The Spartacus War is the extraordinary story of the most famous slave rebellion in the ancient world, the fascinating true story behind a legend that has been the inspiration for novelists, filmmakers, and revolutionaries for 2,000 years. Starting with only seventy-four men, a gladiator named Spartacus incited a rebellion that threatened Rome itself. With his fellow gladiators, Spartacus built an army of 60,000 soldiers and controlled the southern Italian countryside. A charismatic leader, he used religion to win support. An ex-soldier in the Roman army, Spartacus excelled in combat. He defeated nine Roman armies and kept Rome at bay for two years before he was defeated. After his final battle, 6,000 of his followers were captured and crucified along Rome's main southern highway.
The Spartacus War is the dramatic and factual account of one of history's great rebellions. Spartacus was beaten by a Roman general, Crassus, who had learned how to defeat an insurgency. But the rebels were partly to blame for their failure. Their army was large and often undisciplined; the many ethnic groups within it frequently quarreled over leadership. No single leader, not even Spartacus, could keep them all in line. And when faced with a choice between escaping to freedom and looting, the rebels chose wealth over liberty, risking an eventual confrontation with Rome's most powerful forces.
The result of years of research, The Spartacus War is based not only on written documents but also on archaeological evidence, historical reconstruction, and the author's extensive travels in the Italian countryside that Spartacus once conquered.
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Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University, is a leading expert on ancient military history. He has written or edited several books, including The Battle of Salamis, The Trojan War, and The Spartacus War. Visit BarryStrauss.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In 73 b.c., six hundred and eighty-one years after the founding of the city of Rome, during the consulship of Lucullus (Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus) and Cassius (Gaius Cassius Longinus), the republic was fighting wars at both ends of the Mediterranean. In Spain, Pompey ground down the renegade Roman commander Sertorius by taking out his strongholds one by one. In Asia Minor, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the consul's brother, began an invasion of the homeland of King Mithridates, who had fought Rome on and off for fifteen years. In the Balkans, Gaius Scribonius Curio was the first Roman general, along with his legion, to see the Danube River. In Crete, Antony got ready to sail out against pirates attacking Roman shipping.
Given the big picture, the gladiators' revolt might have seemed minor. Capua had seen a slave revolt before, in 104 b.c., which had been crushed by barely the number of troops in a single legion -- four thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry, for a total of 4,400 men -- led by a praetor, a leading Roman public official. So the obvious policy in 73 was to send in the praetor.
In Rome, the Senate set public policy. Senators were all very wealthy men, and almost all members of a few elite families. They had automatically become senators, without election, after holding high public office, and they served for life. They were the oligarchy that ran Rome, except for those occasions when they were challenged by a general like Marius or Sulla. Once rare, those challenges had become more frequent. But in 73 b.c., the senators enjoyed a period of power.
The senators chose Caius Claudius Glaber to send against Spartacus. He was one of eight praetors that year, each of them at least thirty-nine years old, and each elected to an annual term. They were men of great expectations, since the praetors were the second highest-ranking of the annually elected public officials in Rome; only the two consuls stood higher. Who was Glaber? We hardly know. He never rose to the consulate and he had no known descendants. He was a plebeian with probably at most a distant link to the more famous members of the Claudius clan. His obscurity was another sign of how little attention Rome gave Spartacus.
Glaber led a force slightly smaller than the one sent against the rebels of 104 b.c.: three thousand men instead of 4,400 and, so far as we know, no cavalry. But the first revolt had been led by a Roman citizen who was a knight, no less, while the latest uprising was the work of barbarians and slaves. Apparently the Romans felt more confident in 73 than in 104.
The news from Capua was digested, analyzed, and classified. It was, to quote Caesar, "a tumultus of slaves." A tumultus was a sudden outbreak of violence requiring an emergency response. It was a serious matter but not organized war (bellum, in Latin).
As we know, Romans looked down on slaves. Their servile nature, said one contemporary, made slaves cruel, greedy, violent, and fanatical while denying them nobility or generosity of spirit. For slaves to behave courageously was against nature. For slaves to behave like free men was strictly for the Saturnalia, an annual celebration featuring role reversal -- as a Roman officer once remarked in disgust when his men had to fight freed slaves. In revolt slaves were a nuisance but not a major problem. Or so the Romans told themselves, although the stubborn resistance of Sicily's slaves in two revolts (135-132 and 104-100 b.c.) should have taught them otherwise.
And then there were the gladiators and their leader. Doublethink runs like a red thread through Roman attitudes toward Spartacus. Fear and scorn, hatred and admiration, indifference and obsession -- they were all there. For the Romans, gladiators were to be fed, trained, cheered, adored, ogled, bedded, buried, and even, occasionally, freed, but, never, never to be treated as equals.
