For other uses, see Spartacus (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Spartocus or Sportacus.

The Death of Spartacus by Hermann Vogel (1882)
Rebel slave leader
Personal details
Born c. 111 BC
The area around the middle course of the Strymon
(modern-day Struma river, Bulgaria)
Died 71 BC
Battlefield near to Petelia
(modern-day Strongoli, Calabria, Italy)
Nationality Thracian
Military service
Battles/wars Third Servile War

Spartacus (Greek: Σπάρτακος Spártakos; Latin: Spartacus;[1] c. 111–71 BC) was a Thracian gladiator who, along with the Gauls Crixus, Gannicus and Castus, alongside the Nubian Oenomaus, was one of the escaped slave leaders in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and surviving historical accounts are sometimes contradictory and may not always be reliable. However, all sources agree that he was a former gladiator and an accomplished military leader.

This rebellion, interpreted by some as an example of oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning oligarchy, has provided inspiration for many political thinkers, and has been featured in literature, television, and film. Although this interpretation is not specifically contradicted by classical historians, no historical account mentions that the goal was to end slavery in the Republic, nor do any of the actions of the rebel leaders, who themselves committed numerous atrocities, seem specifically aimed at ending slavery.[2]


Balkan tribes, including the Maedi.

The Greek essayist Plutarch describes Spartacus as "a Thracian of Nomadic stock",[3] in a possible reference to the Maedi tribe.[4] Appian says he was "a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator".[5]

Florus (2.8.8) described him as one "who, from a Thracian mercenary, had become a Roman soldier, that had deserted and became enslaved, and afterward, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator".[6] The authors refer to the Thracian tribe of the Maedi,[7][8][9] which occupied the area on the southwestern fringes of Thrace, along its border with the Roman province of Macedonia - present day south-western Bulgaria.[10] Plutarch also writes that Spartacus' wife, a prophetess of the Maedi tribe, was enslaved with him.

The name Spartacus is otherwise manifested in the Black Sea region. Kings of the Thracian dynasty of the Cimmerian Bosporus[11] and Pontus[12] are known to have borne it, and a Thracian "Sparta" "Spardacus"[13] or "Sparadokos",[14] father of Seuthes I of the Odrysae, is also known.

Enslavement and escape

The extent of the Roman Republic at 100 BC.

According to the differing sources and their interpretation, Spartacus was a captive taken by the legions.[15] Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school (ludus) near Capua belonging to Lentulus Batiatus. He was a heavyweight gladiator called a murmillo. These fighters carried a big oblong shield (scutum), and used a sword with a broad, straight blade (gladius), about 18 inches long.[16] In 73 BC, Spartacus was among a group of gladiators plotting an escape.[17]

About 70[18] slaves were part of the plot. Though few in number, they seized kitchen utensils, fought their way free from the school, and seized several wagons of gladiatorial weapons and armor.[17] The escaped slaves defeated legions sent after them, plundered the region surrounding Capua, recruited many other slaves into their ranks, and eventually retired to a more defensible position on Mount Vesuvius.[19][20]

Once free, the escaped gladiators chose Spartacus and two Gallic slaves—Crixus and Oenomaus—as their leaders. Although Roman authors assumed that the escaped slaves were a homogeneous group with Spartacus as their leader, they may have projected their own hierarchical view of military leadership onto the spontaneous organization, reducing other slave leaders to subordinate positions in their accounts. The positions of Crixus and Oenomaus—and later, Gannicus and Castus—can be clearly determined from the sources.

