72 BC | Italy

His Name Was Spartacus

Plutarch on the insurrection of the gladiators.

The insurrection of the gladiators and their devastation of Italy, which is generally called the war of Spartacus, originated as follows: one Lentulus Batiates kept gladiators in Capua—of whom the majority were Gauls and Thracians who had been closely confined not for any misbehavior on their part but through the villainy of their purchaser—for the purpose of fighting in the games. Two hundred of these confined men resolved to make their escape, but their design was betrayed.

Some of them learned that they had been found out and succeeded in getting away. These seventy-eight took knives and spits out of a cook’s shop and sallied out. They met on the way with some wagons that were conveying gladiators’ arms to another city; these they plundered and armed themselves. They chose three leaders, of whom the first was Spartacus, a Thracian of nomadic race, a man not only of great courage and strength, but in judgment and mildness of character superior to his condition, and more like a Greek than one would expect from his nation. They say that when Spartacus was first taken to Rome to be sold, a snake was seen folded over his face while he was sleeping, and a woman of the same tribe with Spartacus, skilled in divination and possessed by the mysterious rites of Dionysus, declared that this was a sign of a great and formidable power that would attend him to a happy termination. This woman was at that time cohabiting with Spartacus, and she made her escape with him.

The gladiators began by repelling those who came against them from Capua and getting a stock of military weapons, for which they gladly exchanged their gladiators’ arms, which they threw away as a badge of dishonor and as barbaric. Clodius the praetor was next sent against them from Rome with three thousand men; he blockaded them on a mountain that had only one ascent that was difficult and narrow—on all other sides there were steep, smooth-faced precipices. On the top of the hill there grew a great quantity of wild vines, and Spartacus’ men cut off all the shoots that they could adapt to their purpose and, intertwining them, made strong and long ladders—so that when fastened above they reached along the face of the precipice to the level ground, and they all safely descended by them. The Romans did not know what was going on, and when the gladiators surrounded them, they were put in alarm by the surprise and fled, on which the enemy took their camp. Many of the herdsmen and shepherds in those parts also joined the gladiators, men ever ready for a quarrel and light of foot; some of them the gladiators armed and others they employed as scouts and light troops. Publius Barinus the praetor was next sent against them; the gladiators engaged and put to flight his legate, a man named Furius, who led two thousand soldiers. Cossinus was then dispatched with a large force, but while he was bathing at Salenae, Spartacus, watching his opportunity, was very near seizing him. Cossinus made his escape with great difficulty, and Spartacus, seizing the baggage, closely followed up the pursuit, with great slaughter of the Romans, and he took the camp. Cossinus also fell. Spartacus had now become great and formidable, but still he did not expect to get the advantage over the power of the Romans and designed to lead his forces to the Alps, thinking that it was advisable for them to cross the mountains and to go to their homes in Thrace and Gaul. But the gladiators, being strong in numbers and confident, would not listen to him, and they went about ravaging Italy.

Painting showing Robespierre having a vision of the guillotine.

The Vision of Robespierre, by Jean Joseph Weerts, c. 1880. Musée d’Arte et d’Industrie, Roubaix, France, Giraudon, The Bridgeman Art Library. 

The Senate were now no longer troubled merely at the humiliation and disgrace that they suffered by the revolt but, moved by fear and the danger, they sent out both the consuls, as if to a war of the utmost difficulty and importance. Gellius fell on the Germans, who, by reason of their arrogance and self-confidence, had separated from Spartacus’ troops; he destroyed the whole body. After Lentulus had hemmed in Spartacus with large armies, Spartacus, rushing upon them and joining battle, defeated the legates and got all the baggage. Spartacus now attempted to force his way toward the Alps, and Cassius, who was the governor of Gaul upon the Padus, met him with ten thousand men. A battle was fought in which Cassius was defeated with great loss, and with difficulty made his escape.

The Senate, on receiving this news, angrily bade the consuls keep quiet, and they appointed Crassus to the command of the war, whose reputation and popularity induced many of the nobles to serve under him. Crassus took his station on the frontiers of Picenum, intending to wait for Spartacus, who was moving in that direction. He sent Mummius, his legate, to make a circuit at the head of two legions, and with orders to follow the enemy but not to engage with them, nor come to close quarters. But Mummius, as soon as he had what he considered a favorable opportunity, fought a battle and was defeated; many of his men fell, and many, flying without their arms, made their escape. Crassus received Mummius himself roughly, but armed the soldiers again, requiring of them security for their arms, so that they would keep them. The first five hundred to run away, those who had shown most cowardice, he distributed into fifty decades, and out of each decade he took one man by lot and put him to death; thus inflicting on the soldiers this ancient mode of punishment, decimation, which had long fallen into disuse—for disgrace also is added to the manner of death, and many things horrible and dreadful to see accompany the punishment in the presence of all the spectators. After inflicting this punishment, he made his men again about-face and march against the enemy. Spartacus, however, avoided Crassus and made his way through Lucania to the sea, and falling in with some Cilician pirate vessels, he formed a design to seize Sicily. The Cilicians came to terms with Spartacus and received his presents, but they deceived him and sailed off. Under these circumstances, he marched back from the coast and fixed his army in the peninsula of the Rhegine territory.

