Spartacus' War: The Great Roman Gladiator Revolt, 73-71 BC

Of the great wars that the Roman Republic & its Legions fought, one of the most memorable and culturally importantly in the modern age is the revolt of Spartacus and his gladiators in 73-71 BC. Spartacus and his diverse rebel legion of slaves, prisoners-of-war, peasants, and former gladiators terrorized Southern Italy in a bloody revolt, eventually threatening the security and the pride of Rome itself.

Known as the Gladiator War and also the Third Servile War in relation to the two other preceding major slave revolts in Sicily 135-132 BC and in 104-110 BC, the war which Spartacus brought to the doorstep of Rome itself was significant because not only was it fought on the Roman mainland, it threatened the existence (in theory) of the Roman Empire. Indeed one of the most sacred institutions of Roman culture up to this point in history of Rome, the gladiator, threatened to destroy its own creator and benefactor in one armed slave revolt.

A 19th century depiction of the 'Death of Spartacus' in 71 BC

Little is known about Spartacus except what several surviving Roman manuscripts and histories tell us; including Julius Caesar's account, which historians have pieced together. The issue being that the victors, the Romans, left behind the only recorded history. What we do know is that Spartacus was likely an auxiliary Thracian soldier from what is today Bulgaria and the Balkans, serving in the Roman army before he was outlawed and then enslaved. Popular history would have us believe that he was outright betrayed and enslaved by the Legions he once fought for, which may very well have been the scenario.

At the time of his capture Spartacus was in his early 30’s and was to be sent to a ludus in Capua as a slave of the Roman Empire. The ludis, or ludi were the gladiator training schools or academies of ancient Rome. Savage horrible places they were basically fortified prisons or barracks which trained and toughened future gladiators for combat in the arena. In the ludis gladiators were essentially brutalized and taught how to use the various weapons and armaments of the gladiator; violently perfecting the multitude of combat styles like the Murmillones (Spartacus’ style), Retiarii (armed with a trident and a fish net turned ‘man-net’), Thraces (the murmillones main opponent, a nod to Spartacus' homelands), Hoplomachi (heavily armored), or Dimachaeri (two swords). Few survived training at the ludi and only the toughest and best fighters survived to fight in the arenas' of Rome.

Murmillones in the Arena. Gladiators usually only fought man to man

The Spartacus War began as savagely as it was fought and ended in April of 71 BC. Spartacus and his gladiator allies & brothers-in-arms Crixus and Onemaus (Celts, from continental Europe) led the initial revolt which was successful in overthrowing their masters. The Gladiators slaughtered their owners the House of Batiatus slaying perhaps the entire ludis including the the house patriarch Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus who had owned Spartacus and the others slaves turned rebels for several years. In the spring and summer of 73 BC the gladiators broke out of Capua and began their guerilla war throughout Southern and Central Italy. The first major action of the Spartacus war was the surprise attack on Praetor Glaber atop Mount Vesuvius. His men allegedly climbed thick vines to surprise the Praetor's army, sending many into flight, slaughtering those who stayed behind including Praetor Glaber. The Sparticist rebels ransacked the camp; into the evening they celebrated their first major victory of the revolt.

After raiding Campania and Lucania, Spartacus and his army pushed further north engaging small Roman forces, token resistance. Romes' battle hardened legions were fighting in major wars across the continent and the sea to the West. The Praetors of Rome must have been totally outraged, how dare these gladiators, bred and trained for the glory of Rome, for the pride of the nation, stage an uprising and murder Roman cohorts? Most certainly there was great alarm and fear that such a large host could assemble on the doorstep to Rome itself. By the spring-summer of 72, Spartacus had probably somewhere between 18,000-40,000 men in arms at this point.

Map of the Spartacus War from Barry Strauss' Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster 2009)

Spartacus' forces were dealt a major strike to morale in the same time frame however when Crixus, his most trusted officer was slain at the Battle of Mount Garganus. Shortly thereafter Spartacus marched back to Southern Italy, unable to find ships for transport however, Spartacus more than likely was forced then fight his way up towards Rome with hopes of crossing the Alps. Like Hannibal except in the opposite direction. Despite returning to and then fleeing the South yet again, the Roman legions eventually caught up with Spartacus and his diminishing rebel host in 71 BC.

