Spartacus poster

SPARTACUS:
HISTORICAL
BACKGROUND

NB: Kate Bondareva has prepared a Danish translation of this page.

VIOLENCE ENTERS POLITICS:

133 BCE: Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a noble plebeian, was elected tribune. He proposed essential land and economic reforms which threatened the wealthy senatorial classes, so he passed these through the Assembly of Tribes. Gracchus was very popular with the masses, so he ran for a second consecutive term as tribune (though this was unconstitutional). A group of senators led an armed band against him in the Assembly and killed him and 300 of his followers.

123-21 BCE: Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (the younger brother of Tiberius) was elected tribune for two successive years; through the Assembly, he increased the power of the equestrian class at the expense of the senators. He also attempted sweeping economic reforms. Opposition between his followers and the Senate broke into riots and bloodshed, and he died in the violence.

The reform efforts of the Gracchi and the opposition these generated in the Senate constituted the foundation of the two political factions, the populares and the optimates.

RISE OF THE GENERALS:

107 BCE: Gaius Marius, a plebeian of the equestrian class and a novus homo, was elected consul and was designated by the Assembly of Tribes as general in the African war against the wishes of the Senate. He reorganized the army and successfully concluded several wars. Marius was elected to five consecutive consulships (though this was unconstitutional) and then to a sixth consulship in 100. He became leader of the populares. During this time there was considerable unrest and rioting in Rome.

88 BCE: Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a patrician leader of the optimates, was elected consul and designated by the Senate as general in the war in Asia Minor although the Assembly had given this command to Marius. Sulla marched his legions into Rome itself to enforce his appointment and to stop the reform legislation of the populares; this was the first time in history that a Roman army marched upon Rome. Sulla outlawed Marius and took up his command in Asia Minor.

86 BCE: Marius returned to Rome and outlawed Sulla; he was elected to his seventh consulship and led a five-day bloodbath against the optimates. Marius, however, died within the year.

82-79 BCE: Sulla returned to Italy with his army and had himself proclaimed dictator. He conducted first “proscriptions,” in which he posted lists of those condemned to be executed (the Senate had asked him to publish these names with the following plea: “We do not ask you to pardon those whom you have destined for destruction; we only want you to relieve the anxiety of those whom you have decided to spare”). A large number of Roman aristocrats associated with the populares (520, according to Sorbonne professor Francois Hinard) were proscribed and their property confiscated. Sulla strengthened the power of the Senate, weakened the power of the tribunes, and stopped the grain dole. He passed a law that no army was to be stationed in or near Rome—in effect, he banned standing armies in Italy—and no general was to lead his army out of the provinces without permission of the Senate. Sulla retired and died in 79.

77-72 BCE: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great, who had been a general under Sulla and celebrated a triumph at the exceptionally young age of 24, took command of the Roman legions in Spain and put down a revolt led by the followers of Marius.

REVOLT OF SPARTACUS:

The real Spartacus was a freeborn provincial from Thrace, who may have served as an auxiliary in the Roman army in Macedonia. He deserted the army, was outlawed, captured, sold into slavery, and trained at the gladiatorial school of Batiatus in Capua.

73 BCE: Spartacus escaped with 70-80 gladiators, seizing the knives in the cook's shop and a wagon full of weapons. They camped on Vesuvius and were joined by other rural slaves, overrunning the region with much plunder and pillage, although Spartacus apparently tried to restrain them. His chief aides were gladiators from Gaul, named Crixus and Oenomaus. (map)

The Senate sent a praetor, Claudius Glaber (his nomen may have been Clodius; his praenomen is unknown), against the rebel slaves with about 3000 raw recruits hastily drafted from the region. They thought they had trapped the rebels on Vesuvius, but Spartacus led his men down the other side of the mountain using vines, fell on the rear of the soldiers, and routed them.

Spartacus subsequently defeated two forces of legionary cohorts; he wanted to lead his men across the Alps to escape from Italy, but the Gauls and Germans, led by Crixus, wanted to stay and plunder. They separated from Spartacus, who passed the winter near Thurii in southern Italy.

