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Spartacus and the Slave Revolt (Fall 2012)

            Very little is known about Spartacus.  Many historians believe he was a Thracian born in 109 BC, and may have been a soldier in the roman army.  As a young boy at the age of twelve, he was sold into slavery by his mother.  He worked as a slave in a mine for many years before he was bought by Lentulus Batiatus.  Spartacus was also trained as a gladiator at the gladiatorial school near Capua, which was owned by Lentulus Batiatus.  As he was being trained as a gladiator and being imprisoned as a slave, Spartacus and other fellow gladiators were planning an escape.  In this essay I aim to inform readers on the historical forces that were involved with Spartacus and the slave revolt he led.  The historical forces that I found to be present the most were politics/government and the roles of specific individuals.  The reason I believe that the historical force of politics and government was present during this time is because of the slaves.  Many wealthy people or organizations at this time would enslave people for free labor or as in Spartacus and other gladiators’ cases, for entertainment.  As for the roles of specific individuals, I find that Spartacus himself is the individual who makes the largest impact during the revolt.

            In 73 BC, a man named Crassus came to Capua to watch a gladiator match.  The match was between Spartacus and another gladiator named Dianus.  Instead of trying to kill Spartacus, Dianus tried to attack Crassus, but was killed by the guards.  After Dianus was killed, Crassus went to buy Verenia, who was Spartacus’s woman.  When one of the gladiator trainers told Spartacus that Marcus Licinius Crassus had bought Verenia, Spartacus killed the trainer.  Spartacus was so enraged that he gathered the other gladiators and they proceeded to attack the guards.  With little choice in weapons, many of the gladiators and slaves gathered kitchen tools to fight their way free from the school.  Before they left the school they took several wagons filled with gladiatorial weapons and armor.  Many slaves joined with gladiators to create the slave army.  Slaves captured their masters and made them fight and kill each other.  After the small army escaped from the school, the gladiators all chose Spartacus and two slaves – Crixus and Oenomaus – to be their leaders.

            The small army then set out immediately looting anything they could from the countryside.  As the small army’s reputation spread, many slaves that worked on farms, or had to do heavy labor, from all over the region escaped from their masters and joined up with Spartacus and his army.  Even some free men or disenfranchised joined the rebel army.  Rome responded to this growing threat slowly and inefficiently, by sending a small and lightly trained force to deal with the rebel army.  Spartacus and his army of slaves defeated the small force, and eventually seized a more defensible position on Mount Vesuvius.  Within this short amount of time, Spartacus’s army of slaves grew into the tens of thousands and continued to grow larger.  Even after Spartacus’s army defeated the force sent after them, Rome still only saw Spartacus and his rebel slaves as nothing more than an armed group of peasants that could be easily put down by any great show of force.  Rome showed no real concern over the army’s presence on Mount Vesuvius.

            One reason that Rome’s response to the slave uprising was that the Roman legions were already involved in fighting another revolt in Spain and the Third Mithridatic War.  Additionally, the Romans thought of the rebellion as more of a small matter that could be controlled from a distance rather than a war.  However, Rome sent out a militia under the command of praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber.  The militia surrounded Spartacus and his camp on Mount Vesuvius, hoping that the army would be forced to surrender due to starvation.  Glaber and his militia were surprised when Spartacus, instead, ended up attacking them.  Spartacus and his men made ropes from vines, climbed down the cliff side of the volcano, and attacked the unprotected Roman camp.  The rebel army attacked the rear of the militia, killing most of them.  Along with this victory, the rebel army also defeated a second militia sent by Rome.  Spartacus and his army nearly captured the praetor commander, but ended up killing the lieutenants and seizing the military’s armor and weapons.  With these successes, more and more slaves, as did many shepherds and herdsman from the area, gathered to join Spartacus and his rebel army.  Gaining all of these men brought Spartacus’s army up to some 70,000 men.  

            Throughout these exchanges Spartacus proved himself to be an excellent tactician, which many historians believe to mean that he may have had previous military experience.  Even though most of Spartacus’s rebel slave army lacked the military training usually required to be a part of an army, they displayed a skillful use and knowledge of the available local materials and used unusual fighting tactics when facing the disciplined Roman armies.  In the winters of 73 and 72 BC, the rebel army spent their time training.  They also focused on arming and equipping their newest recruits, and expanding their raiding territory to include the towns of Nola, Nuceria, Thruii and Metapontum to make sure that the new members of their army were fed and properly armed.  Historians agree that the distance between these locations, and the following events that occurred, indicate that the army operated in two separate groups commanded by the remaining rebel leaders Spartacus and Crixus.

