Spartacus' Slave Revolt
In all of history, there is no slave revolt that so captures the attention of the average person than that of Spartacus. In skill, scope, and sheer effrontery, the revolt of Spartacus is unequaled in world history, with numerous smaller revolts claiming similarity, if only to latch on to the almost romanticized sense of justified revolt. What could be more legitimate than a mass rebellion of slaves against an oppressive regime? Unknown to most, however, is the extent to which this oppressive regime almost helped itself to the brink of destruction. Roman slave society not only engendered the revolt of Spartacus, but also nurtured it with advantages that other revolts never had.
During the time of these Roman slave revolts, the Romans were quickly expanding their empire, sucking up territory in an insatiable quest for expansion. One of the more notable side effects of this voracious growth was a large importation of slaves from the edges of the empire. As a consequence, social position in Rome began to balance more and more on the number of slaves a person had, as opposed to money, although the value of land remained supreme. This thirst for slaves tended to require more than the Roman conquests could supply, and to increase their popularity and social standing, Roman patricians bought slaves from pirates and withheld them from work in the fields or mines.
Around the time of Spartacus’ revolt, the population of the Roman peninsula hovered around 6 million people. Of these, approximately 2 million were slaves. Even though one in every three persons was a slave, the Romans looked down on them and considered themselves quite capable of putting down any revolt among these less-than-human creatures. Slaves were treated roughly; their masters could beat or kill them at will, and punishment for escape was branding or worse.
Paradoxically, slaves could also be given a lot of control at the same time as being demeaned as an unworthy being. Slave estates could be run in an intermediate way by the slaves themselves, and some slaves were even in control of their master’s goods. In an interesting indicator of how far this trend went, some slaves in Roman times could even be served by their own set of slaves.
In 73 BCE Spartacus appeared on this scene of Roman slave society. History seems to indicate that he was an auxiliary in the Roman army who subsequently deserted, was enslaved, and sent to the school of Batiatus to become a gladiator. There, he was trained as a fighter of the Samnite type, one who fought with sword and shield, as opposed to the multitude of unique cultural fighters that the Roman audiences craved.
After being at the school of Batiatus for some time, Spartacus became part of a plot to escape. Although the broader plan was discovered, the master’s reluctance to punish his valuable property just a few months before their showing allowed Spartacus and the nucleus of his resistance to break out a short while after. Handily defeating the small-time militias, Spartacus moved on to bigger game, destroying a larger army under Gaius Claudius Gaber through an ingenious trick – or a desperate escape maneuver, depending on the historical perspective. After defying several more Roman armies, but losing Crixus and Oenomaus, Spartacus began a series of forced marches north to the Alps and freedom. It was one way for him to control his constantly disagreeing army. However, on the verge of freedom, his men finally broke with him. Convincing Spartacus to lead them back into Rome, they marched back down the Italian peninsula.
Recovering quickly from the momentary loss of complete control, Spartacus formulated a plan. His goal was to sail to Sicily and take over that island, relying on the raised tensions of recent slave revolt there to gain him instant acceptance. Once there, he would have a solid base of support and control of one of Rome’s main breadbaskets, leaving him in good position for almost any future move.
Despite his good intentions, the pirates that had been hired to transport Spartacus to Sicily broke their end of the deal. By this time, Marcus Licinius Crassus, an immensely rich Roman politician, was licking at his heels with his personally funded army of six legions. Left without resort, Spartacus faced off with this tycoon, and began the final stages of his revolt.
Evading the traps the Crassus, Spartacus split his army to forage for food. Although his slaves had motivation, their leadership ability was clearly not equal to that of Spartacus himself. Half of the army had to once be saved by Spartacus himself, after which they were lured into a trap and destroyed.
Now with his back to the wall, Spartacus plan of guerilla warfare was overruled by his followers, and the slave army stood to fight. Face to face, in a pitched battle, the undefeated army was crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus. Although several thousand escaped, these were soon caught and destroyed by Pompey, a better fate than that of the six thousand that were crucified along the Appian Way.
Frank McLynn, "Heroes and Villains" (New York: Pegasus Books, 2009)
Mary T Boatwright, Daniel Talbert Gargola, J. A. Richard, "Romans: From Village to Empire," 2004 (New York: Oxford University Press)