Born in 111 BC, Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who became one of the escaped slave leaders in the Third Servile War. After escaping captivity, he went on to establish a massive slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Although not much is known about his life outside of the war, it is agreed that he was a former gladiator turned successful military leader. Today, he is viewed as a symbol for the oppressed fighting against the powers that controlled them, although his intentions remain unclear. So, take a look back to see how one man went from an enslaved gladiator to one of the most revered war heroes in ancient history.
He Was In The Roman Army
Initially, Spartacus was a member of the Roman army. Yet, he didn’t particularly like being ordered what to do or risking his life for something he didn’t care about. So he fled the army to live on his own terms.
In addition, some historians even argue that Spartacus was a Roman auxiliary officer, meaning he would have volunteered to enlist. After illegally leaving the army, he was eventually captured and sold into slavery as punishment for deserting. His days as a gladiator were about to begin.
He Was Sold Into A Gladiatorial School
Spartacus was purchased by a man named Lentulus Batiatus, who was quick to enroll the former soldier in the gladiator school in Capua, a school that Batiatus owned himself. This school that Spartacus was forced into was notorious for its harsh treatment of its slaves, with Batiatus being particularly ruthless.
It’s believed that the treatment of the Gladiators by the trainers and Batiatus is one of the key reasons that Spartacus made an attempt to escape slavery.
He Was Trained As A Heavyweight Fighter
Under Batiatus, Spartacus was trained to fight as a heavyweight gladiator called murmillones. These were a type of gladiator during the Roman Imperial Age, which was established to replace the earlier Gallus, named after the warrior of Gaul.
Typically, these warriors were armed with a gladius, or sword, a shield, leather belt, along with other small pieces of armor. Their fighting style was for men with large builds that could wield a sword, shield, and wear a heavy helmet. They would also typically fight against other murmillones.
His Second Escape
After fleeing from the military, getting captured, and being sold into slavery as a gladiator, Spartacus wasn’t ready to give up. After some time in chains, Spartacus managed to pull off another escape, except this time with 70 other slaves who were also desperate to get out of the school as well.
The escape took place in 73 BC with the slaves using kitchen utensils as weapons. Luckily for them, they also came across a wagon full of gladiator weapons that they seized and used to fight their way through the local police before heading to Mount Vesuvius.
Establishing Themselves At Mount Vesuvius
It’s common knowledge that Mt. Vesuvius is a volcano that erupted in 79 AD, obliterating the nearby town of Pompeii. Around 100 years before the eruption, the volcano was used as a strategic hideout by Spartacus and his initial band of followers to escape the Roman legions that were on their tails.
At the time, the Romans knew that they were up in the mountain and had plans to enact a siege in an attempt to starve out the rebels into submission.
We Know What We Do About Spartacus Mostly From Plutarch
Most of what we know about Spartacus and his uprising are from the writings of a man named Plutarch. An ancient historian, Plutarch roamed throughout Greece and the Roman Empire around 70 AD. During his travels, he wrote extensively about Alexander the Great, the Spartans, and Spartacus.
According to Plutarch, Spartacus’ wife, prophetess, had a dream of Spartacus sleeping with a snake on his face not long after his capture in Rome. She took this vision as “the sign of a great and terrifying force which would attend him to [an]…issue.” A great and terrifying force was exactly what he was.
He Had Two Right-Hand Men
Spartacus was known to have two lieutenants who were also his close friends during the revolt. These two men where Gallic slaves named Crixus and Oenomaus that hailed from the region of Gaul, which is now considered to be modern-day France.
They had the same determination as Spartacus and helped to develop a bond between the rebel commanders and the other soldiers, also recruiting other Gallic fighters to the cause. Gaul had always been at odds with the Roman Empire, and their people had always wished to be free of Roman rule.
The Roman Government Made A Huge Mistake
One of the main reasons that Spartacus and his fellow slave-gladiator revolt was so successful was mostly because of the Roman government. At the beginning of the revolt, the Romans didn’t see Spartacus and his army as nothing more than a rag-tag group of hooligans that were no real threat at all.