As a slave and a Thracian barbarian, Spartacus was despicable to Romans. As a former allied soldier, he was pathetic. From their point of view, the Romans had offered Spartacus the hand of civilization by letting him into the auxiliary units of their army. Then, whether through bad behavior or bad luck, he ended up a slave. He had lost the chance that the army had given him (again, that is, from the Roman point of view). But in their mercy, as far as the Romans were concerned, they gave Spartacus another chance. They gave him the gladius -- the sword.
To the Romans, a gladiator was not just an athlete or even a warrior: he was holy. And he was sexy. Whenever they went to the games the Romans took a walk on the wild side. The beasts were supposed to growl back at them; it made a better show. But Spartacus did more than growl. Like many a pro athlete, Spartacus was feared for the same reason he was adored: he was dangerous. Yet once he left the arena, a gladiator seemed almost harmless, even if he had taken up arms in revolt.
If this seems hard to understand, think of Spartacus as an athlete who rejected the love of his fans. We can forgive an athlete who misbehaves but not one who snubs us. Once Spartacus and his seventy-three companions left their barracks, they were no longer gladiators but runaway gladiators. In Roman eyes, they had shrunk from a fight, hence they were moral lepers: cowardly, effeminate, and degenerate. They had sunk from the glory of the arena to the shame of banditry. Spartacus could have been the pride of Rome; instead, it seemed, he was back where he began, a barbarian. From the Roman point of view, his men were not soldiers but runaway slaves, fugitivi. No wonder the Senate had little fear of him -- at first.
Two other things are likely to have kept the Romans from making a bigger push against Spartacus: ambition and greed. Glory was the oxygen of Roman politics but there was little to be won in a police action against criminals. A slave war, says one Roman, "had a humble and unworthy name." Plunder might have served as consolation, but that was out of the question. All Italians south of the Po Valley were Roman citizens. Roman soldiers couldn't plunder their own country.
Because they were responding to a tumultus (emergency), the Romans did not hold an ordinary levy of troops on the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) outside the city. Instead they probably instructed Glaber to do what Roman commanders often did in an emergency: to recruit troops on the road, as he marched south.
Glaber's troops were probably not the best that Rome had, not by a long shot. Those were already fighting in Spain and in the East, where there were plenty of spoils and laurels to be won and top generals to lead the men. Italy had not been stripped of its good soldiers: Sulla's veterans, for example, represented a source of experienced troops. Sullan veterans were to be found at Pompeii as well as at Abella, and outside Capua, among other places. But they were not likely to sign up to help some nobody slap a few slaves back into irons. Glaber had to take what he could get.
So Glaber's army was probably no more than a militia. And yet no Roman army on the march was easily forgotten. The flash of mail armor and bronze or iron helmets as a long line of soldiers went by captured the eye. The clatter of the supply carts and the lowing of the oxen that drew them filled the air. And then there were the individual soldiers.
A standard-bearer, surrounded by trumpeters, carried the legion's symbol, a silver eagle on a standard (that is, shaft). Every century (a unit of 100 men originally, but by the Late Republic a unit of eighty men) also had its own standard, a spear decorated with disks and wreaths, carried by a standard-bearer in colorful dress: his helmet was decorated with an animal skin.
Meanwhile, six men called lictors marched in front of the praetor. Lictors served as attendants to all Rome's high-ranking officials. They were strong men; each carried the fasces, a bundle of rods tied with ribbons and symbolizing the power to command. Outside the city limits of Rome, the fasces were wrapped around an ax, signifying the power of life and death.
And so they marched, the praetor and his men, following the rebels to Vesuvius. They made camp, probably at the foot of the mountain. Glaber decided not to attack the enemy, who was on the summit. This may seem overly cautious, but the terrain favored the defenders. Only one road led up the mountain and it was too rough and narrow to deploy a legion. It was no place to test his new army. Instead Glaber decided to seal in the enemy and starve him out. He posted guards on the road to prevent a breakout.
It was not an imaginative or a self-confident plan but it might have worked, as long as the Romans had kept their guard up. Instead they handed the initiative to Spartacus. He decided to attack the Roman camp. Like any commander, Spartacus drew on his experience to put together a plan of battle. Rich and complex, that experience would serve him well, both at Vesuvius and later.
As a Thracian, Spartacus had a heritage of making war. In particular, Thrace specialized in light infantry, horsemanship, trickery, and unconventional warfare. Homer considered the Thracians a nation of horsemen; Thucydides respected their daggers; Romans feared their polearm. Thrace had invented the peltast, the quick and mobile lightly armed infantryman who fought at close range with a knife or at a distance with a javelin. They excelled at attacking or defending hills, using hit-and-run tactics, setting ambushes, setting or dousing campfires, making opportunistic raids on heavy infantry formations, and forming up in defensive mass against cavalry. Feints, ruses, tricks, and stratagems were all chapters in the Thracian war manual. And plundering was a national habit.
Spartacus was born and raised with the Thracian way of war but as an adult he added an additional string to his bow: Roman military doctrine. He combined Thracian speed and stealth with Roman organization and discipline. Single combat and swordsmanship did double duty for him, since Romans as well as Th...
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