Crassus now came up, and observing that the nature of the ground suggested what was to be done, he resolved to build a wall across the isthmus for the purpose of keeping his soldiers employed and cutting off the supplies of the enemy. Though the undertaking was great and difficult, he accomplished it—and completed the work, contrary to all expectation, in a short time by digging a ditch from sea to sea through the neck of land, three hundred stadia in length, fifteen feet deep, and as many wide. Above the ditch he raised a rampart of surprising height and strength. At first Spartacus paid no attention to what was going on, but when forage began to fail and he wanted to advance farther into the interior, he discovered the lines of Crassus—and as there was nothing to be got in the peninsula, taking advantage of a night when there was a fall of snow and a wintry storm, he filled up a small part of the ditch with earth, wood, and the branches of trees, and so carried over a third part of his army.

All civilization has from time to time become a thin crust over a volcano of revolution.

—Havelock Ellis, 1921

Now Crassus was afraid that Spartacus might form a design to march against Rome, but he was encouraged by many of the followers of Spartacus quitting their leader, in consequence of some disputes, and encamping by themselves upon the banks of the lake Lucanis, which they say is subject to changes, at certain intervals becoming sweet, and then again salt and not potable. Crassus came upon this band and drove them from the lake, but he was prevented from cutting them to pieces and pursuing them by the sudden appearance of Spartacus, who checked the flight. Crassus had previously written to the Senate to say that they ought to summon Lucullus from Thrace and Pompey from Iberia, but he now changed his mind and made every effort to put an end to the war before they arrived, knowing that the success would be attributed to him who came last and brought help, and not to himself. Accordingly, he determined to attack first those who had separated from the main body and were carrying on the campaign by themselves under the command of Caius Cannicius and Castus. He dispatched six thousand men, with orders to occupy a certain hill and to keep themselves concealed. His men endeavored to escape notice by covering their helmets, but being seen by two women who were sacrificing for the enemy, they would have been in danger if Crassus had not quickly appeared and fought a battle, the most severely contested of all in this war, in which he destroyed 12,300 men, of whom he found only two wounded in the back—all the rest died in the ranks, fighting against the Romans.

After the defeat of this body, Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petilia, pursued by Quintius, one of Crassus’ generals, and Scrofas, his quaestor, who hung close on his rear. But, upon Spartacus facing about, the Romans were thrown into disorderly flight and made their escape, after having with difficulty rescued their quaestor, who was wounded. This success was the ruin of Spartacus, in consequence of the self-confidence that it infused into the slaves: they would not now consent to avoid a battle, nor yet would they obey their commanders, whom they surrounded with arms in their hands on the march, and compelled to lead them back through Lucania against the Romans, wherein they did the very thing that Crassus desired—for it was reported that Pompey was now approaching, and there were not a few who openly said that the victory in this war belonged to him; for he would fight as soon as he arrived and put an end to the campaign. While Crassus, therefore, who was eager to decide the affair by a battle and to fix his camp near the enemy, was engaged in digging his trenches, the slaves came up to them and attacked the men who were at work. As fresh men from both sides kept coming up to help their comrades, Spartacus, seeing that he must fight, arranged all his army in order of battle. When his horse was brought to him, he drew his sword and said that if he won the battle he should have plenty of fine horses from the enemy, and if he was defeated he should not want one—upon which he killed his horse, and then he made his way toward Crassus himself, through many men and inflicting many wounds. But he did not succeed in reaching Crassus, though he engaged with and killed two centurions. At last, after those about him had fled, he kept his ground, and surrounded by a great number, he fought till he was cut down



From Parallel Lives. Other than a passage in Appian of Alexandria’s Civil Wars, this is the only major ancient account of Spartacus; it occurs in Plutarch’s biography of Crassus, who was made consul after putting down the rebellion. Karl Marx listed Spartacus as one of his two heroes—the other was Johannes Kepler—and described him to Friedrich Engels as “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general (no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat.”