This article was first published in Irregular Magazine Issue 5
Spartacus was a slave and gladiator, who has been immortalised in books and films for defying the might of Rome.
Spartacus started life as a shepherd, before becoming a soldier. It is believed that he served in a Roman auxiliary unit, which would explain his understanding of Roman tactics. Whilst serving in the Roman army he deserted and took to banditry, but on one raid he was captured and sold in to slavery.
He was bought by Lentulus Batiatus for his gladiatorial school in Capua, South Central Italy in 73 BC. The school was run by a former gladiator, who had won his freedom. Batiatus ran it with brutal cruelty, which is probably one of reasons which led to the revolt.
Gladiatorial combat was originally a religious rite that was performed to honour the dead, and was conducted in private. It was also generally not to the death, but around the time of Spartacus it was beginning to take hold as a public spectacle. The special weapons we all associate with gladiators were rare during this period – most combats were fought with the legionary sword, the gladius, which is where the name gladiator originates from.
It seems that Spartacus and another gladiator called Crixus were preparing their fellow condemned inmates to revolt. Unfortunately, the plan had been discovered, so they were forced to break out with only half of the gladiators at the school.
They headed straight to an eatery, where they grabbed knives, skewers and meat cleaver. Newly armed, they attacked the guards at the city gates before heading into the hills around Capua. Once outside the city they came across a wagon delivering gladiatorial weapons and armour.
The ex-slaves made their way to Mount Vesuvius, where they made camp. Word of the breakout spread, which inspired other slaves to desert and join the band of gladiators. Most of the new followers were former soldiers captured in battle and sent into slavery, most of whom were Thracians or Gauls.
Most were probably of a dubious nature because they soon turned to banditry, pillaging the local countryside. This became a problem for those in Rome, and needed to be dealt with. They sent 3,000 soldiers under the command of Appius Claudius Pulcher to clear them from Vesuvius. The Romans soon penned the soldiers in on Vesuvius and began to move in for the kill.
Trapped near the crater on the volcano, Spartacus proved to be an excellent tactician. Noticing one of the slopes had been left wide open, the rebels climbed down the slope unobserved. Believing the slaves to be still on the mountain, the Romans had relaxed their guard. Spartacus and his followers poured over the Romans from the rear. The Roman army was routed, with many of the soldiers being killed.
Spartacus had beaten his first Roman army, which supplied the men under his command with Roman arms and equipment. In turn, once news of his victory spread more followers flocked to his side.
Spartacus was becoming infamous in Italy, not for the victory, but for the amount of followers who were flocking to his side. By the end of 73 BC he had amassed around 40,000 followers. He not only attracted slaves but poor farmers, who had been treated badly by the ruling elite. Most free farmers were being forced from fertile land onto marginal land which was hard work to scratch out a meagre living.
They continued their ravaging of the countryside, with towns of Cura, Nuceria and Nula being sacked. They also destroyed local villas, and were constantly recruiting and attracting new followers to their camp.
Spartacus and his rebel slaves defeated another Roman army, under the command of Glaber, at Salinae. Glaber, in his rush to flee, left behind his warhorse, attendants and equipment that symbolized his rank of Praetor. From this point onwards Spartacus went about in the captured accoutrements of a senior Roman senator.
After one year of being free it was decided they should leave Italy and return home. The biggest problem that faced them was the Roman Army and the Alps. Winter was drawing in and it became too late to attempt a crossing of the Alps. Instead, they retreated south to the regions of Lucania and Bruttium. The rebel forces had grown to around 70,000 strong by this time. They spent the winter preparing for the future confrontations that would come in the spring. Spartacus spent the winter seeking blacksmiths to produce arms and armour for his horde – he intended that they should become a real army, not just a band of bandits.
In the spring of 72 BC Rome sent three armies south under the command of a Praetor. This was a considerable force, especially to send against mere slaves, which showed that the Roman elite were fearful of a full-scale slave rebellion.
It was at this point that the slave army split in two, one contingent under the command of Crixus, and the other under Spartacus. It is not known why they split occurred, but some think it may have been ethnic in origin, as most of those who left with Crixus were of Gaul descent. The other reason may have been that the army had become too large to administer and feeding 70,000 people would have placed a massive drain on the local resources.
At Mount Gorganus, Crixus and his followers met the army of Praetor Quintus Arrius. Crixus was not the tactical general that Spartacus was – consequently, his faction was defeated. Spartacus had taken those under his command north, where they reached the River Po unopposed. North of the river was an army under the command of Lentulus and to the south, coming up behind them, was another army under the command by Poplicoda.
Spartacus and his followers were trapped between two armies – this should have been the single act that should have finished them off. Instead he fought one of them and then turned round and defeated the second as well. Three armies had faced Spartacus and all three had been defeated by his army of freed slaves.
It was in the aftermath of this battle that Spartacus displayed his cruel nature. He sacrificed 300 prisoners in memory of Crixus, who had been killed. He then made the remaining prisoners fight each other in gladiatorial combat. The writer Appian claims that Spartacus put to death all prisoners taken in both battles.
Spartacus was now said to have commanded an army of 100,000. The largest army that Rome had placed into the field up to this date had been 85,000. I suspect that a large proportion of the 100,000 were made up of families, old people and children, who were unable to fight. How many fighting men he had at his command is unknown, but it would probably have been over 50,000.