Third Servile War

For more details on this topic, see Third Servile War.
Slaves in chains, relief found at Smyrna, Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey)

The response of the Romans was hampered by the absence of the Roman legions, which were already engaged in fighting a revolt in Spain and the Third Mithridatic War. Furthermore, the Romans considered the rebellion more of a policing matter than a war. Rome dispatched militia under the command of praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, which besieged Spartacus and his camp on Mount Vesuvius, hoping that starvation would force Spartacus to surrender. They were surprised when Spartacus, who had made ropes from vines, climbed down the cliff side of the volcano with his men and attacked the unfortified Roman camp in the rear, killing most of them.[21]

The rebels also defeated a second expedition, nearly capturing the praetor commander, killing his lieutenants and seizing the military equipment.[22] With these successes, more and more slaves flocked to the Spartacan forces, as did "many of the herdsmen and shepherds of the region", swelling their ranks to some 70,000.[23]

In these altercations Spartacus proved to be an excellent tactician, suggesting that he may have had previous military experience. Though the rebels lacked military training, they displayed a skillful use of available local materials and unusual tactics when facing the disciplined Roman armies.[24] They spent the winter of 73–72 BC training, arming and equipping their new recruits, and expanding their raiding territory to include the towns of Nola, Nuceria, Thurii and Metapontum.[25] The distance between these locations and the subsequent events indicate that the slaves operated in two groups commanded by the remaining leaders Spartacus and Crixus.

In the spring of 72 BC, the rebels left their winter encampments and began to move northward. At the same time, the Roman Senate, alarmed by the defeat of the praetorian forces, dispatched a pair of consular legions under the command of Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus.[26] The two legions were initially successful—defeating a group of 30,000 rebels commanded by Crixus near Mount Garganus[27]—but then were defeated by Spartacus. These defeats are depicted in divergent ways by the two most comprehensive (extant) histories of the war by Appian and Plutarch.[28][29][30][31]

Alarmed by the unstoppable rebellion, the Senate charged Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and the only volunteer for the position,[32] with ending the rebellion. Crassus was put in charge of eight legions, approximately 40,000 trained Roman soldiers,[33][34] which he treated with harsh, even brutal, discipline, reviving the punishment of unit decimation.[32] When Spartacus and his followers, who for unclear reasons had retreated to the south of Italy, moved northward again in early 71 BC, Crassus deployed six of his legions on the borders of the region and detached his legate Mummius with two legions to maneuver behind Spartacus. Though ordered not to engage the rebels, Mummius attacked at a seemingly opportune moment but was routed.[35] After this, Crassus' legions were victorious in several engagements, forcing Spartacus farther south through Lucania as Crassus gained the upper hand. By the end of 71 BC, Spartacus was encamped in Rhegium (Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina.

The Fall of Spartacus

According to Plutarch, Spartacus made a bargain with Cilician pirates to transport him and some 2,000 of his men to Sicily, where he intended to incite a slave revolt and gather reinforcements. However, he was betrayed by the pirates, who took payment and then abandoned the rebels.[35] Minor sources mention that there were some attempts at raft and shipbuilding by the rebels as a means to escape, but that Crassus took unspecified measures to ensure the rebels could not cross to Sicily, and their efforts were abandoned.[36] Spartacus' forces then retreated toward Rhegium. Crassus' legions followed and upon arrival built fortifications across the isthmus at Rhegium, despite harassing raids from the rebels. The rebels were now under siege and cut off from their supplies.[37]

At this time, the legions of Pompey returned from Hispania and were ordered by the Senate to head south to aid Crassus.[38] While Crassus feared that Pompey's arrival would cost him the credit, Spartacus unsuccessfully tried to reach an agreement with Crassus.[39] When Crassus refused, a portion of Spartacus' forces fled toward the mountains west of Petelia (modern Strongoli) in Bruttium, with Crassus' legions in pursuit.[40]

When the legions managed to catch a portion of the rebels separated from the main army,[41] discipline among Spartacus' forces broke down as small groups were independently attacking the oncoming legions.[42] Spartacus now turned his forces around and brought his entire strength to bear on the legions in a last stand, in which the rebels were routed completely, with the vast majority of them being killed on the battlefield.[43]

The final battle that saw the assumed defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC took place on the present territory of Senerchia on the right bank of the river Sale in the area that includes the border with Oliveto Citra up to those of Calabritto, near the village of Quaglietta, in High Sele Valley, which at that time was part of Lucania. In this area, since 1899, there have been finds of armour and swords of the Roman era.

