Spartacus: A rebel doomed to fail

Most of us know about Spartacus. A movie, several television series, several novels and plays. Sure it sounds great about a Thracian Gladiator breaking free, fighting the ‘evil’ Roman Republic. His uprising and revolt, known as the Gladiator War or Third Servile War, was doomed to fail from the start.

Now, this post will not talk about the details of the war in depth. Just know the basics:

  1. Spartacus and around 70 gladiators broke free of a gladiator school at Capua, killing local Roman forces and militia.
  2. They freed other slaves in Southern Italy and allowed deserters and other such people to swell their ranks. They defeated Praetorian (not the imperial guards, but just elected praetors brining in forces of 2000-3000 men).
  3. After spending the winter training, they increased their raiding area.
  4. They defeated consular legions in 72 BCE (one or two, depending if you want to follow Plutarch’s or Appian’s version of history, and 10,000 men of Cisalpine Gaul as per Appian).

Now, while they did defeat a couple of consular legions and lot of militia? The slave revolt had yet to face serious opposition. Two consular legions would imply an approximate total of around 20,000 men (includes auxiliaries). Historical sources say Spartacus had around 120,000-140,000 people including women and children. But it can be safe to say, there were at least 35,000-40,000 fighting men. These men were tough gladiators or slaves, so hard work was not new to them. A significant portion but not all were outfitted with captured weapons. Like many who faced the Roman War Machine, they were brave. They were not disciplined. Why? The leaders could not agree on a goal.

Illustration After Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome
Spartacus was a Thracian Gladiator (it has not been determined if he was actually Thracian). That was the style in which the Thracian’s fought.

Historical sources say one objective was to march on Rome. That’s a joke. Hannibal with a larger army could not do it, what can a bunch of slaves who are not even fully equipped do? Spartacus likely wanted to rid himself Rome and escape across the Alps. Some would have agreed. Others would have wanted to continue plundering Italy. Why not? We beat local militia men, so we are unstoppable.


The cracks occurred before Crassus ever came into the picture. 20,000 of Spartacus’s band, under the command Crixus were killed.

Why were the Romans worried? Well anytime something bad happens on the Italian peninsula? The Romans freaked out and would rally themselves. Also, no competent senator and military commander wanted to take the credit of putting down a minor slave revolt. It would do their career no good.

Imagine if someone was talking to Pompey around that time

Pompey: I have fought and defeated the forces of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, captured Sicily and put down the rebellion of Quintus Sertorius in Hispania.
Senator: I just fought a rag-tag bunch of slaves.

Yeah, does not sound like something worth bragging about.

Regardless, only after the rebellion had over 120,000 members did it seem vital to stop it. Kind of more vital for the optimates, as it was their estates that were affected (remember, never react to something unless it affects you).

Appointing of Crassus finally saw a competent military commander. Crassus was not as great on the field as his future triumvirate partners Caesar and Pompey, but he was efficient, and brutal. After Mummius disobeyed him and was routed, he ordered decimation of that legion.

Crassus would lead eight legions and supporting auxillaries against Spartacus. This would be a force numerially equal the fighting men of the rebellion.

Sources said he ordered a full army-wide decimation but that’s highly unlikely. A full army decimation would have killed 4,000 men or so. Most of the legions were obedient to him. It was likely the remainders of the legion that marched against his orders. This move was in the end a vital decision. The legionaries would rather fight and die, than disobey Crassus. They feared him more than the slaves.

For those who do not know, Decimation was a brutal Roman army punishment. One in ten men, drawn by lots would be beaten to death by clubbing by his 9 comrades. After that, they would be sleeping outside the fortified camp for a few days (unprotected) and eating a diet of Barley instead of wheat. It was a rarely used punishment.

When Crassus would finally engage Spartacus, his legions were ruthless. The disciplined legions easily slaughtered the slaves, whose discipline and unity were breaking. They would attack in smaller parties rather than retreat. All of Spartacus’s attempts to flee to Sicily had failed.

News arrived that the Senate had ordered Pompey to march on against Spartacus. These men were battle hardened. At the same time, Roman forces from Macedonia landed in Brundisium (eastern Italy). Most of the slaves were slaughtered.

Crassus would prove his ruthlessness by crucifying 6,000 slaves from Rome to Capua, over the entire 200 km stretch.

The ruthlessness of Crassus, having 6,000 slaves crucified from Capua to Rome. This was a detterent.

However, Pompey was able to kill the slaves Crassus had routed (not the 6,000 he captured) and claimed credit. For that, along with his previous victories was given a triumph, while Crassus (who really deserves the credit for ending the rebellion) was given an ‘ovation’ by the Senate. After all, he just killed a bunch of slaves. It would mark the start of a heated rivalry between the two most powerful men in Rome (before Caesar).

In the end, Spartacus’s rebellion was to end, when Rome flexed its muscles. If he quit his rebellion and fled across the Alps, it would have been better for him. But he condemned himself and the rest of his slaves to death.


I really find his rebellion to be over-glorified, as it just looks appealing for a slave rebellion to try and win their freedom. It was failed rebellion when he decided to stay after defeating the Praetorian militia.

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