AskDefine | Define Spartacus

Extensive Definition

Spartacus (c. 109 BC-71 BC), according to Roman historians, was a gladiator-slave who became the leader (or possibly one of several leaders) in the unsuccessful slave uprising against the Roman Republic known as the Third Servile War. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and the surviving historical accounts are inaccurate and often contradictory. Spartacus's struggle, often perceived as the struggle of an oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning aristocracy, has found new meaning for modern writers since the 19th century. The figure of Spartacus, and his rebellion, has become an inspiration to many modern literary and political writers, who have made the character of Spartacus an ancient/modern folk hero.

Ancient depictions of Spartacus

Spartacus's origins

The ancient sources agree that Spartacus was a Thracian who had served as an auxiliary in the Roman army. Plutarch describes him as "a Thracian of nomadic stock", although this reading is disputed: where some editions give Νομαδικοῦ, others give Μαιδικοῦ, which Konrad Ziegler argues, refers to the Thracian tribe of the Medi. Plutarch also says Spartacus's wife, a prophetess of the same tribe, was enslaved with him. 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 says he "had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a deserter and robber, and afterwards, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator". "Thracian" was a style of gladiatorial combat in which the gladiator fought with a round shield and a short sword or dagger, and it has been argued that this may have confused the sources about his geographical origins, although no alternative origin is attested. The name Spartacus is otherwise attested in the Black Sea region: kings of 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.

Third Servile War

details Third Servile War sync Third Servile War

Revolt leading to the Third Servile War

Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school (ludus) near Capua, belonging to Lentulus Batiatus. In 73 BC, Spartacus and some seventy followers escaped from the gladiator school of Lentulus Batiatus. Seizing the knives in the cook's shop and a wagon full of weapons, the slaves fled to the caldera of Mount Vesuvius, near modern day Naples. There they were joined by other rural slaves.
The group overran the region, plundering and pillaging. Spartacus's intention was to leave Italy and return home. His chief aides were gladiators from Gaul and Germania, named Crixus, Castus, Gannicus and Oenomaus. The Senate sent an inexperienced praetor, Claudius Glaber (his nomen may have been Clodius; his praenomen is unknown), against the rebels, with a militia of about 3,000. They besieged the rebels on Vesuvius blocking their escape, but Spartacus had ropes made from vines and with his men climbed down a cliff on the other side of the volcano, to the rear of the Roman soldiers, and staged a surprise attack. Not expecting trouble from a handful of slaves, the Romans had not fortified their camp or posted adequate sentries. As a result, most of the Roman soldiers were still sleeping and killed in this attack, including Claudius Glaber. After this success many runaway slaves joined Spartacus until the group grew into an army of allegedly 140,000 escaped slaves.

Military success continues

Spartacus is credited as an excellent military tactician and his experience as a former auxiliary soldier made him a formidable enemy, but his men were mostly former slave labourers who lacked military training. They hid out in the Caldera on Mount Vesuvius which at that time was dormant and heavily wooded, and this enabled them to train properly for the fight with the Romans.
Due to the short amount of time expected before battle, Spartacus delegated training to the Gladiators who trained small groups, and these then trained other small groups and so on leading to the development of a fully-trained army in a matter of weeks. By spring they marched north towards Gaul.
The Senate, alarmed, sent two consuls, Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus, each with a legion, against the rebels. Crixus wanted to stay in Italy and plunder but Spartacus wanted to continue North and so, along with around 30,000 Gaul and Germanic supporters, Crixus left Spartacus and was later defeated by Publicola. Crixus was killed in battle. Spartacus first defeated Lentulus, and then Publicola. At Picenum in central Italy, Spartacus defeated the consular armies, then pushed north. At Mutina (now Modena) they defeated yet another legion under Gaius Cassius Longinus, the Governor of Cisalpine Gaul ("Gaul this side of the Alps"). By now, Spartacus's many followers included women, children, and elderly men who tagged along.

