Spartacus and The Third Servile War

The Third Servile War rocked the foundations of the Roman Republic more thoroughly than any other slave revolt in the Empire's history. The revolt did not come out of nowhere; it was the result of widespread social turmoil in the Republic during that time. The result of the changes caused social tensions between the ruling class of elites and the slaves which numbered one out of every three people in the empire at that time. It is not as simple as that, however. Two major questions remain: How was this revolt different than the other slave revolts in Rome? What exactly were Spartacus' plans for his fellow slaves, and how successful was he?

The revolt took place from 72-71 BCE, and by that time the Roman army had conquered the Mediterranean and was expanding the empire throughout Europe. The multitude of wide spreading conquests led them to have an ever growing supply of slaves for labor. These slaves replaced the peasants that had been the laborers for the Empire for so long. The old system of small land plots held by peasants changed and there was an increase in huge latifundia that used slaves for agricultural and material labor. This meant that a very small amount of elites was able to control the use of resources in newly conquered areas.

Putting It Into Context:

There were three different slave uprisings during the span of the Roman Republic, known collectively as The Servile Wars. The first war was in Sicily and was led by a slave named Eunus, from 135-132 BCE. The second slave war took place in Sicily as well, lasting from 104-100 BCE. It was the third slave war led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator, that would cause the city of Rome the most concern. In order to see why the third revolt was the last and most significant, we must look at the initial differences between it and the prior two revolts.

There was a violent and extensive reaction by Rome to try to squash the revolt, a reaction unparalleled to the response they took to the other two uprisings. In terms of military strategy, Rome has had a history of going light the first time around and then smashing down on any revolts afterward. For instance, Rome was not particularly violent when it first tried to take Carthage or Corinth, but the second time they had to take control it squashed them both quite violently. My theory is that Spartacus' experience in the military, the numbers of the slaves, and the proximity of the revolt were the three major factors that spurred Rome's response.

Appian introduces Spartacus as a “a Thracian whom the Romans had imprisoned and then sold to be trained as a gladiator” and also says that he “once fought as a soldier for the Roman army". This is the most important difference between Spartacus's slave revolt and the prior revolts, and perhaps what scared the military into action. Rome did not take the revolt seriously initially, but after the defeat of the initial people conscripted to fight, it began to get worried. Spartacus had a knowledge of how the Roman army worked, in theory. Rome sent out 3 legions and both of its consuls in order to take care of the slave war. Sending both consuls (Marcus Licinius Crassus and the arrival of Pompey toward the end) to take care of one problem was definitely not normal military procedure.

It is difficult to say whether there was a huge difference in the numbers of the slaves involved, because sources vary so much. Sources state that as little as thirty (Velleius Paterculus) or as many as seventy four (Livy) people escaped with Spartacus, and as much as ten thousand (Florus) or seventy thousand (Appian) were fighting along side Spartacus' side by the end of the battle. The more extreme reaction by Rome was more definitely caused by the proximity of the uprising, however. The prior two slave revolts were farther away from Rome itself. The other two revolts were in Sicily. While it was undoubtedly part of Rome's empire at the time, it was geographically far away enough that people on Italy's mainland didn't have to worry about slaves angrily charging through their backyards. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that the Roman government reacted faster to this revolt than the others.

Both of the other slave revolts in Rome started with agricultural slaves. Spartacus' revolt involved agricultural slaves, but not initially. As I had cited from sources, numbers vary, but it is consistently stated throughout that Spartacus and the initial group of slaves must have gone through the countryside and picked up more followers as they went. Rome had been going through a lot of social change and stress over the changes in tradition regarding land distribution, and changes involving the incorporation of new territories into the empire. The gathering of these slaves en masse must have been a shock to the people of Rome, causing them to react and try to end it before it became a larger problem. They did squash the revolt, and slaves would never rise up in that manner ever again in the empire's history.

