It was the year 73 B.C. when the Roman Republic trembled with news: the escaped gladiators from the ludus of Capua were no longer defeating only the local militias that had carelessly crossed their path but, with their ranks swelled by thousands of slaves joining them, they also defeated an army sent by the Senate under the command of the praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber. This became known as the Battle of Mount Vesuvius, Spartacus’s first major victory, achieved through a mix of genius, audacity, and daring.

Little is known about Spartacus before these events, except that he was a Mede prisoner (a tribe of Phrygian origin settled in Thrace), perhaps from a noble family as he was cultured, and his name was common among royalty in that region. His fall from grace may have been caused by desertion from his post as an auxiliary in a legion, leading to slavery due to the lack of Roman citizenship.

As he apparently was strong, he was bought by a merchant for the mentioned gladiator school in Capua, owned by the lanista Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Batiatus. He remained there until he organized a plan to escape with four companions, two Celts named Castus and Gannicus, and two Gauls, Crixus and Enomaus, which succeeded, fleeing with two hundred gladiators armed only with kitchen utensils. Most of the escapees were captured or killed by local militias, but seventy-four managed to escape.

After better equipping themselves, thanks to an ambush on a convoy transporting weapons for the ludus, they began raiding Roman villas in the area, freeing their slaves and incorporating them into their ranks; others escaped directly with the same goal, as they saw in Spartacus a hope for their wretched lives. It’s important to understand that, during the Republican period, a slave was not considered a person but mere property, and their owner could treat them as they pleased, even kill them.

Since slaves constituted the main workforce in the fields and mines, their numbers were considerable, and a rebellious group of them growing and roaming through the Italian peninsula posed a real danger to the established order. In fact, the two Servile Wars of 135 B.C. and 104 B.C. were examples of that risk, so the Senate decided to send a force to deal with Spartacus and the other rebels.

Five cohorts totaling about three thousand men were assigned to this task, led by the praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber. It’s worth noting that while they were no longer just militiamen, they were not precisely elite troops either but ad hoc auxiliaries hastily assembled; after all, they were not supposed to fight an enemy army but a band of untrained raiders numbering barely a thousand or twelve hundred.

Sending a mediocre force to deal with the problem was the first in a series of mistakes, as the core of those slaves were gladiators, fighters trained specifically for deadly combat. The second mistake was facing them with disdain without taking the necessary precautions, despite the numerical superiority playing in their favor – forty to one, the Romans were against difficult terrain.

Spartacus and his men had camped on top of a hill, according to Plutarch, although Appian says it was Vesuvius. If the former is correct, as we know, that volcano would erupt a century later, destroying Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae, but at that time, it remained dormant, and its topography was ideal for fortification. It had a single winding path up, and the slopes were covered with vineyards that hindered soldiers from moving in formation.

Wisely, Glaber deemed attempting an uphill frontal assault with so many obstacles too risky, so he chose to block the path and besiege the cone, relying on hunger and thirst to force the enemy to surrender. Unfortunately for him, he set up the siege without taking the necessary precautions. Firstly, considering that the slaves could not descend with the path guarded, he did not surround their camp with a palisade on an earth parapet or dig a trench.

Secondly, he did not assign surveillance to one of the volcano’s slopes because it was a vertical cliff that seemed like a perfect natural obstacle to prevent their adversaries from retreating. What he never imagined was that they would descend there by surprise because Spartacus did not overlook Glaber’s mistake and had long ladders and ropes made from the vine shoots. His gladiators used them to traverse the slope, taking advantage of the cover of night.

Instead of seizing the opportunity to escape, they surrounded the mountain guided by shepherds and, an hour later, reached the Roman camp where the soldiers slept peacefully, considering themselves safe; they had a terrible awakening. The attackers unleashed their hatred and carried out a massacre, annihilating most of the cohorts, with only a handful escaping in a desperate every-man-for-himself. The praetor himself narrowly escaped, protected by his centurions, and after Spartacus personally killed his horse.

Then the slaves looted the tents and baggage carts, obtaining new and better weapons (swords, javelins) and suitable protection (helmets, shields, chainmail). They also acquired horses and provisions that allowed them to properly equip everyone.