Spartacus’ next move was to head towards Rome in the hope of drawing the northern troops south and leave the Alps wide open for them to cross. This tactic failed and he was forced into battle with another army camped near Picenum, which he defeated. There was another army stationed at Mutina which was waiting for him, but this time it wasn’t a militia army, which all previous armies that Spartacus had faced had been. This time it was composed of veterans under the command of a professional soldier, called Cassius , Proconsul of Spain. Even these superior troops were not enough to defeat Spartacus, as he sent this army fleeing as well.
There was no one to stop them crossing the Alps and to freedom, but they chose to turn south and continue pillaging the countryside. It may have been arrogance, that made them turn south, thinking that they were undfeatable, and maybe they thought they could carve out a nation for themselves in Southern Italy.
Rome desperately needed to defeat Spartacus, as they really feared a full-scale nationwide slave revolt. We have to remember that slaves formed a large part of Roman life and community, and it has been suggested that nearly half of the population of Rome were made up from the slave community.
No one came forward to take the job of facing Spartacus, until Marcus Licinus Crassus, a former general under Sulla, who was known for his cruelty and butchery. He needed a triumph to help secure his political power base in Rome and the defeat of Spartacus would be ideal – he would become the saviour of Rome. Crassus took eight legions into the field. At this time Spartacus went further south down to Thurii, as he needed to leave Italy, especially now Crassus was taking to the field, and certainly after Crassus had massacred a breakaway group of 10,000 slaves.
Spartacus moved down to Rhegium to arrange transport across the straits with Cilician Pirates, but instead of taking the rebels the pirates fled with the gold. Some of the rebels tried to cross the straits in makeshift rafts and small boats but the currents proved to be too strong and dangerous.
Instead of escaping by sea, Spartacus had to move north again. Crassus had set up fortifications across passes in the southern mountains, which meant Spartacus was trapped. His first attempt to take the fortifications failed and it was reported that Spartacus had lost 1,200 men. The morale of Spartacus’s followers was failing, so he made a spectacle of crucifying a roman soldier who was prisoner in front of the enemy fortifications.
The rebels made a second attack, during a stormy night which covered the attack. This time it was successful, allowing Spartacus and his followers to pour over the fortifications, evading Crassus. The rebel army split once more – it is unknown why they split, but some may have thought Spartacus had failed them, especially in regards to the pirates, but also because Rome was closing in for the kill. The senate were considering recalling Pompey and his army to Italy, but also Crassus was closing in again. Another thought is that it could have been along ethnic lines, as those who left were mainly from Gaul and Germania, under the command of Granicus and Castus.
Those under the command of Granicus and Castius made their way to a town called Croton, where Crassus and his legions fell upon them killing 30,000 – the breakaway rebels needed to be rescued by Spartacus. This win bolstered the morale of the Roman army and sent a message of encouragement to the ruling elite back in Rome. Though it didn’t last for long, because Spartacus faced another army under the command of Quintus Scrofa, who had been sent north. Once they defeated this Roman army they turned towards the port of Brundisium, hoping to gain passage out of Italy, but an army commanded by Lucullus had arrived at the port from Greece. This forced the Spartacus north towards the Alps again.
Crassus closed in on Spartacus again, at this point Spartacus sent messages to Crassus seeking settlement, but Crassus refused, stating that Rome didn’t negotiate with slaves. Crassus finally managed to bring Spartacus and his rebel army to the field of battle. It was estimated that Spartacus had an estimated 90,000 troops under his command, though a lot of these may have been non-combatants who decided to fight. The discipline of the legions proved their worth – Spartacus was unable push them from the field and the Romans finally defeated the slaves. It was said that Spartacus fought like a demon.
After the battle Crassus had 6,000 of the rebels crucified along the Appian way. Spartacus descended into myth and legend, and the Romans had prevented a full-scale slave revolt across the length and breadth of Italy, something the ruling elite feared.
Had Spartacus defeated Crassus, I suspect he would have made his way to Rome in the hope of sacking the city, but he would have had to face Pompey. Most slaves who were in Rome had a better state of life than those who worked the farms and mines in the countryside of Italy, which is the most likely reason why an empire-wide revolt didn’t occur. Crassus went on to a massive defeat at the hands of the Persians, he took an army into Parthia in 55 BC, he took mostly infantry with only light cavalry support. He faced a Parthian army made up of horse archers, which decimated his Roman army. Crassus was killed in the battle, and afterwards the Parthians decapitated him.
The army of Spartacus would have been armed initially with makeshift weapons, some armed like gladiators, and little in the way of armour. As the revolt continued and they defeated army after army, they would have collected Roman military equipment.
The army of Spartacus would make an interesting conversion project. I would look at using Warlord Celts, mixed with Roman auxiliaries, along with War game Factory plastic Romans and Numidians. Spartacus, after his defeat of Glaber, went around in the dress of a senior senator, which meant he would have been dressed like a Roman general. There would also have been soldiers with gladiator weapons and armour – there are several makers of metal gladiators, such as Foundry, which would provide suitable troops.
A slave revolt campaign could be placed in any period of Roman history, as it could become the staging of an alternative history. Spartacus could have defeated Crassus and set up a kingdom in Southern Italy, which leads to a war with Rome.
Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009
Paul Erdkamp (Ed), A Companion to the Roman Army, Blackwell, 2007
Edward Gibbons, Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,