Spartacus: What Is the True Story of the Slave Who Led a Rebellion?

This is the story of Spartacus, the slave and gladiator, who rebelled against the might of Rome.

Jan 30, 2022By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

spartacus helmet gladiators pompeii amphitheatre


The institution of slavery was a pernicious constant in the history of the Roman Empire. A product of the state’s territorial, militaristic expansion, it also underpinned the empire’s economy. Although some found roles as servants, craftsmen, or in other skilled and valuable roles, the vast majority were used for hard, manual labor. As a relatively inexpensive labor force, slaves worked in agriculture, mining, and construction. Although some could receive their freedom, many never did, instead remaining as property for their entire lives.


The expansion of the Roman state during the Republican period, especially during the second century BCE, led to an enormous influx of slaves into the Roman world. As the Romans expanded first through Italy, and then progressively further afield, vast swathes of people found themselves lost to slavery: now property, they were a part of the Roman Empire that robbed them of their agency. It is not surprising, therefore, that this period was marked by a series of slave rebellions. Known as the Servile Wars, there were three in total. The last of these is perhaps the most well-known. This is thanks to Spartacus, the gladiator who challenged the might of Rome in the Third Servile War.


Spartacus: Origins and Sources

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Bronze hand used in the worship of Sabazios, the chief Thracian god (god of the sky), dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE, via the British Museum


Spartacus, the man who would lead the challenge to Roman authority in the Third Servile War, was likely of Thracian descent. In antiquity, the Thracians were a group of people who inhabited large swathes of eastern and south-eastern Europe. Their territory mainly encompassed the Balkans and parts of Asia Minor. Because they existed beyond the borders of traditional Greco-Roman civilization, they were often viewed in a negative light as fearsome warriors but culturally barbarous.


A Thracian king, Rhesus, had even come to Troy’s aid during the siege narrated in Homer’s Iliad. Belying their apparent civility, Rhesus was killed when the Greek heroes Odysseus and Diomedes attacked his camp in the dead of night while he slept, stealing his famous warhorses. Modern archaeological investigation (the study of Thracology) has done considerable work to highlight notions of barbarity as myopic, exposing the rich realities of Thracian culture. In the fifth century BCE, the Thracians were incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire and were again subjugated by Alexander the Great and the Macedonians in the late 4th century.

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rhesus odysseus diomedes vase spartacus
The Homeric tale of Odysseus (wearing the pilos hat) and Diomedes stealing the white horses of the Thracian king Rhesus,  c. 360 BCE, via


The life of Spartacus himself is less well known. This is hardly surprising given his status within the Roman world as a slave. However, the sources that narrate the events of the Third Servile War do provide some information, although it is often conflicting. For instance, Plutarch describes Spartacus as being of Thracian descent and Nomadic stock — or perhaps Maedic stock (a Thracian tribe) — depending on the reading of the manuscript. He is, however, quick to point out that this man, who would cause the Romans such trouble, was sagacious, courageous, and much closer in stereotypical character and temperament to a Hellene than a Thracian. The historian Florus claims Spartacus was a former Roman soldier who had deserted and became enslaved, a story similar to that told by Appian in his Civil Wars.


The Life of a Gladiator

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Marble relief fragment with Greek inscription depicting gladiators in combat, 1st to 3rd century CE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with a bronze gladiator’s helmet with medallion of Hercules, allegedly from Pompeii, 1st century CE, via the British Museum


Gladiators were the great entertainers of the Roman Empire. They fought and died for the adulation of crowds from the time of the Republic until the spectacles were banned in the Christian empire of the 5th century. Although their origins are disputed (though most scholars argue for a Campanian origin), the amphitheaters across the expanses of the empire nevertheless testify to the popularity of gladiatorial contests around the Roman world. The largest amphitheater was the Flavian Amphitheatre — better known as the Colosseum — built in Rome by Emperor Vespasian. Despite the popularity of these spectacles, the gladiators themselves were often from the lowest social orders, very often either slaves or criminals condemned to death. This is partly why the Roman aristocracy found Emperor Commodus’ masquerading as a gladiator to be so offensive!