Choice to remain in Italy

Apparently, Spartacus had intended to march his army out of Italy and into Gaul (now Belgium, Switzerland and France) or maybe even to Hispania to join the rebellion of Quintus Sertorius. There are theories that some of the non-fighting followers (some 10,000 or so) did, in fact, cross the Alps and return to their homelands.
The rest marched back south, and defeated two more legions under Marcus Licinius Crassus, who at that time was the wealthiest man in Rome. At the end of 72 BC, Spartacus was encamped in Rhegium (Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina.
Spartacus's deal with Cilician pirates to get them to Sicily fell through. In the beginning of 71 BC, eight legions of Crassus isolated Spartacus's army in Calabria. With the assassination of Quintus Sertorius, the Roman Senate also recalled Pompey from Hispania; and Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus from Macedonia.
Spartacus managed to break through Crassus's lines and escape towards Brundisium (now Brindisi), but Pompey's forces intercepted them in Lucania, and the slaves were routed in a subsequent battle at the river Silarus, where Spartacus is believed to have fallen. According to Plutarch, "Finally, after his companions had taken to flight, he (Spartacus) stood alone, surrounded by a multitude of foes, and was still defending himself when he was cut down". According to Appian, "Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain"; also that "The body of Spartacus was not found".
After the battle, legionaries found and rescued 3,000 unharmed Roman prisoners in their camp. 6,600 of Spartacus's followers were crucified along the via Appia (or the Appian Way) from Brundisium to Rome. Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, thus travelers were forced to see the bodies for years after the final battle.
Around 5,000 slaves, however, escaped the capture. They fled north and were later destroyed by Pompey, who was coming back from Roman Iberia. This enabled him also to claim credit for ending this war. Pompey was greeted as a hero in Rome while Crassus received little credit or celebration.

Modern depictions of Spartacus




  • Most famously, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Howard Fast's novel, as Spartacus, in 1960. The catchphrase "I'm Spartacus!" from this film has been referenced in a number of other films, television programs, and commercials.
  • Just before the members of The Wonders are about to play the biggest show of their careers during one of the final scenes of Tom Hanks' 1996 film That Thing You Do! the band's lead guitarist Lenny Haise asks, "Skitch, how did we get here?" Drummer Guy Patterson replies, "I led you here, sir, for I am Spartacus."
  • In 2004, Fast's novel was adapted as Spartacus, a made-for-TV movie or miniseries by the USA Network, with Goran Višnjić in the main role.




  • In the popular real-time strategy game Rome: Total War, Spartacus can be unlocked and fought against. If a player builds a colosseum or arena in a conquered city, then lets the city revolt, Spartacus will be the general of the revolted city. The rebel army led by Spartacus is extremely difficult and the player will have to use superior tactics to defeat it and reclaim the city. Others contradict this by saying that those with superior troop types such as archers, elephants, or ballistae make the fight against Spartacus rather easy.





Classical authors

  • Appian. Civil Wars. Translated by J. Carter. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996)
  • Florus. Epitome of Roman History. (London: W. Heinemann, 1947)
  • Orosius. The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1964).
  • Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by R. Warner. (London: Penguin Books, 1972), with special emphasis placed on "The Life of Crassus" and "The Life of Pompey".
  • Sallust. Conspiracy of Catiline and the War of Jugurtha. (London: Constable, 1924)

Modern historiography

  • Bradley, Keith R. Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C.–70 B.C. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989 (hardcover, ISBN 0-253-31259-0); 1998 (paperback, ISBN 0-253-21169-7). [Chapter V] The Slave War of Spartacus, pp. 83–101.
  • Rubinsohn, Wolfgang Zeev. Spartacus' Uprising and Soviet Historical Writing. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1987 (paperback, ISBN 0-9511243-1-5).
  • Spartacus: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 1405131802; paperback, ISBN 1405131810).
  • Trow, M.J. Spartacus: The Myth and the Man. Stroud, United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7509-3907-9).
  • Genner, Michael. "Spartakus. Eine Gegengeschichte des Altertums nach den Legenden der Zigeuner". Two volumes. Paperback. Trikont Verlag, Munchen 1979/1980. Vol 1 ISBN 3-88167-053-X Vol 2 ISBN 3-88167-060-2
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