With this mindset, they refused to send main military forces to put it down, but instead, assumed that the police would be able to handle it. They were sorely wrong.
Assembling An Army
After his initial escape from the gladiator school and establishing himself at Mount Vesuvius, Spartacus and his men began recruiting other slaves and soldiers to their cause. Two years later, he was at the head of an army of more than 90,000.
During this time, Rome sent several military forces to defeat Spartacus, but to no avail. The first commander to take them on was praetor Claudius Glaber, who was defeated after Spartacus and his men escaped using vines on the side of Mount Vesuvius to attack from behind. Spartacus then went on to defeat a slew of other forces Rome threw at him.
His Army Failed To Disperse
After defeating numerous Roman consular armies, Spartacus decided to head north, because the Romans still controlled southern Italy. However, he knew he couldn’t sail back home, so he thought he might cross the alps much as Hannibal did.
However, he wasn’t the only one planning on going home but expected his army to disperse and make their way back on their own. Unfortunately, instead of following Spartacus’ recommendation to disband, many decided to stay together and pillage throughout the land, wreaking havoc through Italy.
He Made An Unfortunate Deal With Pirates
Since Spartacus’ plan to march across the Alps didn’t work out, he tried to make it to to the Italian coast to sail to Sicily. Unfortunately, he made the wrong deal with a group of Cilician pirates from Asia Minor that had plundered the Mediterranean coastline for decades and had their eye on Sicily as well.
Spartacus made it to the Strait of Messina, expecting to be ferried by the pirates to Sicily. However, the pirates never showed up, putting Spartacus between a rock and a hard place.
The Final Battle
After the pirates had betrayed him and his men, Spartacus came face-to-face with Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome’s richest and influential political figures. Crassus brought with him eight legions, and to prove a point, killed every tenth man in the two units who had previously been defeated by Spartacus, to show that defeat would not be tolerated.
Spartacus offered to make a peace treaty but was rejected. Spartacus and Crassus met on the battlefield in 71BC. Crassus’ army overwhelmed Spartacus’ troops, resulting in his death, and the end of the rebellion.
His Body Was Never Found
After Spartacus’ death on the battlefield on the banks of the Silarus, now known as the Sele River, his body was never found, although some say differently. The battle had been so violent and bloody that it almost seemed impossible that anyone would have been able to identify him, especially considering that the Romans had won.
And since there was no way to tell exactly how many soldiers had died on each side, it’s estimated that 36,000 people in total lost their lives.
His Intentions Are Still Unclear
According to historian and author Barry Strauss, Spartacus and his army were a bit more controversial than what we have been led to believe by Hollywood. For example, while he and his army were supposedly fighting for their freedom, it’s often overlooked that they were also pillaging innocent people’s homes on their marches up and down Italy.
Furthermore, it’s still debated over what Spartacus’ motivations were behind his revolt, with many historians claiming it was unlikely to put an end to slavery in the region.
Cassius Punished The Remainder Of Spartacus’ Army
After the majority of Spartacus’ army had been annihilated by Cassius’ forces, there were only around 6,000 of them left alive. Of course, there was no way that Cassius was going to let them go, and instead, sentenced them to horrible deaths.
All of the remaining men of the rebellion were ordered to die by crucifixion, one of the harshest forms of capital punishment established by the Roman Empire. All 6,000 survivors were then crucified along the Appian Way between Rome and Capua as a sign to all other slaves that might have a similar idea.
Spartacus’ Rebellion Was The Third Uprising Of Slaves Against Rome
Spartacus wasn’t the first slave rebellion to take place in the Roman Empire, and it also wasn’t the first that Rome put down, which is maybe why they didn’t take it seriously at first.