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Gladiators fighting in the arena for the entertainment of the crowds and the emperor in the center, 1680-1750, via the British Museum


The earliest gladiators were named after the enemies of the nascent Roman state and included the Samnite, the Gaul (later renamed murmillo), and the Thracian. Whatever his exact origins, Spartacus was known to have been captured by the legions. As a slave, he became a gladiator and was trained at a ludus (a training school for gladiators) near Capua, owned by Lentulus Batiatus. This city is today famous for the remains of its amphitheater (the second largest after Rome’s Colosseum). Interestingly, it appears Spartacus’ origins counted for little, and the Thracian became a murmillo!


The plotting of Spartacus and his fellow gladiators began in 73 BCE. In all, about 70 slaves were involved in the scheme at Capua. Fighting their way out of the ludus and defeating a number of soldiers sent after them, they were quick to plunder supplies and recruit followers in the nearby area. Retiring to a more readily defended spot on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, the gladiators and other slaves nominated Spartacus as their leader. The Third Servile War had begun.


A Republic in Turmoil? Rome at War and Spartacus’ Rebellion

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Le Dernier Jour de Corinthe (The Last Day of Corinth), by Tony Robert-Fleury, 1870, via the Musée d’Orsay


Spartacus’ rebellion was not the first time that slaves had risen up against the Roman state. There had been two prior Servile Wars. However, both the First Servile War (135-132 BCE) and the Second (104-100 BCE) had been confined to Sicily. Spartacus’ revolt was different in that it threatened the very heart of the Roman state. In many ways, the Third Servile War may have struck a fearful chord with the Romans partly because of the timing.


In the early 1st century BCE, the Republic — despite its seemingly constant stream of successes abroad, notably with the sack of Corinth and defeat of Carthage in 146 BCE — had faced a series of crises at home for at least half a century. The Gracchi brothers had whipped up popular support for reform in the 130s and 20s. Civil war had erupted between Marius and Sulla, with the latter responsible for tremendous bloodletting through the proscriptions. Then, in 91 BCE, the Social War had wracked the Italian peninsula, pitching Rome against its former Italian allies (the socii). Although they were victorious by 87 BCE, the Romans recognized the need for change; citizenship was extended throughout Italy. Spartacus’ revolt evidently tapped into a febrile atmosphere of change and upheaval in Italy.


The Third Servile War and Spartacus’ Bloody Revenge

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Bronze statuette of a Roman legionary, 2nd century CE, via the British Museum


Later in 73 BCE, the Romans dispatched Gaius Claudius Glaber, a praetor, to tackle Spartacus and his rebels. With a force of around 3,000 men, Glaber’s hastily assembled militia besieged the rebels on Vesuvius. They had not counted on the ingenuity of Spartacus and the others, however. They were able to rappel down a cliff on Vesuvius and outflank Glaber. The Romans were routed. Momentum appears to have been behind Spartacus and his allies by this point. They soon defeated the second Roman force sent after them, led by the praetor Publius Varinius, and the rebels’ ranks soon began to swell with recruits.


The Roman nadir came in 72 BCE. Alarmed by previous defeats, the senate dispatched two consular legions to tackle the rebels. The commanders, Lucius Gellius and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus were initially successful. Some 30,000 rebels, led by Crixus — one of Spartacus’ lieutenants — were slaughtered near Mount Garganus. At this point, the main historical narratives for these events, from Appian and Plutarch, begin to differ significantly, with the former being much more dramatic. Appian narrates Spartacus’ bloody revenge for Crixus’ death, with the execution of 300 Roman soldiers having defeated Lentulus’ forces. Then, moving north, Spartacus engaged the consuls again at the Battle of Picenum, emerging victorious.


Reinforcements: Enter Crassus and Pompey

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A cast of a portrait of Marcus Licinius Crassus, 1st century CE, Thorvaldsens Museum


Heading south in 71 BCE, Spartacus and his rebels had suitably worried the Roman senate into escalating their response further. The task of putting a stop to the Third Servile War now became the duty of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Having distinguished himself in the Civil Wars between Marius and Sulla (where he fought for Sulla’s faction), Crassus was given a praetorship and six legions, along with those of Gellius and Lentulus. He mobilized a force of around 40,000 Roman soldiers against the slave rebellion. Even from their first engagement (near Samnium, according to Appian), it was clear that the tide had turned against Spartacus. Around 6,000 of his men were killed in this defeat. Several engagements followed, and Crassus’ legions were victorious again and again driving the rebels south. A frantic deal with some Cilician pirates to take his men across the straits at Messina to Sicily was betrayed, leaving Spartacus and his men in a desperate plight.


