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Spartacus ( Greek: î£Οî¬ΟΟî±îΊî¿Ο; Latin: Spartacus) (c. 109â71 BC) was the most notable leader of the slaves in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and surviving historical accounts are sometimes contradictory and may not always be reliable.
Spartacus' struggle, often seen as oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning aristocracy, has found new meaning for modern writers since the 19th century. The rebellion of Spartacus has proven inspirational to many modern literary and political writers, making Spartacus a folk hero among cultures both ancient and modern.
The ancient sources agree that Spartacus was a Thracian. Plutarch describes him as "a Thracian of Nomadic stock". Appian says he was "a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a Gladiator". Florus (2.8.8) described him as one "who from Thracian mercenary, had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a deserter and robber, and afterwards, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator". Some authors refer to the Thracian tribe of the Maedi, which in historic times occupied the area on the southwestern fringes of Thrace (present day south-western Bulgaria, north-eastern Greece). Plutarch also writes that Spartacus's wife, a prophetess of the same tribe, was enslaved with him.
The name Spartacus is otherwise attested in the Black Sea region: kings of the Thracian dynasty of the Cimmerian Bosporus and Pontus are known to have borne it, and a Thracian "Spardacus" or "Sparadokos", father of Seuthes I of the Odrysae, is also known.
According to the differing sources and their interpretation, Spartacus either was an auxiliary from the Roman legions later condemned to slavery, or a captive taken by the legions. Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school (ludus) near Capua, belonging to Lentulus Batiatus.
In 73 BC, Spartacus was among a group of gladiators plotting an escape. The plot was betrayed but about 70 men seized kitchen implements, fought their way free from the school, and seized several wagons of gladiatorial weapons and armor. The escaped slaves defeated a small force sent after them, plundered the region surrounding Capua, recruited many other slaves into their ranks, and eventually retired to a more defensible position on Mount Vesuvius.
Once free, the escaped gladiators chose Spartacus and two Gallic slaves â Crixus and Oenomaus â as their leaders. Though Roman authors assume that the slaves were a homogeneous group with Spartacus as their leader, this may be the Romans projecting their own hierarchical view of military leadership on the spontaneous organization of the slaves, reducing other slave leaders to subordinate positions in their accounts. The positions of Crixus and Oenomaus â and later, Castus â cannot be clearly determined from the sources.
The response of the Roman authorities was hampered by the absence of the Roman legions, which were already engaged in fighting a revolt in Spain and the Third Mithridatic War. Furthermore, the Romans considered the rebellion more a policing matter rather than a war. Rome dispatched militia under the command of praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, which besieged the slaves on the mountain, hoping that starvation would force the slaves to surrender. They were surprised when Spartacus had ropes made from vines, climbed down the cliff side of the volcano with his men and attacked the unfortified Roman camp in the rear, killing most of them. The slaves also defeated a second expedition, nearly capturing the praetor commander, killing his lieutenants and seizing the military equipment. With these successes, more and more slaves flocked to the Spartacan forces, as did âmany of the herdsmen and shepherds of the regionâ, swelling their ranks to some 70,000.
In these altercations Spartacus proved to be an excellent tactician, suggesting that he may have had previous military experience. Though the slaves lacked military training, they displayed ingenuity in their use of available local materials, and in their use of clever, unusual tactics when facing the disciplined Roman armies. They spent the winter of 73â72 BC training, arming and equipping their new recruits, and expanding their raiding territory to include the towns of Nola, Nuceria, Thurii and Metapontum. The distance between these locations and the subsequent events indicate that the slaves operated in two groups commanded by the remaining leaders Spartacus and Crixus.
In spring of 72 BC, the slaves left their winter encampments and began to move northwards. At the same time, the Roman Senate, alarmed by the defeat of the praetorian forces, dispatched a pair of consular legions under the command of Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus. The two legions were initially successful â defeating a group of 30,000 slaves commanded by Crixus near Mount Garganus. â but then were defeated by Spartacus. These defeats are depicted in divergent ways by the two most comprehensive (extant) histories of the war by Appian and Plutarch.
Alarmed by the apparently unstoppable rebellion, the Senate charged Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and the only volunteer for the position, with ending the rebellion. Crassus was put in charge of eight legions, approximately 40,000â50,000 trained Roman soldiers, which he treated with harsh, even brutal, discipline, reviving the punishment of unit decimation. When Spartacus and his followers, who for unclear reasons had retreated to the south of Italy, moved northwards again in early 71 BC, Crassus deployed six of his legions on the borders of the region and detached his legate Mummius with two legions to maneuver behind Spartacus. Though ordered not to engage the slaves, Mummius attacked at a seemingly opportune moment but was routed. After this, Crassus' legions were victorious in several engagements, forcing Spartacus farther south through Lucania as Crassus gained the upper hand. By the end of 71 BC, Spartacus was encamped in Rhegium (Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina.
According to Plutarch, Spartacus made a bargain with Cilician pirates to transport him and some 2,000 of his men to Sicily, where he intended to incite a slave revolt and gather reinforcements. However, he was betrayed by the pirates, who took payment and then abandoned the rebel slaves. Minor sources mention that there were some attempts at raft and shipbuilding by the rebels as a means to escape, but that Crassus took unspecified measures to ensure the rebels could not cross to Sicily, and their efforts were abandoned. Spartacus' forces then retreated towards Rhegium. Crassus' legions followed and upon arrival built fortifications across the isthmus at Rhegium, despite harassing raids from the rebel slaves. The rebels were under siege and cut off from their supplies.
At this time, the legions of Pompey returned from Spain and were ordered by the Senate to head south to aid Crassus. While Crassus feared that Pompey's arrival would cost him the credit, Spartacus unsuccessfully tried to reach an agreement with Crassus. When Crassus refused, a portion of Spartacus' forces fled toward the mountains west of Petelia (modern Strongoli) in Bruttium, with Crassus' legions in pursuit. When the legions managed to catch a portion of the rebels separated from the main army, discipline among Spartacus's forces broke down as small groups were independently attacking the oncoming legions. Spartacus now turned his forces around and brought his entire strength to bear on the legions in a last stand, in which the slaves were routed completely, with the vast majority of them being killed on the battlefield. The eventual fate of Spartacus himself is unknown, as his body was never found, but he is accounted by historians to have perished in battle along with his men. 6,000 survivors of the revolt captured by the legions of Crassus were crucified, lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.
Classical historians were divided as to what the motives of Spartacus were. While Plutarch writes that Spartacus merely wished to escape northwards into Cisalpine Gaul and disperse his men back to their homes, Appian and Florus write that he intended to march on Rome itself. Appian also states that he later abandoned that goal, which might have been no more than a reflection of Roman fears. None of Spartacus' actions suggest that he aimed at reforming Roman society or abolishing slavery, as is sometimes depicted in fictional accounts, such as Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film Spartacus.
Based on the events in late 73 BC and early 72 BC, which suggest independently operating groups of slaves and a statement by Plutarch that some of the escaped slaves preferred to plunder Italy, rather than escape over the Alps, modern authors have deduced a factional split between those under Spartacus, who wished to escape over the Alps to freedom, and those under Crixus, who wished to stay in southern Italy to continue raiding and plundering.
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