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War of Spartacus

(73 - 71 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Spartacus sculpture by Denis Foyatier
Spartacus sculpture by Denis Foyatier

With the expansion of Rome, more and more slavery latifundia began to emerge. The ruthless exploitation of employees led many to several uprisings. The fate of slaves in schools for gladiators was particularly difficult. Warriors who had planned an outbreak of an armed uprising against Roman exploitation and social injustice waited for a charismatic commander.


Gladiators were often prisoners of war or slaves, but sometimes they were recruited from former soldiers.

Spartacus was a man of strong character and intelligence. He probably came from Thrace1, a country that was still independent (then Thrace would become one of the provinces of Rome), but already exposed to Rome’s retaliatory actions. Thrace located on the Balkan Peninsula, was known for a well-trained infantry using sickle swords.

Spartacus initially served in the Roman army as a Thracian mercenary. He became a good soldier. However, later, as a result of his bad behavior and lack of discipline he was sent to the gladiator school in Capua (the west coast of the Apennine Peninsula). Spartacus, as an excellent gladiator, for some time served as a fencing teacher there, he taught valuable “pieces” of this fight. There, for killing another gladiator, he was transferred to Batiatus’ school, a very difficult and high-security one. The name “Spartakiad” comes from his name. He was a skilled fighter.

Plutarch mentions that Spartacus had a wife, from the same tribe. After his enslavement she was also sold as a slave girl.


In 73 BCE, a revolt led by Spartacus broke out. Its causes are found in the ill-treatment of gladiators. 70 gladiators, mostly Thracians and Gauls, accompanied Spartacus in this successful operation. Armed with kitchen knives (gladiators could not have their weapons behind the arena), they repulsed the guards’ attack and got free. Already outside the city walls, they fought a victorious battle with the pursuing squad, thus gaining weapons. Spartacus led his unit to Mount Vesuvius, set up camp in his crater, and waited for the Romans to besiege him.

The slaves gathered on Mount Vesuvius chose – Crixus and Oinomaos – to be the chiefs. The initial, small group of insurgents grew quickly, powered by escapes from neighboring estates. Vesuvius turned into a fortress that sheltered 10 000 people. They became the terror of all the rich Romans nearby. The Senate finally decided to send a regular army against the rebels. The Roman commander was Claudius Glaber, sent by praetor Publius Varinius, whom the Senate commissioned this operation.

When the Romans were close to the camp, Spartacus told his companions to make rope ladders from the climbers, thanks to which they quickly got to the bottom of the volcano. This procedure allowed to surround Roman troops and surprise them with a victorious attack from the back.

Later, Spartacus won many times. He even defeated Varinius himself. Gladiators were able to rob and ravage Campania and Lucania without any problems. However, the chief tried to suppress the ruthlessness and cruelty of his companions. His attitude led to a split. Spartacus at the head of his supporters decided to march towards the north and go through the Alps, which would allow his people to scatter and reach their own countries and homes. The rest, mainly Gauls and Germans under the command of Crixus, decided to continue to plunder Italy.

New volunteers joined Spartacus. They were haggard and ragged vagrants, prisoners and escaped slaves, whom the gladiators had released from the great estates. At that time, the army of gladiators had 60 000 people.

The next year the Senate sent 4 legions against the rebels. The commanders of the Roman army were: consul Lucius Gellius and Lentulus Clodianus, who defeated the army of Crixus.

Dying Spartacus. Spartacus was admired by ancient historians for his military skill and courage. Especially Marxism-Leninism paid tribute to him as a brave warrior and considered him a precursor of struggle against the oppressor.

The desire to deal quickly with the rebels prompted the victorious commanders to attack the slave army. At that time, a great battle took place, during which the insurgents defeated the Roman consuls.

The inhabitants of Rome experienced a period of great fear compared to the panic that prevailed during the war with Hannibal.

