The Real Spartacus Was Absolutely Chilling

Born in 111 BC, Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who became one of the escaped slave leaders in the Third Servile War. After escaping captivity, he went on to establish a massive slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Although not much is known about his life outside of the war, it is agreed that he was a former gladiator turned successful military leader. Today, he is viewed as a symbol for the oppressed fighting against the powers that controlled them, although his intentions remain unclear. So, take a look back to see how one man went from an enslaved gladiator to one of the most revered war heroes in ancient history.

He Was In The Roman Army

Initially, Spartacus was a member of the Roman army. Yet, he didn’t particularly like being ordered what to do or risking his life for something he didn’t care about. So he fled the army to live on his own terms.

Drawing of Roman soldier
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

In addition, some historians even argue that Spartacus was a Roman auxiliary officer, meaning he would have volunteered to enlist. After illegally leaving the army, he was eventually captured and sold into slavery as punishment for deserting. His days as a gladiator were about to begin.

He Was Sold Into A Gladiatorial School

Spartacus was purchased by a man named Lentulus Batiatus, who was quick to enroll the former soldier in the gladiator school in Capua, a school that Batiatus owned himself. This school that Spartacus was forced into was notorious for its harsh treatment of its slaves, with Batiatus being particularly ruthless.

Slaves being taken away
Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It’s believed that the treatment of the Gladiators by the trainers and Batiatus is one of the key reasons that Spartacus made an attempt to escape slavery.

He Was Trained As A Heavyweight Fighter

Under Batiatus, Spartacus was trained to fight as a heavyweight gladiator called murmillones. These were a type of gladiator during the Roman Imperial Age, which was established to replace the earlier Gallus, named after the warrior of Gaul.

Murmullo gladiator
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Typically, these warriors were armed with a gladius, or sword, a shield, leather belt, along with other small pieces of armor. Their fighting style was for men with large builds that could wield a sword, shield, and wear a heavy helmet. They would also typically fight against other murmillones.

Establishing Themselves At Mount Vesuvius

It’s common knowledge that Mt. Vesuvius is a volcano that erupted in 79 AD, obliterating the nearby town of Pompeii. Around 100 years before the eruption, the volcano was used as a strategic hideout by Spartacus and his initial band of followers to escape the Roman legions that were on their tails.

Picture of Mount Vesuvius
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Carlo Hermann/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images

At the time, the Romans knew that they were up in the mountain and had plans to enact a siege in an attempt to starve out the rebels into submission.

We Know What We Do About Spartacus Mostly From Plutarch

Most of what we know about Spartacus and his uprising are from the writings of a man named Plutarch. An ancient historian, Plutarch roamed throughout Greece and the Roman Empire around 70 AD. During his travels, he wrote extensively about Alexander the Great, the Spartans, and Spartacus.

Statue of Spartacus
LL/Roger Viollet via Getty Images
LL/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

According to Plutarch, Spartacus’ wife, prophetess, had a dream of Spartacus sleeping with a snake on his face not long after his capture in Rome. She took this vision as “the sign of a great and terrifying force which would attend him to [an]…issue.” A great and terrifying force was exactly what he was.

The Roman Government Made A Huge Mistake

One of the main reasons that Spartacus and his fellow slave-gladiator revolt was so successful was mostly because of the Roman government. At the beginning of the revolt, the Romans didn’t see Spartacus and his army as nothing more than a rag-tag group of hooligans that were no real threat at all.

Spartacus and his men
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

With this mindset, they refused to send main military forces to put it down, but instead, assumed that the police would be able to handle it. They were sorely wrong.

Assembling An Army

After his initial escape from the gladiator school and establishing himself at Mount Vesuvius, Spartacus and his men began recruiting other slaves and soldiers to their cause. Two years later, he was at the head of an army of more than 90,000.

Spartacus movie
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

During this time, Rome sent several military forces to defeat Spartacus, but to no avail. The first commander to take them on was praetor Claudius Glaber, who was defeated after Spartacus and his men escaped using vines on the side of Mount Vesuvius to attack from behind. Spartacus then went on to defeat a slew of other forces Rome threw at him.

He Made An Unfortunate Deal With Pirates

Since Spartacus’ plan to march across the Alps didn’t work out, he tried to make it to to the Italian coast to sail to Sicily. Unfortunately, he made the wrong deal with a group of Cilician pirates from Asia Minor that had plundered the Mediterranean coastline for decades and had their eye on Sicily as well.

Painting of pirates
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Spartacus made it to the Strait of Messina, expecting to be ferried by the pirates to Sicily. However, the pirates never showed up, putting Spartacus between a rock and a hard place.

