The Legend of Spartacus
The legend of Spartacus begins with his birth somewhere in Thrace around 100 B.C. Not much is known for his early life other than this. Around 73 B.C., he was a soldier in the Thracian army and was captured by the Romans in battle. From there, we know that later that year he and his wife were sold into slavery in Rome.
Some say that after being sold to slavery he fell asleep in the gladiatorial pens. While asleep a venomous snake curled itself around his face. His wife who was a priestess of Dionysus, saw this and took it for a sign that Spartacus was destined for greatness.
Spartacus and his wife were sent to the city of Capua. Once there, Spartacus was enrolled in a gladiatorial school. He and 200 other gladiators were trained by the school’s brutal instructors. Beatings were frequent and unending. With his military training, Spartacus became quite successful in combat. He had amassed an awesome record of wins, within a single year. The gladiators were trained at all manner of weapons. Swords, shields, tridents, nets and armor for all made available to gladiators.
Spartacus had no love for that sort of celebrity lifestyle. With his own natural charisma and the prophecies of his wife, Spartacus led a riot of his fellow gladiators against their captors. Of the 200 gladiators that tried to escape only 73 made it. They and Spartacus retreated to the mountainside of Mount Vesuvius. From this encampment, Spartacus conducted raids on the neighboring farmlands and began freeing slaves. They intercepted and robbed caravans bound for Capua, and thereby were able to arm themselves and equipment destined of the Roman legions.
For many months, Rome tried to ignore Spartacus. But the more men he rallied to his cause, the more of a thorn he became in their sides. No one knows how many men Spartacus had in his army at this time, but 3000 Roman legionnaires were dispatched to deal with him. Spartacus led his army to the peak of Mount Vesuvius, and there awaited the Romans. The legions not wanting to fight on unfamiliar ground, decided to wait him out. Spartacus made ladders and ropes out of vines, and climbed down the other side of Mount Vesuvius. His men encircled the Romans and slaughtered them. After this victory he was able to outfit all of his men the finest arms and armor.
This loss frustrated the Senate, and they sent two larger armies after Spartacus. Instead of waiting for the Romans to come to him, Spartacus took the offensive and attacked these legions. They too were soundly defeated. In less than a year, Spartacus’ army had grown to 70,000 men, and more troops rallied to his cause everyday.
After an additional two legions were lost, the Senators began to fear that Spartacus would attack Rome itself. However, Spartacus had no designs on Rome. Instead he had other plans, his idea is take his forces north and escape from Italy once and for all. Once finally free he would disband his army, and send the men to their homes in Thrace and Gaul. This however did not sit well with his men. They took courage from their victories, and felt they were unbeatable. Despite his orders, the army chose to roam north and south on the Italian peninsula, stealing and burning as they went.
By 70 B.C., the Senate was desperate. No qualified man wanted to lead the Roman legions against Spartacus. Finally, M Licinius Crassus, a very rich nobleman, agreed to accept the office of praetor.
Crassus’ first order of business was to raise six new legions. Crassus then took command of the four existing legions, and with 50,000 men, he sought out Spartacus. Crassus wanted to box in Spartacus, and so he sent his second in command, Mummius, to force Spartacus into his trap. In a moment of marked stupidity, Mummius decided to attack Spartacus head on. Mummius’ forces were crushed. Mummius led the rest of his men back to Crassus’ army, and he was severely reprimanded. As to his routed army, they received the customary punishment for retreating from the enemy. One out of every 10 men was slaughtered in front of the whole army. The survivors from the disgraced legions were disbanded and they were sorted into Crassus’ legions.
Now Crassus attacked Spartacus with the whole of his army, but Spartacus retreated. He headed south and found his army isolated on a isthmus. In a stroke of genius, Crassus ordered a wall built from coast-to-coast on the isthmus, thus sealing Spartacus in.
Realizing he was trapped, Spartacus did all that he could do, and attempted to break out. His army was repulsed, and 6000 of his man were killed. In contrast only three Romans were killed in seven wounded in the battle.
Spartacus tried to wait Crassus out, but discovered that Roman reinforcements were on the way. Spartacus made arrangements with some Cicillian pirates, but instead of rescuing his men, they took the gold and deserted him.
Seeing no other option, Spartacus led a breakout. Although he lost many men, Spartacus made good his escape...for a short time. While retreating towards the Alps, Spartacus found himself cut off by another Roman army. This army had been serving in Macedonia, but was recalled to assist in Spartacus’ destruction.
Spartacus was caught! He did the only thing he can do. He turned and engaged Crassus in a decisive battle. Spartacus led the army personally, in the fighting was brutal. At one point, Spartacus was wounded and dropped to one knee. He continued to fight until he is finally overwhelmed. His army was thrown into disarray, and butchered.
So many of Spartacus’ men were slain, that an accurate accounting of the dead was impossible. We know the Romans lost just over 1000 men. Spartacus’ body was never found, but the Romans were quick to crush any rumors that he had escaped. In the aftermath of the battle, 6000 of Spartacus’ men, that had been taken alive, were crucified along the road back to Rome.
Although in the end he was defeated, at least for a few years his men knew what it was to be free once again.
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