They were afraid that the slave army would attack Rome. In this situation, the Senate gave extraordinary powers to the praetor Marcus Licinius Crassus, discrediting the Roman leaders. This mobilized great forces against rebels. For this politician and millionaire, capturing Spartacus became a priority. This achievement would allow him to overcome his political enemies without any obstacles and raise his own position on the Roman stage.

Crassus, together with the still young and inexperienced Julius Caesar, drove Spartacus to the headland of Italy, where he began to build fortifications in order to cut off his return journey. Spartacus decided to cross to Sicily and join the slaves there. This plan, however, was not implemented, because the corsairs who were supposed to provide ships, did not live up to their promises. Spartacus, however, managed to get out of the trap. Soon, in the army of rebels, another split occurred. Two Gallic chiefs stepped out of the army, taking their followers with them, which definitely weakened Spartacus. The troops that left Spartacus’ main armies were soon destroyed. The next battle took place at Salaries River in Lucania. Crassus gave a terrible defeat to the gladiators, regaining the insignia of the defeated legions. Spartacus evacuated to the southern tip of Italy, where he won the victory in one battle.

Spartacus carrying out a charge on Crassus during the battle of the Silarius River In fact, the leader of the rebels did not reach Crassus; however, he was noticed by him. Two centurions stood on his way. In the end, however, Roman preponderance forced him to withdraw from the decision about killing the leader of the opposing army and taking his weapons.
Author: Steve Noon

Meanwhile, Pompey came from Spain to help Crassus, and in the Brundisium, the army of the governor of Macedonia landed.

In 71 BCE at the Silarius River (now Sele) in the south-west of the Apennine Peninsula, there was a decisive battle between the armies of Spartacus and Crassus. This is described by the Greek historian, Appian of Alexandria:

At the news that he had haarived in Brundisium, and Lucullus returning from the war against Mithridates, Spartacus, completely desperate, struck at Crassus with still great forces at that time. There was a long and fierce battle, predictable, tens of thousands of desperate people; in the course of the battle Spartacus was wounded with a spear in his thigh, but he only kneeled down and, shielding himself, fight the attackers, until he was encircled with the great number of people who gathered around him. The rest of his army was in a massive disarray staggering in mass, so that in the slaughter the countless people were killed, while the Romans lost up to a thousand soldiers; Spartacus’s body could not be found. A large number of survivors who escaped from the battle hid in the mountains, so Crassus followed them. Divided into four groups, they resisted until they were all dead except for 6 000 people who were captured and hanged along the entire road from Capua to Rome.

Appian of Alexandria, Roman History, XIII 120

The death of Spratacus is described by Plutarch of Chaeronea:

Then he made straight for Crassus himself, charging forward through the press of weapons and wounded men, and, though he did not reach Crassus, he cut down two centurions who fell on him together.

Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 11 [in:] Parallel Lives

So Spartacus eventually succumbed to Crassus’ huge army. The merit of defeating Spartacus fell to Pompey, who routed the remains of gladiators. After the breakdown of the army of gladiators, a ruthless revenge came.

Below there is the visual display of the uprising:

Course of Spartacus’ uprising

March of Spartacus

I STAGE: The first tactical decisions of Roman troops and Spartacist supporters in winter 72/73 BCE

March of Spartacus

II STAGE: Events of 72 BCE (according to Appian).

March of Spartacus troops around Italy

III STAGE: Events of 72 BCE (according to Plutarch).

March of Spartacus

IV STAGE: Events of early year 71 BCE Crassus takes command of the Roman legions, confronts the rebels and forces Spartacus to retreat to Lucania near Messina.

Spartacus march south

V STAGE: The last period of wars in 71 BCE Spartacus forces manage to pull the Crassus legions from the “ring” and head north towards the Petelia Mountains. Ultimately, however, the situation forces Spartacus to turn back and fight a battle that decided about the fall of the rebellion.


The slave rebellion was finally suppressed by Crassus. Pompey’s army did not take direct part in the fighting, but by marching from the north they captured around 5000 Spartacan rebels after their defeat at Silarus. After this action, Pompey sent a message to the Senate, in which he confirmed the victory of Crassus in an open battle, and at the same time considered his actions as decisive at the end of the conflict. In this way, he brought upon himself the majority of glory and at the same time the hostility of Crassus.

