Can you talk about Spartacus while avoiding the whole subject of slavery? Maybe, maybe, but I do want to give a bit of a nod to “slavery” in ancient times, because it sets the stage upon which Spartacus and his rebellion was to emerge. But it also suits to “get your learn on” a little when it comes to this subject, for – 2,000 years on – we live in very, very different times, and while slavery is such a thing, and was in very recent years, our perception and interpretation of the ancient world’s version of “slavery” is still, irrevocably, skewed by 2,000 years of intervening “cultural growth.”
Slavery is a human invention and not found in nature. Indeed, it was that other human invention, war, which provided the bulk of slaves, but they were also the bounty of piracy … or the product of breeding.
— Gaius, as translated and quoted by Nic Fields
So what was slavery back then? How was it different? Well, for starters, it was freaking everywhere and it was far, far, FAR from just a Roman thing. You could be out in the middle of Greece somewhere, minding your own business, just you and the missus poking out a humble life on a farm, when up pops an army from another State, or some wandering pirates, and before you know it you’re both off in chains. Life was tenuous and it could change on a dime.
Slavery was utterly and absolutely part of life. It was everywhere. It entered into our human history at the same point that “civilization” entered. Hunter-gatherers or primitive farmers had no need for a slave, you see. The proverbial “you and your missus poking at a dirt farm” is just that, “you and your missus”; you grow and eat what you need, for yourselves. Why on earth would you need another pair of hands hanging around? Another body is another mouth to feed, and there’s no advantage in that.
Until mankind started to settle towns and cities. Now suddenly a surplus of food created in one place had economic value in the high population centers, and a farm could become a “working farm,” where cheap labor could more than pay for itself.
Welcome to the birth of slavery. And it was everywhere.
Of course, now slavery becomes a business in and of itself, and an easy means to fund war. Bodies become part of the booty. If a town fell into hostile hands, the occupants were basically screwed: take the healthy workers, kill the rest, take all of their stuff. It was like playing RUST, but in real life.
Naturally, there were other ways to find yourself all kinds of clapped in irons and marching off to lord knows where: roaming pirates would value you as a walking pile of cash, if you committed a crime, you’d possibly find yourself losing that tenuous freedom you once enjoyed … and it’s a whole lot more profitable to sell you into slavery vs. slamming your ass in jail somewhere. Jail? Pfft? Ancient times? Please. You’re either losing a body extremity, your life, or are finding yourself with a pick axe digging out someone’s rock pile for them.
Heck, when humans realized that other humans were basically breathing purses filled with phat lewts, selling one’s own kids even became a thing. You know, like selling dog puppies, but two legged versions. Now banging your missus was basically a nine month retirement plan!
Can’t pay your debts? SLAVERY!
Steal some bread? SLAVERY!
Born to a slave? SLAVERY!
I mean, it was a THING. Not the repugnant, horrific, inhuman thing it is today, back then it was – quite literally – viewed like owning some livestock, and it was so common that civilization created structure and laws around it.
Rome’s oldest legal code – the Twelve Tables – mentions slavery, and it was clear that even at this point it had been something that had been around for a long time. There were international laws of sorts, or an understanding, that while all humans are born free under natural law, this was different than civil laws, and everyone had the right to steal everyone else’s people. Unless those people had, through diplomatic means, negotiated a formal surrender of some sort, in which case they should be spared enslavement. See? Civilization at work.
That said, I mean c’mon, you’ve got an army, there’s thousands of meat wallets just hanging out over the border waiting to be harvested? What would you do? CASH IN, of course. Ride across those borders, pluck those little piglets from the misery of whatever existence they were enjoying, and turn-a-round and sell them to the merchants following you. Heck, follow Julius Caesar’s lead, he sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 people, to slave dealers on the spot.
Talk about making BANK.
Of course, you can’t just keep snagging entire swathes of people, slap a “now you’re mine” necklace around their neck, and sell back to your own country without having some form of impact on the economy … and boy of boy, did it have an impact.
Over in Sparta, for example, the slave class outnumbered the free men by about seven to one. Rome, by comparison, were noobs, but even by their standards the sheer flood of cheap labor into the country became somewhat of a “technological innovation” and it had wide sweeping influences.
Around 1 BC, estimates say that 30-40% of Italy’s population were slaves, and that’s two to three million people. Put it this way, when Augustus levied a 2% tax on the sale of slaves, it resulted in an annual income of 5 million sesterces … that’s a quarter of a million sales. No wonder the tax was increased to 4% forty years later.
Slaves were big business.
But they didn’t come without laws.
None of them actually protected the slave, of course, laws for the buyer.
Slaves were property and had no legal status as a “person.” Corporal punishment? Not protected. Sexual exploitation? Sucks to be you. Torture? Execution? Yup! And Yup! Own property? Sure, but it belongs to your master, really.