Feeding and supplying the rebels had been a monumental struggle for Spartacus and the gladiator high command (if it can be called such) and this factor alone doomed the revolt. With this understood, it did not matter if they attempted to futilely march on Rome or more realistically attempted to fight to freedom and retreat over the alps into the European continent of what is now today France or Germany. Crassus meanwhile most certainly focused his singular passion and focus on meeting the Spartacus host in the field and annihilating them in a decisive victory for his Legions and their cohorts of around 480 armed men each.

The cultural differences between the many different rebels under Spartacus including the Thracians, Celts, Gauls, and Romans also made the cohesion of his force most difficult. The general desire for plunder, the inevitability of lawlessness and wanton revenge against any and all Romans was a major factor in Spartacus armies' lack of progress after their stunning early victories and must have played a part in the fall of the rebellion as well. Spartacus lost his life and the rebellion in which he and so many others had fought so valiantly and brutally in of April 71 BC. Little is known of this last battle in which Spartacus and his army faced certain death.

The great gladiator-general and revolutionary fought on foot that fateful day, and allegedly decided to attempt an attack on Crassus surrounded by his personal Legionnaires in order to win a decisive victory. Spartacus knew most likely that he faced a technologically superior but outnumbered Roman Legion equipped with ballistics artillery, known as scorpions, and arguably the best infantry & cavalry weapons & tactics of that time. As the Battle in the valley of the Sele River [no confirmed location exists for the battle] raged on and the carnage of combat ensued Spartacus, apparently wounded by a spear died in the thick of fighting more than likely shedding Roman blood until he expired. Crassus probably watched comfortably atop his mount from a safe position as his own Legions cut through the slaves and rebel gladiators en route to a crushing Roman Imperial victory

Slightly more accurate depiction of the death of Spartacus                 

Crassus attained his total revenge in the end. Justice for the cohorts and Roman citizens killed by the gladiators and slaves in the south following the escape from Capua in 73 BC. Spartacus avoided punishment, death by crucifixion through his death in battle. The surviving rebels, the comrades in arms who had fought so fiercely for their general did not however, though perhaps a few escaped, 10-15,000 of them were crucified along the Appian Way leading to Rome, the Empire’s temporary testament to what happened to rebellious property.

Though the life and death of Spartacus remains covered in mystery, legend, and speculation, the historical truths & legacy of the Spartacus War is a testament to history of slavery and its despicable chains of manumission and degradation, and the desire for peoples everywhere to attain liberty and justice, whatever the cost may be. This is why Spartacus remains a symbol of freedom and revenge, in opposition to tyranny, he and his armies rise & downfall an ever-popular icon of Roman history, as well as an icon of warfare & military history in the ancient ages.

Major Roman Republic Praetors, Generals, Senators, & Dictators in the time of Spartacus

Lucius Licinius, Lucullus (b.117- 57 or 56 BC), General in the Third Mithridatic Wars 74-66 BC against Pontic (Persian) Empire/Kingdom.

Lucius Cornelius, Sulla (b.138-79 BC) General, consul, and later dictator. Commanded in Social War against Rome’s Allies 91-88 BC. Becomes dictator after two civil war’s 88-87, 82-81 BC.

Lucius Cornelius, Cinna (b.n/a-84 BC) Veteran of the Social Wars and Mithiridatic Campaign who challenged Sulla for power. Killed by his own Legionnaires in a mutiny.

Marcus Licinius, Crassus (b.115-53 BC), Praetor who crushes the Spartacus Revolt from 72-71 BC. Becomes a leader in the First Triumvirate.

Gaius Julius, Caesar (b.115-44 BC) General who fought in Gallic Wars, Invasion of Britain, 55-54, and in the Civil War with Pompey, 49-45 BC. Third Triumvirate member. Becomes Dictator before his assassination on the 15th of March, 44 BC.

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great (b.106-48 BC) General in the Sertorian Wars on the Iberian Peninsula, politician, and founder of the First Triumvirate. Exiled and later murdered in Egypt.

Assassination of Julius Caesar 44 BC


  1. Sorry, very little on Ganicus in the two or three volumes I own-ill try to dig more up. thanks for visiting!

    1. So what? Gannicus was just another grunt in spartacus army, stop dick riding because of how he was potrayed

  2. Very interesting blog. Spartacus remains an enigma, I think.

  3. Thanks for this. I really enjoy reading anything about Spartacus.

  4. Do we have any information in regards to Spartacus' favored combat style. I have been trying to find out just how accurate the STARZ TV show actually was, and I can find nothing.

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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  8. What about Agron?
    It's said Spartacus made capured Roman soldiers fight in makeshift arenas is that true?