72 BCE: Spartacus had raised about 70,000 slaves, mostly from rural areas. The Senate, alarmed, finally sent the two consuls (L. Gellius Publicola and Cn. Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus), each with two legions, against the rebels. The Gauls and Germans, separated from Spartacus, were defeated by Publicola, and Crixus was killed. Spartacus defeated Lentulus, and then Publicola; to avenge Crixus, Spartacus had 300 prisoners from these battles fight in pairs to the death. (map)

At Picenum in central Italy Spartacus defeated the consular armies, then pushed north and defeated the proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul at Mutina. The Alps were now open to the rebels, but again the Gauls and Germans refused to go, so Spartacus returned to southern Italy, perhaps intending to ship to Sicily.

In the autumn, when the revolt was at its height and Spartacus had about 120,000 followers, the Senate voted to pass over the consuls and grant imperium to Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had been a praetor in 73 B.C. but currently held no office. Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome, a noble from an old plebeian family; since he had received very little support from the conservative nobles who dominated the Senate, he had allied himself with the faction of the populares.

Crassus was given six new legions plus the four consular legions. When one of Crassus' legates attacked Spartacus with two legions, against orders, Spartacus roundly defeated them. Crassus decimated the most cowardly cohort, then used his combined forces to defeat Spartacus, who retreated to Rhegium, in the toe of Italy. Spartacus tried to cross the straits into Sicily, but the Cilician pirates betrayed him.

Meanwhile, the Senate recalled Pompey and his legions from Spain, and they began the journey overland; Marcus Licinius Lucullus landed in Brundisium in the heel of Italy with his legions from Macedonia. When Spartacus finally fought his way out of the toe of Italy, he could not march to Brundisium and take ship to the east because of the presence of Lucullus. (map)

71 BCE: Spartacus started north; some of the Gauls and Germans separated from him and were nearly defeated by Crassus before Spartacus rescued them. The slaves gained one more minor victory against part of Crassus' forces, but they were finally wiped out by Crassus' legions in a major battle in southern Italy, near the headwaters of the Siler river. It is believed that Spartacus died in this battle; there were so many corpses that his body was never found. The historian Appian reports that 6000 slaves were taken prisoner by Crassus and crucified along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome.

As many as 5000 slaves escaped and fled northward, but they were captured by Pompey's army north of Rome as he was marching back from Spain; Pompey subsequently tried to claim the glory of victory from Crassus, although he had not actually participated in any of the battles. The Senate voted Pompey a triumph because of his victory in Spain, but they decreed an ovation (a far less splendid and prestigious parade) for Crassus because his victory had been merely over slaves. There were no political purges or proscriptions after the rebellion was crushed.

70 BCE: Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls, although Pompey was six years too young for the office and had never held any of the lower magistracies. As consuls, they repealed some of the unpopular laws of Sulla and restored the power of the tribunes.

Significance of Spartacus: quotation from Erich Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (University of California Press, 1974) 20-21:

It was not the governing class alone that would react in horror to the prospect of a slave insurrection. Whatever the grievances of men disenfranchised and dispossessed by Sulla, they would have found unthinkable any common enterprise with Thracian or Gallic slaves. It causes no surprise that Marxist historians and writers have idealized Spartacus as a champion of the masses and leader of the one genuine social revolution in Roman history. That, however, is excessive. Spartacus and his companions sought to break the bonds of their own grievous oppression. There is no sign that they were motivated by ideological considerations to overturn the social structure. The sources make clear that Spartacus endeavored to bring his forces out of Italy toward freedom rather than to reform or reverse Roman society. The achievements of Spartacus are no less formidable for that. The courage, tenacity, and ability of the Thracian gladiator who held Roman forces at bay for some two years and built a handful of followers into an assemblage of over 120,000 men can only inspire admiration.

The Roman reaction was tardy and ineffective. . . . Error of judgment induced the Senate to treat the uprising too lightly at the outset. By the time Rome took firm steps, Spartacus' ranks had considerably swelled and the state's finest soldiers were serving abroad. But Crassus' efforts obtained full support, and the revolt was wiped out in 71.

Characters in Film with a Recorded Historical Existence:

Characters in Film with No Historical Record of Existence:

Sources

Barbara F. McManus, The College of New Rochelle
bmcmanus@cnr.edu
revised September, 2014