            In the spring of 72 BC, Spartacus and his army left their winter encampments and began to head northward.  At the same time that Spartacus was moving his army, the Roman Senate, now alarmed by the continuing defeats of their praetorian forces, sent out a pair of consular legions under the command of Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus.  The two Roman legions were, at first, successful.  The Romans ended up defeating Crixus’s army of 30,000 slaves near Mount Garganus, but were later defeated by Spartacus and his army.  The Roman Senate became extremely alarmed by the apparently undefeatable and unstoppable rebel army.  They put Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome at the time, in charge of ending the slave rebellion.  As Marcus Licinius Crassus was the only man to volunteer for the position, he was guaranteed to get the position.  The Roman Senate enabled Marcus Licinius Crassus to be put in charge of eight legions.  These legions added up to be approximately 40,000 to 50,000 trained Roman soldiers.  Crassus treated his soldiers with harsh, sometimes even brutal, discipline.  These brutal treatments would end up decimating many of his units.  

            Historians say that Spartacus and his rebel army had retreated to the south of Italy for unknown reasons, but in early 71 BC they moved back northward.  Marcus Licinius Crassus, who knew of Spartacus’s movement to the north, positioned six of his legions on the borders of the area where Spartacus and his army were located.  Crassus also sent his other two legions, under the command of his ambassador Mummius, to maneuver behind Spartacus and his rebel army.  Marcus Licinius Crassus ordered Mummius not to engage in any sort of fighting with the slaves, but Mummius did not follow this order.  Mummius, and the two legions he was in command of, attacked Spartacus and his rebel army at a seemingly opportune moment, but ended up running away in retreat.  Even though Mummius had to retreat, Crassus’s legions were triumphant in several other battles between his legions and Spartacus’s rebel army.  With Crassus gaining the upper hand, along with the recent losses, this forced Spartacus and his army farther south through Lucania.

            Towards the end of 71 BC, Spartacus and his army set up camp near Rhegium (Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina.  According to Plutarch, an ancient philosopher, Spartacus made a deal with some Cilician pirates.  Spartacus wanted the pirates to transport him and around 2,000 of his men to Sicily.  In Sicily he planned to provoke a slave revolt and to gather more reinforcements for his army.  However, Spartacus was betrayed by the pirates.  They took the payment and then abandoned Spartacus and his rebel army.  Some historians mentioned that the rebel army attempted to build a raft and tried their hand at shipbuilding as a means of escape.  They soon abandoned their efforts because Crassus took many measures to ensure that Spartacus and his rebel army could not cross over to Sicily.  Spartacus and his rebel army then retreated toward Rhegium.  Marcus Licinius Crassus and his legions followed Spartacus and his army, and once they arrived at Rhegium Crassus had his soldiers build defenses across the peninsula.  Crassus’s soldiers managed to build these defenses despite the harassing raids from the rebel army.  Spartacus and his rebels were now under attack and completely cut off from their provisions.

            At this time, the Roman Senate ordered the legions of Pompey, who just returned from Spain, to head south to aid Crassus and his legions.  Spartacus tried in vain to reach an agreement with Crassus, but Crassus feared that the arrival of the legions of Pompey would risk him losing the credit of ending the slave rebellion.  While Crassus was busy refusing Spartacus’s agreement, a portion of Spartacus’s army fled toward the mountains west of Petelia (modern Strongoli) in Bruttium.  Crassus’s legions were soon in pursuit.  When the Roman legions were pursuing Spartacus and his army, Crassus and his legions managed to catch a small portion of the rebel army, who had separated from Spartacus and the main army.  Once this event occurred, the discipline among Spartacus’s army became nonexistent as some small groups of his army were going off on their own and attacking the pursuing legions.
            Spartacus had had enough of the pursuing Roman legions.  He now decided to turn his rebel army around and he brought his army’s complete strength to bear on the Roman legions in a final battle.  In this final battle the rebel slave army ended up retreating completely, and having most of their soldiers being killed on the battlefield.  The final battle that saw the downfall of Spartacus and his rebel army in 71 BC took place on the present-day territory of Senerchia, on the right bank of the river Sele, which at that time was a part of Lucania.  In this area today, archaeologists have found many finds of armor and weaponry that was used in the final battle.  During the final battle, Spartacus was killed, but his body was never found.  Along with the death of their leader, six thousand survivors of the rebel army were captured by Marcus Licinius Crassus’s legions.  These prisoners were crucified, lining the Appian Way from Rome all the way to Capua.

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