These rebellions are labeled as the Servile Wars, with the First and Second Servile wars both taking place in Sicily, with the second lasting a whole four years. Spartacus’ revolt led to a “fear of slaves” or terror serilis. This fear spread throughout Rome, as the first two Servile Wars had been devastating enough on their own.
The Rebels Split Their Forces
At one point during the fighting, Spartacus and his Lieutenant Crixus parted ways, although the reason why isn’t exactly clear to historians. One possible reason is that the split could have been a tactical maneuver by the two leaders of the army to confuse the Romans.
On the other hand, some claim that Crixus left Spartacus in order to pillage the Roman countryside on the way to Rome. Either way, it was detrimental to the war effort with Crixus taking around 30,000 soldiers with him.
The Split Of The Army Proved To Be Fatal
After Crixus left Spartacus with around 30,000 of the army’s men, Crixus and those who followed him were attacked and defeated by the Roman Army. Upon hearing the death of his closest friend, Spartacus took his revenge by sacrificing 300 of his Roman captives.
However, he did so in a rather poetic yet gruesome fashion. Instead of just executing the soldiers, Spartacus had a version of his own gladiatorial games in which he forced the Roman soldiers to fight to the death.
Fights Weren’t Always To The Death
Modern popular culture may depict gladiatorial battles as a free-for-all with the last man standing as the victor, in reality, many of the fights followed strict regulations. Gladiators were often matched according to their size and skill with referees on hand to stop a fight if someone becomes seriously wounded. In some cases, both gladiators were able to leave the Colosseum with honor if they put on a good show.
Furthermore, gladiators were an investment and cost a lot of money to house, train, and feed, which meant the last thing promoters wanted to see was them killed. Of course, many did die, with historians estimating between one-in-five or one-in-ten fights resulting in death.
Hollywood Loves Him
One of the best-known film adaptations of Spartacus’ life is director Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. Starring Kirk Douglas and based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, the film went on to win four Academy Awards and became the most profitable film in Universal Studios’ history.
The story of Spartacus has also been adapted for television with over-dramatized shows such as Spartacus on Starz premium cable network. Surely, we will be seeing Spartacus on the big screen again eventually.
Spartacus Left Behind Quite The Legacy
Spartacus’ uprising against Rome has inspired other oppressed individuals to do the same. For example, Toussaint Louverture, a leader of the slave revolt that led to the independence of Haiti, has been called the “Black Spartacus.”
Furthermore, Adam Weishaupt, the founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, often referred to himself as Spartacus. Karl Marx, one of the founders of communism, has sited Spartacus as one of his heroes, describing him as “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history.”
The “Thumbs Down” Gesture Probably Didn’t Mean Death
It’s a common misconception that when a gladiator was wounded or threw down his weapon in surrender, the emperor had the final say whether the fighter lived or died by giving a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” gesture. However, in reality, it was usually the crowd that the emperor and the game’s organizers let decide.
Although there are many depictions of emperors condemning gladiators to death in this fashion, historians have other theories. Some believe that the sign for death may have been a thumbs up, while a hand with a closed fist and two fingers extended or a waived handkerchief could have meant mercy.
There Were Female Gladiators
As slaves, many females were forced to fight to the death alongside their male counterparts, yet few females volunteered for the games. Although it’s not exactly known when women first began fighting in the arena, by the first century A.D., they were a regular part of the games.
One marble relief dating around the 2nd century A.D. depicts two women fighting named “Amazon” and “Achillia,” with an inscription that reads that they fought to an honorable draw. Women also participated in animal hunts until they were banned from the games by Emperor Septimius Severus in 200 A.D.
Some Gladiators Rose To Become Celebrities
Just because someone fought in the gladiatorial arena, that didn’t make them a gladiator, with many being slaves or prisoners. Gladiators were warrior athletes, with many of them becoming celebrities among the lower classes and even some of the elite.
Like many professional athletes today, children would play with figurines of their favorite gladiators or fight with wooden swords pretending to be their favorite. They were also incredibly popular with women, with some even wearing hairpins and jewelry dripped in gladiator blood or mixing gladiator sweat into cosmetics, believing it would act as an aphrodisiac.