Heck, even in the cases where a slave’s testimony was needed against their master, this testimony couldn’t be taken without torturing them first, because, you know, slaves are loyal to their masters, so there’s no way they’d spill the beans unless we torture the crap out of them first. Seriously, this was the genuine logic of the times.
Shit changed over the centuries, but here, in the early days, they had like NO rights.
Of course, and I kid you not, they did come with a 6-month buy-back guarantee. So that’s nice.
Now while skilled, education, slaves could occupy professional positions, and could even earn money and hope – one day – to be able to buy back their freedom, the rest were pretty much doomed to domestic duties, or working the farms and mines, where the brutal existence pretty much guaranteed a short, and horrible existence.
But don’t think about escaping, buddy boy! Oh no, that shit ain’t going to fly! You can’t harbor a fugitive slave, for starters, and we’ve got all kinds of professional slave-catchers just ready to hunt your arse down. You escape, and we’ll litter the highways with posted descriptions of you, all fat with rewards for your capture. Seriously, don’t even think about it.
And if you do, and when we catch you, expect to be whipped, burned, branded, or, you know, killed.
Sometimes slaves had a metal collar riveted around the neck. One such collar is preserved at Rome and states in Latin, “I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you’ll be rewarded.”
But you know how else slaves were used? Entertainment.
Sure, some gladiators volunteered for the profession, and others were simply dirty, dirty criminals who deserved nothing better than to wrestle bears for the rest of their pathetic existences, but others … now then … others were simply slaves.
Naked men, on a rotating pedestal: pick out the best of them (with that 6-month guarantee, of course), train ’em up with various weaponry, and then pitch them against each other for the slavering masses. I mean, have you seen how much money the UFC makes? Dude, this was that, but 2,000 years ago.
But there’s a problem here, so let’s break this down and see if you can see a pattern emerging and predict where this is going: we have millions of enslaved people in our country, they are intertwined with our every aspect of life, we treat them like shit, we torture and kill them, and sometimes we even arm and train the living fuck out of them.
Let’s just say that you can’t keep the lid on that boiling pot for long.
And Rome had this problem. In fact they had this problem not once, not twice, but THREE times. And I’m not talking about Bobus and Mickeyus getting all unruly in the kitchen, I’m talking about full-on, tens of thousands of slaves screaming “MAKE YOUR OWN F**KING BREAD!” to the dulcet tones of smashing your skull in.
In 135-132 BC, that’s a three year duration right there, a slave revolt erupted in Enna on the island of Sicily. A bloke called Ennus – self proclaimed prophet – and Cleon – his military commander – gathered up around 100,000 pissed off slaves and went about the island smashing in faces like there was no tomorrow. They won a few scraps, probably felt good about things, and then a large Roman army arrived and basically kicked them in the nads until they were both dead. First Servile War: Unlocked.
Sicily basically cooled its heels for a whole 30 years, before – in 104 BC to 100 BC – they kicked off yet again (must have been the climate or something). This four-year “oh no you didyant!” kind of happened by accident, when Consul Gaius Marius was on a bit of a recruiting drive for an eventual war against the Cimbri. A little mix-up happened, and he started to get reports that tax collectors were enslaving Italians unable to pay their debts, thus meaning a shortfall in his recruiting needs. This was a problem that he addressed by announcing that any allied/friendly Italian should be released from Roman slavery.
Quite a few slaves thought this applied to them.
And it didn’t. In fact, it applied to, like, 800 dudes.
Thousands started walking away from their masters thinking that their time was over, so when ordered back to servitude, they sort of got a bit upset. Upset to the tune of 2,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry all marching under the command of one former-slave “Salvius.”
And those sorts of numbers are not easy to put back inside the box; it took Rome a great deal of effort to quell this particular rebellion.
But we’re good now, right? Two servile insurrections in a 30 year period, the slaves will get that they can’t escape, yeah?
Thirty years later. (Seriously, I couldn’t make this shit up). 73-71 BC: the Third Servile War, also known as the Gladiator War. Also “the War of Spartacus.” Now doesn’t that have a ring to it?
Don’t be dissuaded by the shorter 2-year duration of this one, folks, because when this shit kicked off, it wasn’t in the little island of Sicily; this one was in the heartland of mother Italy herself. This one had indirect ripples throughout Roman politics for years to come.
Let’s go back to these guys …
One of the most popular forms of entertainment before the Xbox 360, these guys thrilled the masses with their daring-do and martial skills, but the problem with this particular profession was the unfortunate risk of utter freaking death and dismemberment. And this meant that there was a need for a constant supply of gladiators. Throw into this particular dilemma the obvious solution of “slaves,” and before you know it the gladiator schools (ludi) were over-flowing with prisoners of war and condemned criminals. Just the sort of guys you want to train the hell out of and then arm to the teeth.
