Spartacus Leads Slave Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The legendary slave gladiator Spartacus led a slave uprising in Italy that only the Roman army could suppress, contributing to the fall of the already declining Roman Republic.

Summary of Event

After the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.), the Roman Republic became a great empire divided by a gulf between the wealthy classes (the senatorial land owners and merchant knights) and a teeming Mediterranean population of slaves, exploited provincials, and underemployed citizens dependent on the largesse of the wealthy. Attempts by the tribal assembly to alleviate the situation of the poor citizens, the populares, in the late second century failed and gave rise to powerful demagogic generals. The First Civil War (88-82 b.c.e.) between the senatorial and populare parties was a long, bloody struggle won by the senatorial general Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 b.c.e.). Sulla, in an extraordinary one-year dictatorship, introduced several laws in favor of the land-owning class. The senate, also as a result of the civil war, placed a ban on generals keeping their armies in Italy. Spartacus Crassus, Marcus Licinius Pompey the Great

During the same period, two large slave revolts erupted in Sicily, the site of some of the richest senatorial estates: the First (135-132 b.c.e.) and Second (104-101 b.c.e.) Servile Wars. The Third Servile War took place in Italy beginning in 73 b.c.e. Its leader was a Thracian bandit, Spartacus, who once served in the Roman army but later, perhaps after deserting, turned to brigandage. After his capture, the Romans sold him into slavery and sent him to the gladiator school at Capua, the chief city of the wealthy region of Campagnia, to train for the arena. Along with seventy-three other gladiators, Spartacus escaped and seized weapons from travelers they encountered, including the guards sent to subdue them. The gladiators fled to Mount Vesuvius.

The senate initially sent a force of three thousand under the praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, who set a guard at the foot of Vesuvius to wait out the slaves. However, Spartacus made ladders from the thick vines at the mountaintop and his troops stealthily descended and surprised the Romans, seizing their camp. Glaber’s defeat left the rebels in control of southern Italy. Other slaves from throughout the peninsula—highly discontented Gauls, Thracians, Germans, and others—fled to join them, and Spartacus’s forces grew to more than 100,000, whom he armed and supplied with booty from Glaber’s camp as well as weapons they forged themselves.

Another praetor, Publius Varinius, followed Glaber. Spartacus defeated two thousand of his troops and went after Lucius Cossinius, Varinius’s adjutant, seizing his camp and supplies and eventually defeating and killing him. The slaves then escaped Varinius by the ruse of propping up corpses on stakes, lighting fires, and using trumpeters to give the illusion that they were in camp while most sneaked out. When they finally met in battle, the rebels won and many of Varinius’s troops fled in fear, creating great anxiety over Spartacus in Rome.


(Library of Congress)

Spartacus and his second in command, Crixus, now each leading his own army, differed in their goals. Spartacus wished to return to Thrace, but Crixus wanted to remain in Italy and plunder the Roman estates. In 72 b.c.e. the senate ordered the consuls Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus and the praetors Quintus Arrius and Gnaeus Manlius to attack the slave armies in force. Gellius cornered Crixus at Monte Gargano, destroying his army. However, he was unable to defeat Spartacus, who fought a more cautious and cleverer campaign. Spartacus moved his troops north toward the Alps to leave Italy, with Gellius pursuing him from the rear. Meanwhile Lentulus tried to intercept his van. In two rapid battles in Pincenum, Spartacus defeated first the latter and then the former, and then, farther north at Mutina, defeated Gaius Cassius Longinus (not to be confused with the assassin of Julius Caesar), the proconsul of Gaul. Spartacus’s victory opened the way for his escape from Italy.

However, Spartacus apparently decided that bringing his people out through the Roman-controlled frontier was too difficult and returned south, where he hoped to link up with the slaves of Sicily. Spartacus tried to maintain discipline, but many of his followers, with the help of local slaves, plundered the towns through which they passed. There is speculation, which cannot be verified, that Spartacus hoped to attack Rome—a scheme that would have been doomed to failure. In fact, he retreated south to the Brutium Hills. The senate now appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus to replace the dismissed consuls and asked him to bring his troops from the provinces. Crassus added six legions to the consuls’ four, which had lost as much as half of their strength in the campaigns against the slaves. Furthermore, he had one in ten of the defeated battalion executed to instill in them fear of himself rather than the rebels and then headed south to cut off Spartacus from Sicily.

