C., he escaped with some 70 other gladiators, armed with kitchen utensils. They upgraded their weapons soon after, having seized a load of arms and armors destined for Roman soldiers, and started to recruit other former slaves on the run to grow their ranks.

The self-freed army then settled on Mount Vesuvius, where it was also joined by locals living nearby, and crushed the little Roman opposition found on its way. Led by Spartacus, the slave revolt was gaining more and more power, fed with daily new recruits as well as supplies that nourished the troops thanks to regular skirmishes on Roman positions. Obviously, Spartacus’ non-regular army was not considered a serious threat. It would change soon enough.

By 72 B.C., Spartacus’ army amounted to between 40,000 and 70,000 men. While they had now their way wide open to cross the Alps and get out of areas under Roman rule, they decided not to do so, in what remains a historical mystery. According to Barry Strauss (The Spartacus War, 2009) it was because “success might have gone to their heads and aroused visions of Rome in flames.”

But from an intact Rome, the Empire struck back. A new commander was sent at the head of the Roman soldiers: Marcus Crassus. Earning his repute from the discipline he established among his troops (notably through team building efforts such as the decimation of his own army), he engaged into his last battle against Spartacus, in 71 B.C., on the banks of the Siler River.

Just before the final act, the rebel leader got off his horse, slayed him, and said his men “If I win this battle, I’ll have as many horses as I want. But if I lose, I won’t have any use of a horse.” But his army, already cut as some insurgents had fled the battlefield, was defeated. Spartacus died among his men, and was actually never identified, probably wearing a regular armor with no way to distinguish the rebels from their charismatic leader.

Some 6,000 captured rebels were crucified on the Via Appia (Appian Way) linking Capua to Rome.

Probably not the happy ending for little Spartacus’ bedtime story… Right?

4 T
Crucified slaves (1878) by Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Source: Wikimedia)



Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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