Because, even though they suffered two hundred casualties, their numbers kept growing, organizing themselves henceforth as a well-equipped regular army (including infantry, cavalry, carpenters, blacksmiths, doctors, and even priests) and trained.

That winter they devoted themselves to the latter while raiding other cities (Nuceria, Nola, Thurii, and Metapontum) and their leaders devised the strategy for the future, which involved leaving Italy through the Alps and seeking refuge in Germania. But before that, they had to face a new threat: the Senate was again sending troops against them. This time, two legions under the command of praetor Publius Varinius totaling about six thousand men… although, once again, hastily recruited in the northern part of the peninsula.

That number was more theoretical than real, as autumn brought numerous withdrawals, a significant setback against an enemy that, in contrast, had multiplied. Nevertheless, Varinius marched against the slaves and deployed his forces into three columns to encircle them in a pincer. However, he did not have enough forces to do so successfully, and Spartacus, duly informed by his scouts, thwarted the plan by confronting and defeating each column separately.

The tribunes leading two of them, Furius and Cossinius, were clearly overpowered – the latter died in battle – and the gladiators then charged against Varinius’ column in person, who lost his horse and had to escape on foot while his lictors fell into captivity. Thus, Rome experienced a second disgrace and saw the problem worsen, as the enemy ranks continued to swell, reaching seventy thousand people.

But dissensions arose among the rebels, and twenty thousand of them, mainly Gauls, Germans, and the poorest local strata, separated following Crixus, determined to take advantage of the opportunity to conquer Rome against Spartacus, who, considering it impossible to overcome the potential of Rome, continued with his plan to leave the peninsula in the north. Crixus lacked the genius of his companion and was defeated in Apulia by the legions of propraetor Arrius, dying in battle.

Months later, the two consular armies of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Lucius Gellius Publicola marched against Spartacus. His forces had grown even more to one hundred twenty thousand people, enough to repel the sporadic attacks that the Romans made until he dealt with them. He also defeated the consul of Cisalpine Gaul, Gaius Cassius Longinus, but instead of following the planned plan to leave the peninsula, he turned back.

Perhaps he wanted to avenge the death of his friend Crixus or had to meet the demands of his people, eager to take Rome because, after all, that was also their land.

In any case, Spartacus was unfaithful to his own perception of the enemy’s power, which sent no less than ten legions against him under the command of the praetor Gaius Licinius Crassus. There was a swan song of the gladiators when they crushed the column of Mummius, one of Crassus’s aides who tried to operate on his own, causing panic among his legionaries.

The shameful retreat of these was a moral setback that Crassus could not afford, and it is said that he ordered a decimatio (one in ten soldiers was beaten to death by his own comrades), allowing him to restore order in his ranks. He then pursued Spartacus and his people, who were heading south with the intention of crossing to Sicily on ships hired from Cilician pirates.

However, upon reaching Calabria, they found that these had not fulfilled their agreement. As they could not go back, with Crassus blocking their way, and also the Senate sending Pompey (who had just suppressed the rebellion of Sertorius in Hispania) and Lucius Licinius Lucullus (recent victor of the First Mithridatic War) against them, being surrounded, they had no choice but to prepare for a decisive battle.

Those twenty legions equalized the numbers of fighters on both sides or even gave the Romans superiority since only eighty thousand slaves wielded weapons – the rest were their families – whom they defeated in Apulia, near the Silarus River; they caused an estimated sixty thousand casualties while suffering only a thousand themselves, putting an end to what is considered the third Servile War. It is not known what happened to Spartacus.

Of the twenty thousand who survived, five thousand trying to make their way north were also annihilated by Pompey. Others dispersed, and some managed to reach Sicily; the six thousand who fell prisoner were crucified by Crassus on both sides of the Appian Way, between Capua and Rome, as a public warning. Blood had to be shed to cleanse the series of humiliations that began with the daring action on Vesuvius.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 1, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Espartaco obtuvo su primera victoria al sorprender a un ejército romano tras bajar con cuerdas desde lo alto del Vesubio


Apiano, Historia romana | Plutarco, Vidas paralelas | Sexto Julio Frontino, Estratagemas, el arte de la guerra en Roma | Floro, Epítome de la Historia de Tito Livio | Tito Livio, Periocas | Serguei Ivánovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War | Wikipedia

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