Who Was the Real Spartacus?

In 1960 Stanley Kubrick directed a historical epic starring Kirk Douglas. ‘Spartacus’ was based on a slave who headed a revolt against the Romans in the 1st century BC. Although much of the evidence for Spartacus’ existence is anecdotal, there are some coherent themes that emerge. Spartacus was indeed slave who led a the Spartacus Revolt, which began in 73 BC.

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Rome in the 1st Century BC

By the 1st century BC, Rome had gathered supreme control of the Mediterranean in a series of bloody wars. Italy had unprecedented wealth, including over 1 million slaves.

Its economy was reliant on slave labour, and its diffuse political structure (which didn’t yet have a single leader) was profoundly unstable. Conditions were ripe for a massive slave revolt.

Indeed, slave rebellions were not uncommon. Around 130 BC there had been a huge, sustained uprising in Sicily, and smaller conflagrations were frequent.

Who Was Spartacus?

Spartacus originated from Thrace in Greece. This was a well-established source for slaves, and Spartacus was just one of the many who made the trek into Italy.

He was sold as a gladiator to be trained at the school in Capua. Historians are unsure as to why, but some have claimed that Spartacus may have served in the Roman army.

The Slave Revolt

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In 73 BC Spartacus escaped from the gladiatorial barracks with around 70 comrades, armed with kitchen implements and a few scattered weapons. With around 3,000 Romans in pursuit, the escapees headed for Mount Vesuvius, where heavy forest provided cover.

The Romans camped at the bottom of the mountain, trying to starve out the rebels. However, in a moment of extraordinary ingenuity, the rebels abseiled down the mountain with ropes created from vines. They then stormed the Roman camp, overwhelming them and in the process picking up military-grade equipment.

Spartacus’s rebel army swelled as it became a magnet for the disaffected. Throughout Spartacus was facing a dilemma – escape home over the alps or continue attacking the Romans.

In the end they stayed, and roamed up and down Italy. Sources differ on why Spartacus took this course of action. It is possible that they needed to stay on the move to sustain resources, or to corral more support.

In his 2 years of revolt, Spartacus won at least 9 major victories against Roman forces. This was a remarkable achievement, even given that he had a massive force at his disposal.

In one encounter, Spartacus set up a camp with fires lit and corpses set up on spikes to give the impression to an outsider that the camp was occupied. In reality, his forces had sneaked off and were able to orchestrate an ambush..

Defeat and Death

Spartacus was eventually defeated by a much larger, 8-legion army under the leadership of Crassus, an illustrious thug of Rome. Despite Crassus having cornered Spartacus’ forces in the toe of Italy, they managed to escape.

However, in his final battle, Spartacus killed his horse so that he can be on the same level as his soldiers. He then set out to find Crassus, to fight him one on one, but was eventually surrounded and killed by Roman soldiers.

The Legacy of Spartacus

Spartacus is written into history as a significant enemy who posed a very real treat to Rome. Whether he realistically threatened Rome is debatable, but he certainly won a number of sensational victories and was thus written into the history books.

He returned to the popular consciousness of Europe during the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti. His story had clear ties and relevance to the anti-slavery movement.

More broadly, Spartacus became a symbol of the oppressed, and had a formative impact on Karl Marx’s thinking, among others. He continues to embody class struggle in a very clear and resonant way.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.