The Details

The intriguing issue is how exactly Spartacus managed to start such a large rebellion. Also, one must wonder what exactly he had planned to do after he got all the slaves together. Appian's chronicle of the slave war makes it seem as though it was not planned out in the least. He says “The fugitives armed themselves with wooden clubs and daggers that they seized from travelers on the roads nearby...”. Plutarch's record disagrees, saying that two hundred men planned to escape, the plan was betrayed, but seventy two men managed to get out anyway. Regardless of whether the initial outbreak was planned or not, their plans certainly would have changed as more people began to join the cause.

The sources disagree on what exactly Spartacus' and the slaves' plans were once they broke free. Both Appian and Plutarch say that they planned to escape over the Alps and into Gaul territory. Florus mentions that Spartacus “... actually considered – which is shameful enough for us – an attack on the city of Rome itself”. Florus was writing almost three hundred years after the war happened, but he no doubt expressed a fear that may have occurred to many Romans in the 70s BCE. The constant discrepancy in the sources makes it nearly impossible to determine whether Spartacus was planning on escaping Italy or staying within the mainland of Italy. It is also impossible to determine whether he just wanted freedom or revenge (Florus indicates they wanted revenge). I would wager that it was a combination of both. His military tactics show that he was a very good leader and made a point to be innovative in his plans.

Sources concur that Spartacus fled with his men to Mt. Vesuvius, picking up more followers as they went. Their ways of fending off the Roman troops involved some techniques that no doubt took people by surprise. For example, several sources indicate that the men wove ropes out of leaves in order to scale tough parts of the mountains. (Florus, Plutarch, Frontinus) Sallust mentions a very interesting technique used by Spartacus in order to keep his camp from being attacked at night. Sallust says that “Then they propped up fresh corpses on stakes at the gates of the camp, so that those who saw them from afar would be led to believe that night guards had been stationed.”.

Appian says that Spartacus "sacrificed 300 Roman prisoners to the shade of Crixus... burned all his useless material... butchered his pack-animals in order to expedite his movement. Many deserters offered themselves to him, but he would not accept them". This was a very good idea on Spartacus's part, and it showed that he was a savvy military commander. He chose to get rid of anything that would slow down the troops he was leading. He also did not take on deserters, probably figuring that they might desert him again if a dangerous situation came up.

Spartacus apparently kept his army motivated by warning them of Roman military tactics. Appian says that Spartacus crucified a Roman prisoner in the middle of camp in order to show the soldiers what would happen to them if they lost. However, as the amount of troops grew, so did the ability to keep them all in line. Spartacus was against the unnecessary slaughter of people and the plundering that was being done by sections of his troops, especially those entrusted to Crixus (Crixus was Spartacus' 2nd hand man and took on many of the troops once the revolt grew.). Sallust indicates that "Spartacus himself was powerless to stop them, even though he repeatedly entreated them to stop them and even attempted by sending on ahead a messenger" to warn other towns. Appian also indicates that there were divisions within the slave army. Though Spartacus and his troops made it toward the Alps twice, perhaps it was these divisions that kept them from ever getting out of Italy itself.

Spartacus was an innovative and knowledgeable military leader who came from a rather unlikely place. He dared to take on the Roman Empire, and accounts of the slave uprising he incited are undoubtedly part fact and part myth. The ratio of myth to fact in any given source is hard to determine. However, it is safe to say that if all the sources agree on something, it has a higher likelihood of being true. Sallust's account of the uprising is deemed to be most important because it was written closest to when it actually happened. Unfortunately, the source is badly fragmented. Individually, some of the sources may not reveal much. By combining the sources and noting similarities and differences, however, we can make educated conclusions about why the revolt took place, who was involved, and what circumstances allowed the revolt to happen.

Source: Spartacus and the Slave Wars - A Brief History with Documents. Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Brent D. Shaw
The book contains translated versions of accounts of the slave war by a ton of different historical writers and is an excellent source for comparing and contrasting what different writers thought of the revolt.

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