Gladiators Didn’t Always Usually Fight Animals
Although there were countless animal hunts at the Colosseum, rarely were gladiators involved. Typically, these hunts were done by the “venatores” and “bestiarii,” warriors who specialized in hunting and fighting animals ranging from deer to elephants. Animal events were regularly the opening to the games, with thousands of creatures being slain in a single exhibition.
In honor of the opening of the Colosseum, nine thousand animals were killed in 100 days, and that was just the beginning. Although many animals were killed for sport, others were trained to perform tricks or even fight against one another.
Some Emperors Participated In Combat
While hosting the games was a great way for emperors to become popular with the people, some emperors went so far as to actually participate in combat. Many emperors, such as Titus, Caligula, and Hadrian fought. However, it was in a controlled environment and usually with dull blades.
Other rulers, such as Emperor Commodus, would kill animals from a raised platform or face off against inexperienced fighters or poorly armed members of the audience. Of course, he would win, and would usually help himself to a large reward.
Gladiatorial Fights May Have Started As Part Of Funerals
While some historians have attributed the Roman games as coming from Etruscan traditions, others now claim they got their start as a part of funerals for wealthy nobles. When esteemed aristocrats died, their families would organize graveside fights between slaves or prisoners to honor their memory.
According to Roman writers Tertullian and Festus, because the Romans believed that blood helped purify the deceased’s soul, these bouts were a type of blood sacrifice. Eventually, these violent spectacles became increasingly popular and turned into what we know them as today.
Not All Gladiators Started As Slaves
A lot of people that were brought to fight in the arena may have come in chains, with only a select few rising to the professional title of a gladiator. However, some grave inscriptions from the 1st century A.D. showed that being a gladiator became appealing to free men.
Winning the hearts of the people and a comfortable lifestyle drove many men to volunteer to sign up for gladiator school with the hope of winning glory and wealth. Many of these men were former soldiers or members of the upper class looking to exhibit their prowess in combat.
There Were Different Classes Of Gladiators
Regardless if the fighters were slaves or free men who signed up to be gladiators, each gladiator was assigned to a class. The classes were typically organized by physical stature as well as skill. For example, stronger and larger men would most likely be assigned as dimachaerus, who would often fight with two swords at once.
The majority of gladiators, however, fell into the class of thraeces or murmillones, who would carry a single weapon, shield, and body armor. Those unlucky enough were retiarius, who would be armed with a net and a trident.
Gladiators Ate A Mostly Vegetarian Diet
Of course, men that trained to fight against others in combat had to be incredibly fit, and for the most part, the majority of them were. However, they didn’t eat the kind of high-protein diet that most people would assume, to have the physiques that they did.
Evidence collected from archaeologists has shown that most gladiators ate a primarily plant-based diet. Historian Pliny the Elder notes that Gladiators were often referred to as hordearlii, meaning “barley eaters.” Not only was it healthy but a cheap way to feed the warriors.
They Trained With Wooden Swords That Were Also The Key To Their Freedom
Because gladiators were already incredibly expensive to house, feed, and train, the gladiators’ owners wanted to protect their investments. This meant that they didn’t want their fighters to get injured during training or spend an unnecessary amount on equipment.
So, during training, the gladiators would fight using wooden swords known as rudis. If a gladiator’s owner gave them their rudis after winning a fight or proving their worth, the gladiators were free of service. Those who came back to the arena after receiving their rudis would draw massive crowds.
Gladiator Schools Were Often Run By Retired Gladiators
Although few gladiators lived long enough to retire, and those that did had a hard time assimilating into Roman society. However, for many that did live long enough, they tended to stay in the gladiatorial business.
The staff at gladiator schools, known as magistri, were often former gladiators themselves. They would pass on their own combat knowledge and methods of how to win over the crowd onto the new generation, often teaching gladiators of the same class. Magistri lived at the school and had better accommodations than the gladiators in training.