Both Pompey and Crassus regarded themselves as the victors of the war and when they returned to Rome with their legions, they refused to dissolve the units and decided to set up camps outside the city. In the year 70 BCE both political leaders received consul positions. Interestingly, such a situation was illegal according to Roman law, especially with regard to Pompey, who was too young and did not hold the required offices (praetor and quaestor). Certainly, the tender card was the presence of legions under the city walls, which the senators feared.

A painting by Fiodor Bronnikov showing crucified insurgents along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.

Most of the insurgents died in the battles. Six thousand prisoners captured by Crassus’ legions were crucified on the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, where the rebellion began. It was supposed to be a lesson and a warning against a possible outbreak of another uprising2.

The uprising brought about the destruction of large areas of Italy, the slave owners suffered heavy losses, and the poor also participated in the uprising.

Along the Appian Way, it was decided to crucify 6000 prisoners. It was supposed to be a lesson and a warning against a possible outbreak of another uprising.

Along the Appian Way, it was decided to crucify 6000 prisoners. It was supposed to be a lesson and a warning against a possible outbreak of another uprising.
Dangerous Roman authorities imposed strict discipline on future generations of gladiators, while at the same time reducing the role of slavery in the economy. Fearful of successive speeches, wealthy latifundia owners resigned from slave labor and replaced them with free people in the countryside. This situation was promoted by the fact that the Roman Empire gradually gave up conquests and decided to stabilize the borders. Such activities could be seen over the years from the reign of Augustus, to the emperor Trajan, whose conquests have enlarged the territory of the country to the largest extent in history. Along with a small number of conquests, the number of slaves brought in, who were replaced at work by poor free people, decreased.

Fear of a possible next outbreak of slave rebellion led to the gradual improvement of the legal existence of slaves. Emperor Claudius in the middle of the 1st century CE forced the law according to which the murder of an old or infirm slave was considered a murder, and the slaves abandoned by their master were to become free people.

Emperor Antoninus Pius in the middle of the 2nd century CE broadened slavery rights, including holding the owners responsible for killing a slave, forcing them to sell a slave who was ill-treated and providing a slave the right to appeal to a neutral third party.

Certainly, these changes were introduced too late, but to a large extent the War of Spartacus contributed to the improvement of slaves’ lives. As it turned out, it was the last slave uprising in the Roman Empire.

The most important battles of the War of Spartacus

  • 73 BCE battle of Mount Vesuvius
    • the first won battle for the insurgents. As a result, 70 gladiators defeated the forces of 3 000 legionaries
  • 72 BCE battle of Mons Garganus
    • victory of the Romans led by Lucius Gellius over the forces of 30 000 insurgents led by Crixus (he died)
  • 72 BCE battle of Mount Camalatrum

    • Romans’ victory led by Crassus over the insurgents
  • 72 BCE Battle of Mons Cantenna

    • Roman forces led by Crassus beat up insurgents led by Castus and gannicus (both leaders died in battle)
  • 71 BCE battle of Petelia
    • the last armed clash of the uprising.
  • 71 BCEbattle of the Silarius River
    • the last armed clash during the rise of Spartacus.
      As a result of the battle, Roman forces led by Crassus won the Spartacan insurgents. Roman losses were around 1000 killed, losses of insurgents are estimated at 66 000 dead and prisoners. Death of Spartacus in battle put an end to the uprising of slaves and gladiators.
  1. Salustius claims that he came from Maedi.
  2. Appian, Roman history. The Civil Wars, XIII.I.120
  • Matyszak Philip, Wrogowie Rzymu. Od Hannibala do Attyli, króla Hunów, Warszawa 2007
  • Nowaczyk Bernard, Powstanie Spartakusa 73-71 p.n.e., Warszawa 2008
  • Rochala Paweł, Powstanie Spartakusa 73 - 71 p.n.e., Zabrze 2009

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