Plutarch, Appian and Florus all claim that Spartacus died during the battle, but Appian also reports that his body was never found.[44] Six thousand survivors of the revolt captured by the legions of Crassus were crucified, lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.[45]


Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus' followers on the road between Rome and Capua. 1878 painting by Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov

Classical historians were divided as to the motives of Spartacus. None of Spartacus' actions overtly suggest that he aimed at reforming Roman society or abolishing slavery.

Plutarch writes that Spartacus wished to escape north into Cisalpine Gaul and disperse his men back to their homes.[46] If escaping the Italian peninsula was indeed his goal, it is not clear why Spartacus turned south after defeating the legions commanded by the consuls Lucius Publicola and Gnaeus Clodianus, which left his force a clear passage over the Alps.

Appian and Florus write that he intended to march on Rome itself.[47] Appian also states that he later abandoned that goal, which might have been no more than a reflection of Roman fears.

Based on the events in late 73 BC and early 72 BC, which suggest independently operating groups of escaped slaves[48] and a statement by Plutarch, it appears that some of the escaped slaves preferred to plunder Italy, rather than escape over the Alps.[46]

Legacy and recognition

Toussaint Louverture, a leader of the slave revolt that led to the independence of Haiti, has been called the "Black Spartacus".[49][50]

Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, often referred to himself as Spartacus within written correspondences.[51]

In communism

In modern times, Spartacus became an icon for communists and socialists. Karl Marx listed Spartacus as one of his heroes and described him as "the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history" and a "great general (though no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat".[52] Spartacus has been a great inspiration to left-wing revolutionaries, most notably the German Spartacus League (1915–18), a forerunner of the Communist Party of Germany.[53] A January 1919 uprising by communists in Germany was called the Spartacist uprising.[50]

Spartacus's name was also used in athletics in the Soviet Union and communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Spartakiad was a Soviet bloc version of the Olympic games.[54] This name was also used for the mass gymnastics exhibition held every five years in Czechoslovakia. Numerous sports clubs in the Soviet and the Eastern bloc were named Spartak, such as the Spartak sport society, FC Spartak Moscow,[55] PFC Spartak Varna, PFC Spartak Pleven, FC Spartak Plovdiv (Bulgaria), FC Spartak Trnava (Slovakia).