What could go wrong?
Well, it started to go wrong over in the Capuan school owned by Lentulus Batiatus. One morning 70 guys sat around the kitchen table and muttered “you know, this is pretty shit. See that guard over there? We could take ‘im, no problem, like.”
And they were right.
Armed with a few cooking pots and a spatula, then turned over tables, caved guard skulls in with iron pans, and promptly fought their way to a wagon-load of weapons and armor.
There were 200 gladiators at this school, and suddenly they weren’t in the school anymore, they were sitting around the countryside, armed to the gills, with “what do we do now?” expressions. To guide them along this particularly tricky path, they chose three of their number to act as leaders: Crixus (a Gaul), Oenomaus (a Gaul), and SPARTACUS (maybe a Thracian, but certainly a stud muffin).
First: plunder the living shit out of the surrounding countryside.
Second: recruit any slaves nearby into the ranks.
After basically tea-bagging the closest Romans and wooing the locals, the hearty band of adventurers headed off to Mount Vesuvius to set up camp. Of course, the nearby town of Capua was having none of this m’larky, so they sent some forces to deal with the upstarts. Except they promptly got a trident shoved up their backside, because, you know, “armed and trained force of kick ass gladiators.”
As attempts to control this uprising continued to fail, Rome sat up and took notice. Not “Rome” as in the entire city, but the rich and influential therein. Why? Well, it just so happened that Campania was a vacation region and was rich with estates. Estates owned by … well .. the rich and influential of Rome. So, to them, an armed band of rampaging gladiators was all kinds of bad news; time to put things right.
They chose a military force under praetorian authority, and you can’t say “Praetorian Guard” without getting a woody. These guys were the crème de la crème, the best of the best. 3,000 full on studs under the praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber.
Oh, hold on a second, just got some news in …
Apparently they weren’t the “crème de la crème,” and they weren’t “Praetorian guards,” it was “Praetorian AUTHORITY,” … they were a militia “picked up in haste and at random, for the Romans did not consider this a war yet, but a raid, something like an attack of robbery.”
So … yeah … there’s that.
But, hey, Glaber, right? What a guy.
Under this 160lb of bundled pure sex, the Praetorian’s headed off to lay siege to the entire mountain of Vesuvius. Happy that he could starve the buggers out, Glaber settled down to watch a few episodes of Lost.
What he didn’t know was that the slaves on the mountain were bright little buggers. A few vines from the local slopes, a tree here and there, and before you know it they had ropes and ladders made and were scaling the freaking cliffsides and were outflanking the entire Roman encampment.
The Romans, completely and utterly with (and I’ll slip into Latin here for a moment) “theirus fingus upia buttius” were utterly massacred.
Score one for Spartacus & Co.
So now shit was getting real, and Rome rolled up her sleeves and sent out another 4,000 men; time for a little slave smack-down!
Except this second expedition, under Publius Varinius, oddly split its forces into two groups, each of which was bitch-slapped into next week by the slaves. Not only that, but all of the roman gear was now in slave hands. I mean, shit man, that’s like a Christmas gift right there.
If you had any doubts up until this point, you wouldn’t any longer, and local slaves started flocking to the rebellions cause, to the tune of SEVENTY THOUSAND.
Over the winter of 73-72BC, the amassed small city of slaves, farmers, gladiators, women, and children hunkered down and started training the new recruits and expanding their ranks even more. Sadly, Oenomaus was killed by this time, but Crixus and SPARTACUS were now Bromasters of the entire region.
But where was this actually going? While they could certainly withstand Rome’s attempts to subdue them, there was no way that they could keep fighting every legion sent their way. They needed a plan.
Their plan was simple: confuse the living shit out of future historians by not telling anyone what the plan was.
It could have been “raiding the crap out of Italy,” maybe even a little “Kick Rome itself in the nads,” but just as likely was Spartacus’ desire to “get the hell out of dodge, cross the Alps, and disperse in the lands beyond.” Maybe a little of all of it.
The net result was that over 120,000 men, women, and children wandered throughout Italy with relative impunity. And I don’t know if you have seen the mess a few thousand humans can leave in their wake, but you can bet your ass that 120,000 left A SHIT HOLE.
Spring of 72 BC tweeted her way onto the horizon, and the veritable armada of human souls left winter camp and started moving north towards Cisalpine Gaul.
By now the senate was all kinds of perturbed; this wasn’t a local crime, this was a full on revolt, and the defeats of both Glaber and Varinius only added significant weight to the problem. Time to get real, time to draft in Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus, both with their legions. That’s right, bitches, elbow-to-the-teeth Roman-righteousness of caligae-wearing-up-your-butt civilization bringing justice.