Crassus conducted his pursuit with severity—punishing commanders and executing soldiers who wavered in the least. He drove Spartacus’s force to Rhegium, where Gaius Verres prevented his crossing over to Sicily. However, Crassus’s strategy of trying to confine the slaves behind a wall and ditch across southern Italy to starve them out failed, as Spartacus easily broke through the mountains by concentrating his assault.

Open warfare was renewed. With agitation by the populace of Rome, the senate also commissioned two generals to aid Crassus: Pompey the Great, then fighting in Spain, and Marcus Licinius Lucullus, the consul for 73 b.c.e., who had returned from a successful campaign against Mithradates VI Eupator, the king of Pontus. Crassus had originally asked the senate to send Pompey and Lucullus, but when they arrived, he was afraid of losing the honor of the victory and tried to finish the campaign quickly. After failing to escape to Sicily, Spartacus moved west to Brundisium (present-day Brindisi), but Lucullus forced him to return north and try to escape once again through the Alps. Moreover, Spartacus’s comrades broke with him. In addition to Crixus, the Gauls Castus and Cannicus struck out on their own as well. Spartacus’s attention was diverted to holding his troops together. After several battles, the Romans defeated the Gauls between Paestum and Venusia (near Bari). Their loss crushed Spartacus as well. He moved south, where he had a minor success, and his followers urged him to meet Crassus’s legions in open battle. Unwisely, he agreed. Crassus won and Spartacus died in the action.

After the battle, Pompey arrived. Crassus reluctantly accepted his aid in rounding up the remaining slave fugitives. They captured six thousand and crucified them along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome. Some accounts say that, all told, perhaps 100,000 slaves were killed in the war. Crassus had accomplished his task in six months, although the Romans continued to chase down small bands of rebel slaves for several years afterward.


The Third Servile War, like the previous two in Sicily, was not a major cause of the downfall of the Republic. It warned Rome of the danger of slave revolts, and the government took steps to avoid a repetition of gladiatorial uprisings. The damage in southern Italy was severe, but Rome recovered. The civil wars caused more damage to Rome’s ancient institutions. For Crassus and Pompey, the victory over Spartacus was a stepping stone in their careers. Crassus, with justified confidence in his military ability, now felt ready to follow Gaius Marius and Sulla as a warrior leader of Rome, and although he resented Pompey imposing himself in the victory and continued to resent him for the remainder of his life, he collaborated with him on his march to power. The two shared the consulate the following year, and subsequently, in 60 b.c.e., when Pompey contested Cicero (106-43 b.c.e.) for leadership of the senatorial party, he joined again with Crassus and Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.) to form the first triumvirate, which controlled Rome and eventually led to the end of the Republic.

For Spartacus, although his uprising was unsuccessful, in the long run, his name has lived on as a symbol of revolt of the downtrodden and as a hero of the political left. The left-wing splinter group of the German Social Democrats, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who also led an unsuccessful uprising in Berlin in 1919, called themselves the Spartacists. The Third Servile War was the subject of a novel Spartacus by the Marxist Howard Fast, which in turn formed the basis of a popular motion picture of the same name in 1960.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Appian. The Civil Wars. Translated by John Carter. New York: Penguin, 1996. The second century Greek historian’s account of the late Roman Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradley, K. R. Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 b.c.-70 b.c. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. An excellent account of all three Servile Wars by a major contemporary historian of Rome. Documentation and extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crook, J. A., Andrew Lintott, and Elizabeth Rawson, eds. The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 b.c. Vol. 9 in The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A standard work on the ancient world. Contains a detailed account of the war and the surrounding history of the major Roman politicians and generals involved. Maps, chronology, and a very extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. Translated by John Dryden, edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2001. The lives of Crassus and Pompey cover the war. The former is the best ancient source. This translation by the sixteenth century English poet is classic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Brent D., trans. Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Contains documents related to all the slave wars as well as others related to Roman history of the time. Useful appendices, illustrations and a bibliography.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Julius Caesar; Cicero; Pompey the Great; Spartacus. Spartacus Servile War, Third (73-71 b.c.e.)

Categories: History