In popular culture

Spartacus, marble sculpture by Denis Foyatier (1830), Louvre Museum

Film and television


The statue of Spartacus in Sandanski, Bulgaria


Video games


See also


  1. "M. Tullius Cicero". Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  2. Historian Barry Strauss On His New Book The Spartacus War (Interview). Simon & Schuster. 2009.
  3. Plutarch, Crassus 8
  4. Nic Fields (2009). Spartacus and the Slave War 73-71 BC: A Gladiator Rebels Against Rome. Osprey Publishing. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-84603-353-7.
  5. Appian, Civil Wars 1.116
  6. Florus, Epitome of Roman History 2.8
  7. Sallust (1994). The histories. Vol.2, Books iii-v. Translated by McGushin, Patrick. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198721439.
  8. Annuaire de l'Université de Sofia, Faculté d'histoire, Volume 77, Issue 2, 1985, p. 122. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  9. Strauss 2009, p. 31
  10. John Boardman, I. E. S. Edwards, N. G. L. Hammond and E. Sollberger, eds. (1982). The Cambridge Ancient History (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521224963. ISBN 0521224969.
  11. Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library Book 12
  12. Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library Book 16
  13. Theucidides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.101
  14. Tribes, Dynasts and Kingdoms of Northern Greece: History and Numismatics
  15. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Plutarch, Crassus, 8:2. Note: Spartacus' status as an auxilia is taken from the Loeb edition of Appian translated by Horace White, which states "...who had once served as a soldier with the Romans...". However, the translation by John Carter in the Penguin Classics version reads: "...who had once fought against the Romans and after being taken prisoner and sold...".
  16. The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss, p.11
  17. 1 2 Plutarch, Crassus, 8:1–2; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Livy, Periochae, 95:2; Florus, Epitome, 2.8. Plutarch claims 78 escaped, Livy claims 74, Appian "about seventy", and Florus says "thirty or rather more men". "Choppers and spits" is from Life of Crassus.
  18. However, according to Cicero (Ad Atticum VI, ii, 8) at the beginning his followers were much less than 50.
  19. Plutarch, Crassus, 9:1.
  20. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
  21. Plutarch, Crassus, 9:1–3; Frontinus, Stratagems, Book I, 5:20–22; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic, p. 109.
  22. Plutarch, Crassus, 9:4–5; Livy, Periochae , 95; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Sallust, Histories, 3:64–67.
  23. Plutarch, Crassus, 9:3; Appian, Civil War, 1:116.
  24. Frontinus, Stratagems, Book I, 5:20–22 and Book VII:6.
  25. Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
  26. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116–117; Plutarch, Crassus 9:6; Sallust, Histories, 3:64–67.
  27. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117; Plutarch, Crassus 9:7; Livy, Periochae 96.
  28. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117.
  29. Plutarch, Crassus, 9:7.
  30. "Spartacus and the Slave Rebellion". Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  31. Shaw, Brent D. (2001). Spartacus and the servile wars: a brief history with documents. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-23703-0.
  32. 1 2 Appian, Civil Wars, 1:118.
  33. Plutarch, Crassus 10:1.
  34. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:118; Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, "Exercitus", p.494.
  35. 1 2 Plutarch, Crassus, 10:1–3.
  36. Florus, Epitome, 2.8; Cicero, Orations, "For Quintius, Sextus Roscius...", 5.2
  37. Plutarch, Crassus, 10:4–5.
  38. Contrast Plutarch, Crassus, 11:2 with Appian, Civil Wars, 1:119.
  39. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120.
  40. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120; Plutarch, Crassus, 10:6.
  41. Plutarch, Crassus, 11:3; Livy, Periochae, 97:1. Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion. p. 97; Plutarch, Crassus, 11:4.
  42. Plutarch, Crassus, 11:5;.
  43. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120; Plutarch, Crassus, 11:6–7; Livy, Periochae, 97.1.
  44. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120; Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
  45. Appian, Civil Wars, 1.120.
  46. 1 2 Plutarch Crassus, 9:5–6.
  47. Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117; Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
  48. Plutarch, Crassus, 9:7; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117.
  49. Thomson, Ian (31 January 2004). "The black Spartacus". The Guardian. Patrick Leigh Fermor hailed L'Ouverture as the "black Spartacus" after the slave who challenged Rome...
  50. 1 2 Diken, Bulent (2012). Revolt, Revolution, Critique: The Paradox of Society. Routledge. p. 61. ISBN 9781134005642. the 'black Spartacus' Toussaint-Louverture, the leader of the insurgent black slaves who escaped from plantations and defeated the Napoleonic forces in Haiti in 1796-1804, or like the 'Spartacist' leaders of the communist revolt in Germany in 1919.
  51. Douglas Reed (1 January 1978). The controversy of Zion. Dolphin Press. p. 139. Retrieved 21 July 2010.
  52. Croix, G. E. M. de Ste. (1989). The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 25. ISBN 9780801495977.
  53. Fowkes, Ben (2014). The German Left and the Weimar Republic: A Selection of Documents. BRILL. p. 71. ISBN 9789004271081.
  54. Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd edition, volume 24 (part 1), p. 286, Moscow, Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya publisher, 1976.
  55. History of Spartak, (Russian).
  56. "Spartacus — Comic-Con 2009 -". 29 June 2009. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  57. "AUSXIP Spartacus: Blood and Sand TV Show Lucy Lawless Sam Raimi & Rob Tapert". Retrieved 24 February 2013.


Classical authors

Modern historiography

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