And look at this pure, dripping, sex machine. This is the type of blade wielding death machine you do NOT want to meet on the battlefield.
Crixus thought differently. Crixus took 30,000 balls-out homies to Mount Garganus, ‘cos where else would you show off your man-sized balls?, and he took on the might of Rome mano-a-mano.
But he lost.
He lost dramatically.
20,000 of the ex-slaves were butchered, including Crixus.
Rome now had the momentum. With this, Gellius moved north to SPARTACUS, while Lentulus headed to get in front, barring the rebels way into the Alps. What they didn’t bank on was this guy:
With Lentulus in his way, Spartacus basically head butted the Romans into submission. And when Gellius caught up, SPARTACUS turned around, flexed, kissed his cannonball sized guns, and murdered Gellius as well.
He murderized all of them.
And then he toodled off towards Cisalpine Gaul, basically arm-barring any force sent to resist him.
If you don’t mind, sir, I have to be somewhere!
Rome is now in a bit of a pickle. There’s a massive rebel army basically roaming the countryside and doing whatever it liked, whenever it liked, to whomever it liked, and that really wasn’t going to be good for property value. Everything they did to get the rebels under control utterly failed (and promptly gave the slaves even more equipment); the situation was growing extremely dire.
Time to bring in the big boys: Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Now, for some reason, Spartacus’ march North kind of did a bit of a wonky. Maybe their sat nav wasn’t working, or maybe they just liked it in Italy, but they turned around and headed South, back into the heartland. We don’t know why. Correction, historians don’t know why, but I do: it was the Garum. Take it from me, you heard it here first.
This was ultimately going to be a mistake, because Crassus was an animal. I mean, look at him, look at those eyes. You can see every year of his command under Sulla.
You can also see the glint of testosterone of the six legions under him.
Six ball-busting legions.
With the help of the two welps Gellius and Lentulus, he had under his command 32,000-48,000 legionaries. Prime muscle. Full on soldiers. SPARTACUS was going to have his work cut out for him.
Oddly, SPARTACUS moved northwards again, where Crassus deployed in front of him, tore open his chest armor – revealing 400 lb benching pecs and a killer six-pac – and said “come get some.”
But unlike the film, this was not a one-off engagement.
SPARTACUS bounced like a rubber ball on the first engagement, and 6,000 former slaves died fighting. Again and again he failed to defeat Crassus, and again and again he lost men, being solidly beaten back south through Lucania, all the way to the straits of Messina.
Here SPARTACUS decided that a little retreat was in order, a retreat with the assistance of Cilician pirates. Except, you know, PIRATES. They took the money, they ran, and SPARTACUS was forced to head back towards Rhegium with Crassus hot on his heels.
And this is where things really went pear-shaped for SPARTACUS, because around this time a bloke called Pompey arrived in Italy. Pompey had just got done putting down a rebellion in Hispania. Pompey had some legions hanging around doing nothing.
SPARTACUS was about to get smashed between the two Roman commanders.
No, no … scratch that … word just in that the senate has also dispatched Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus from Brundisium.
SPARTACUS was about to be hit from three sides. Now he was a cornered rat.
And yet this story takes a small twist, because Crassus suddenly realized that if he dithered, one of the other two generals could get the credit for this shindig. Crassus decided he had to go full out to win this on his own if he wanted all of the glory.
Meanwhile, SPARTACUS realized that he was in a bit of a pickle. He attempted to broker a peace, Crassus told him to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, and as a result discipline started to erupt across the rebel forces. Random desertions and fights broke out, and – to control it – SPARTACUS went for a full out attack. His entire strength was thrown at Crassus at the Battle of Siler River.
But, c’mon, he was facing this:
His run had been glorious, he had successfully challenged Rome herself while in the heart of Italy, but here … here he was taken too far.
Spartacus was defeated.
His body was never found.
Ultimately the rebellion lasted two years. It was not a small rebellion, but it wasn’t this that mattered. Both Pompey and Crassus used this to bolster their own careers, Pompey claiming ultimate victory (seriously), and both becoming embittered political enemies. Their actions as Consuls basically had both guys take their legions to Rome, say “ELECT ME!”, and both were successful, ‘cos, well, LEGIONS, and this greatly furthered the subversion of Roman political institutions and contributed to the eventual transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Of the rebels? 6,000 survived. That’s really not much.
And when I say “survived” I mean “were crucified along the Appian Way.”
As for the slaves across the Empire?
Well, this is harder to tell, but there’s evidence to suggest that agricultural slavery diminished, freemen were used more often, and that generally speaking the treatment of slaves improved. The legal status of slaves also started to shift, and by AD 41 a constitution was enacted that made the killing of an old or infirm slave an act of murder.
Things got a little better over time. Maybe it had nothing to do with the revolt of SPARTACUS, but there wasn’t another Servile war after this.