Some Gladiators Organized Themselves Into Trade Unions
While gladiators may have been pitted against one another in combat for the entertainment of the masses, many viewed themselves as a brotherhood. In some instances, gladiators even organized themselves into unions or collegia, with their own elected leaders.
When a member of the group would die in a fight, the others would ensure that their dead comrade received the proper burial that they deserved with a grave inscription detailing their accomplishments in the arena. If the man also had a family, they would also make sure that the family was taken care of financially.
The Fight That Won Both Men Their Freedom
One of the most famous fights took place in the first century between two gladiators, Priscus and Versus. Both were renowned fighters, so it was unsurprising when the two were set to fight against each other in order to celebrate the opening of the Flavian Amphitheater.
A poet by the name of Martial was there to record the events. He wrote that the two warriors fought for hours, matching each other in skill and bravery, even both submitting at the same time. However, because of the impressive performance each gave, both men were awarded their freedom.
They Drank A Special Concoction To Recover After A Fight
According to ancient writer and historian Pliny the Elder, after a fight, gladiators had a special drink they would consume to help them recover. In his writings, Natural History, he recommends that the gladiator drink a cup of water mixed with ashes in order to help with “abdominal cramps and bruises.”
He continued in his writings, “One can see how gladiators after a combat are helped by this.” Furthermore, archaeologists have found higher levels of calcium in the skeletal of gladiators, hinting that many did consume such a drink.
The Odds Of Gaining Freedom Weren’t Likely
Unless a gladiator performed exceptionally well in the arena, it’s incredibly unlikely that a gladiator would win their freedom after only one, or even a few fights. Typically, most gladiators would fight around 15 times before they would even be considered to be granted their freedom.
Assuming that they fought three times a year, that’s a minimum of five years that they were in service as a gladiator. Furthermore, considering that around one-fifth of all fights ended in one of the combatants dying, living through enough fights to gain freedom seems unlikely.
Lower-Class Gladiators Were Mistreated In Both Life And Death
Archaeological evidence has demonstrated that the lower the status of a gladiator, the more likely they were mistreated in regard to their death. While celebrity gladiators lived decent lives, even compared to some free men, the lowest class of gladiators, known as Noxii, had things a lot worse.
These were the gladiators made up of criminals and other prisoners, who, if defeated, had their skulls crushed by a games official dressed as a Roman god of the Underworld, even if they died with dignity. They were also usually not given a burial and were left as carrion.
Some Gladiators Didn’t Want Their Freedom
Along with those who volunteered to fight as gladiators, some of the enslaved gladiators didn’t want to be free. One example of this was the notorious gladiator named Flamma.
Over the course of his combat career, he was offered his freedom on four separate occasions, declining to accept the rudis, the wooden sword symbolizing freedom. Incredibly, he fought 34 times, winning 21 contests, and drawing in nine of them. Eventually, he died with great honor at the age of 30 in an arena in Athens, Greece.
Gladiators Didn’t Fight As Often As Most Might Think
Even though being a gladiator was a full-time job, that didn’t mean that they were jumping into the arena every day. If a gladiator made it out of a fight alive, they would return to the barracks where they would recover and train for their next fight.
According to estimations, based on the number of victories of some of the most renowned gladiators, a typical gladiator would only fight around four or five times a year. Some would also come out of retirement occasionally, for a large sum of money, of course.
Rome’s First Christian Emperor Ended The Practice Of Gladiatorial Combat
Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, brought an end to the gladiatorial games in 325. Under his rule, he declared that the violence of the games was unnecessary at a “time of civil and domestic peace.”
Nevertheless, some historians argue that another reason for the games coming to an end was that Rome was fighting fewer wars, and therefore had fewer prisoners to force to fight as gladiators. Unfortunately, for those slaves serving as gladiators during the time of Constantine’s decree, they remained slaves and were forced to work in the Empire’s mines.