Who was Spartacus? - History & Facts

Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

Spartacus has been the subject of popular culture, including the big screen and television. But what do we really know about the man who inspired these stories? In this lesson, learn what historians have uncovered about the real Spartacus.


Spartacus was responsible for one of history's most daring rebellions, the Third Servile War. He and his army ignited a slave revolt that threatened the powerful Roman Empire to its very core. Impressively, his forces jumped from a mere 74 escapees to nearly 60,000 men (with some estimates as high as 125,000). His leadership resulted in the defeat of nine Roman armies. His forces struck blow after blow against Rome and wreaked havoc on the countryside for two years. Rome was no stranger to slave revolts, but until Spartacus, none had been as large, organized, or successful.

In 135 B.C., the cruel treatment of slaves in the Roman Empire led to a revolt of about 70,000 slaves on the island of Sicily. This rebellion became known as the First Servile War, which was eventually suppressed by Rome within two years. The Second Servile War erupted in Sicily in 104 B.C. and lasted four years. Spartacus' rebellion soon turned into the Third Servile War and marked a period of society-wide terror serilis ('the fear of slaves').


Spartacus was originally from Thrace (an area in modern-day Bulgaria). He had served in an allied unit of the Roman army called an auxiliary, which translated to 'help'. Frequently, the people in areas conquered by Rome were compelled to serve in army units for the empire and this might have been the case with Spartacus. According to some sources, Spartacus became a deserter. The reason for this desertion is still unknown to modern historians. It is generally agreed that he was around 30 years old at the time of his enslavement. Spartacus became a gladiator known as a murmillo ('a man of enormous strength and spirit'). This particular type of gladiator was always a large man because his armor alone weighed 40 lbs. A murmillo fought without chest or foot protection. He was only outfitted with a bronze helmet and arm and leg guards. Typically, they wielded a shield (scutum) and a broad sword about a foot and a half long called a gladius.

This is the helmet of a Murmillo gladiator, the same type Spartacus would have worn into the arena.
Murmillo Helmet

The Escape

The city of Capua was located in southern Italy.
Capua Map

Spartacus trained in the barracks of Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Vatia (some sources refer to this man as Lentulus Batiatus) in the city of Capua. Around 73 B.C., Spartacus and a group of gladiators plotted an escape from their ludus (gladiator school). Although the reason for the escape is unclear, scholars agree that Spartacus and about 200 slaves fought their way out of their barracks using utensils stolen from the kitchen. They seized several wagons containing weapons and armor. Unfortunately, the plot was betrayed, and it's estimated that only 74 men escaped successfully. Once free, the men chose Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus as their leaders. Sources are unclear as to the exact leadership dynamic that existed between these three men.

They traveled to Mount Vesuvius immediately after their escape and made camp. Rome's first response to the slave revolt was small and undermanned. The empire originally responded to the uprising as a policing matter. Rome dispatched Caius Claudius Glaber with a force of 3,000 men. His strategy was to cut off the slaves' escape route and force them to surrender because of hunger. Spartacus, however, had ropes made from the vines indigenous to Vesuvius and climbed down with his men. They attacked the unfortified Roman camp, killed most of the men, and seized the camp and equipment.


In response to the defeat of Glaber, Rome sent Publius Varinius with two legions (6,000 men each). By this time, Spartacus' forces had reached about 40,000. Recruits included both slaves and free men who had flocked to join the rebellion. While Spartacus sent men to scout the countryside and find food, they also came back to camp with new men to train. When the Roman Empire sent Varinius, the slave revolt was still not considered a noteworthy threat. While still camped near Mount Vesuvius, Spartacus's forces destroyed an attachment of 2,000 of Varinius's men under the command of his lieutenant, Lucius Furius. Varinius followed Spartacus's army south and found himself engaged in another battle. This time, Spartacus defeated Varinius. He then marched his rebels to Campania and defeated an army led by Gaius Thoranius.

By this time, the Roman Empire considered Spartacus a threat. In response, Rome sent two armies under the leadership of Lucius Gellius and Gnaeus Lentulus. Numbering about 60,000 by this point, the final defeat of the rebels may have spawned from a disagreement between Spartacus and Crixus. Crixus was in favor of expanding the war into other parts of Italy, while Spartacus wanted to retreat into the northern Alps and allow the men to slowly return to their homelands. Spartacus believed that once the regular Roman armies returned from their campaigns, his rebel forces would be beaten. While history proves that this assumption was correct, Spartacus was outvoted. Instead of leaving with the men who agreed with him, Spartacus stayed to lead.

Defeat of Spartacus

Finally, Spartacus and Crixus parted, dividing the rebel forces. It is estimated that approximately 75 percent of the rebels followed Spartacus. Around 72 B.C., Romans under the command of Lucius Gellius crushed Crixus's forces at the Battle of Mount Garganus. The Romans defeated 30,000 of Crixus's troops and killed Crixus but were ultimately beaten by Spartacus's men. In honor of Crixus, Spartacus had 300 Romans killed or forced to fight each other as had been done to the gladiators. Spartacus then led his army back toward Rome.

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