The Final Battle

After the pirates had betrayed him and his men, Spartacus came face-to-face with Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome’s richest and influential political figures. Crassus brought with him eight legions, and to prove a point, killed every tenth man in the two units who had previously been defeated by Spartacus, to show that defeat would not be tolerated.

Spartacus dying in battle
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Spartacus offered to make a peace treaty but was rejected. Spartacus and Crassus met on the battlefield in 71BC. Crassus’ army overwhelmed Spartacus’ troops, resulting in his death, and the end of the rebellion.

His Body Was Never Found

After Spartacus’ death on the battlefield on the banks of the Silarus, now known as the Sele River, his body was never found, although some say differently. The battle had been so violent and bloody that it almost seemed impossible that anyone would have been able to identify him, especially considering that the Romans had won.

Drawing of a battle
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Bettmann/Getty Images

And since there was no way to tell exactly how many soldiers had died on each side, it’s estimated that 36,000 people in total lost their lives.

His Intentions Are Still Unclear

According to historian and author Barry Strauss, Spartacus and his army were a bit more controversial than what we have been led to believe by Hollywood. For example, while he and his army were supposedly fighting for their freedom, it’s often overlooked that they were also pillaging innocent people’s homes on their marches up and down Italy.

Terracotta soldiers
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Furthermore, it’s still debated over what Spartacus’ motivations were behind his revolt, with many historians claiming it was unlikely to put an end to slavery in the region.

Cassius Punished The Remainder Of Spartacus’ Army

After the majority of Spartacus’ army had been annihilated by Cassius’ forces, there were only around 6,000 of them left alive. Of course, there was no way that Cassius was going to let them go, and instead, sentenced them to horrible deaths.

Crassus on a horse
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The Print Collector via Getty Images

All of the remaining men of the rebellion were ordered to die by crucifixion, one of the harshest forms of capital punishment established by the Roman Empire. All 6,000 survivors were then crucified along the Appian Way between Rome and Capua as a sign to all other slaves that might have a similar idea.

The Rebels Split Their Forces

At one point during the fighting, Spartacus and his Lieutenant Crixus parted ways, although the reason why isn’t exactly clear to historians. One possible reason is that the split could have been a tactical maneuver by the two leaders of the army to confuse the Romans.

Relief of two men fighting
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On the other hand, some claim that Crixus left Spartacus in order to pillage the Roman countryside on the way to Rome. Either way, it was detrimental to the war effort with Crixus taking around 30,000 soldiers with him.

The Split Of The Army Proved To Be Fatal

After Crixus left Spartacus with around 30,000 of the army’s men, Crixus and those who followed him were attacked and defeated by the Roman Army. Upon hearing the death of his closest friend, Spartacus took his revenge by sacrificing 300 of his Roman captives.

Men fighting
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

However, he did so in a rather poetic yet gruesome fashion. Instead of just executing the soldiers, Spartacus had a version of his own gladiatorial games in which he forced the Roman soldiers to fight to the death.

Fights Weren’t Always To The Death

Modern popular culture may depict gladiatorial battles as a free-for-all with the last man standing as the victor, in reality, many of the fights followed strict regulations. Gladiators were often matched according to their size and skill with referees on hand to stop a fight if someone becomes seriously wounded. In some cases, both gladiators were able to leave the Colosseum with honor if they put on a good show.

GettyImages-108547952-65182
Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Furthermore, gladiators were an investment and cost a lot of money to house, train, and feed, which meant the last thing promoters wanted to see was them killed. Of course, many did die, with historians estimating between one-in-five or one-in-ten fights resulting in death.

Hollywood Loves Him

One of the best-known film adaptations of Spartacus’ life is director Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. Starring Kirk Douglas and based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, the film went on to win four Academy Awards and became the most profitable film in Universal Studios’ history.

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus
Universal
Universal

The story of Spartacus has also been adapted for television with over-dramatized shows such as Spartacus on Starz premium cable network. Surely, we will be seeing Spartacus on the big screen again eventually.

Spartacus Left Behind Quite The Legacy

Spartacus’ uprising against Rome has inspired other oppressed individuals to do the same. For example, Toussaint Louverture, a leader of the slave revolt that led to the independence of Haiti, has been called the “Black Spartacus.”

Drawing of Louverture
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Furthermore, Adam Weishaupt, the founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, often referred to himself as Spartacus. Karl Marx, one of the founders of communism, has sited Spartacus as one of his heroes, describing him as “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history.”