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Portrait bust of Pompey the Great, 50 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


To make matters worse for the beleaguered rebels, Pompey the Great — another man who made his name fighting for the Sullan faction — was returning to Italy at this time. The general was fresh from having put down another rebellion, this one in Hispania, led by Quintus Sertorius. With Pompey closing in quickly, Crassus realized that time was of the essence: to delay was to risk losing the glory of vanquishing Spartacus and his rebellion. Having seen their offer of negotiation turned down by Crassus, the desperate rebels made their final stand at the Silarius River in 71 BCE. It was a battle too far for Spartacus and his legions: they were routed by the Romans.


Aftermath: Triumph and Torture for Spartacus and His Men

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The Triumph of Pompey, by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin,  1765, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Spartacus perished with thousands of his men at the Silarius River, and his body was never discovered among the dead. Many of his followers fled the battlefield, but they were subsequently hunted down by Crassus. The final bloody crescendo of the rebellion took place on the Via Appia. Some 6,000 prisoners, captured by Crassus and his legions, were crucified by the roadside. There they were left, as an example to those who may yet challenge Roman authority.


It remains hard to establish what impact the Third Servile War had on the institution of slavery in the Roman Empire, given that it persisted, with changes, for centuries after. What can be said is that the war further accelerated political tensions in the Republic. Pompey, despite never engaging Spartacus or his rebels in conflict, managed to capture several thousand as they fled, allowing him to claim the victory as his own in a letter to the senate. Nevertheless, the successes of Crassus and Pompey — to say nothing of the massed forces mobilized by each — contributed to their being elected as consuls in 70 BCE. A new age of Roman politics was beginning…


Legacy and Legend: The Afterlives of Spartacus

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Three persons viewing the Gladiator by candle-light, by Joseph Wright, 1765, via the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool


Ultimately, classicists are unlikely to ever know for certain what Spartacus would have achieved had the Third Servile War turned out differently. It seems unlikely that the Thracian had any far-reaching ambitions for reforming Roman society, or indeed in ending slavery as a pillar of ancient society. This is despite the assertions of Appian and Florus that his ambition was to march on Rome. This has not stopped Spartacus the rebellious gladiator from capturing the imagination of societies throughout history. Like a handful of historical personalities, Spartacus has transcended the uncertainties of his own period to stand as a totemic symbol for successive generations. For many readers, the name Spartacus likely conjures up images of Kirk Douglas in the Stanley Kubrick Hollywood epic (based on Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus, written in 1960). For others, perhaps his name lends itself to your favored sports team. Many football teams from eastern Europe have adopted the rebel’s name for their clubs, including FC Spartak Moscow, in Russia. Many of the sports clubs that have adopted Spartacus’ name are found in Eastern Europe, because for the former Soviet Union the rebellious gladiator had a particular appeal.


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Toussain Louverture et la vieille esclave, by Ousmane Sow,  1989, via the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art


For many modern societies, Spartacus has become an archetypal rebel against socio-political oppression. Here, the malleability of Spartacus is clear again. For the Communists of Europe in the 20th century, he was a great inspiration, notably lending his name to the Spartacists. Led by Rosa Luxembourg, the Spartacists launched a famous (though ultimately unsuccessful) Communist putsch in 1919, during the political turbulence of the early years of the Weimar Republic in Germany. However, it was not just among Europeans that Spartacus found an afterlife. Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the slave revolt that presaged Haitian independence from France in the early 19th century was called, among other nicknames, the Black Spartacus. This modern Spartacus however, unlike his ancient counterpart, really did help to defeat an empire, as Haiti won victory from France in 1804.


Who then, was Spartacus? The Thracian prisoner turned rebellious gladiator remains an enigmatic figure in the historical record. The Third Servile War rattled Rome, but it was just the latest in a long line of social and political violence that erupted with greater regularity as the competitiveness of the Republic continued to escalate in the 1st century BCE. The better question, to ask then, as historians, is who has Spartacus been, and who might he be next?

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.