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Spartacus is known to have been the most famous leader of the slaves in the Third Servile War when a main slave uprising came up against the Roman Republic. Not much is known about Spartacus before the events of this war and the available history about Spartacus is mostly contradictory and unreliable.
The struggle is seen as oppressed people who were fighting to be given their rights and this has found a new meaning to the modern writers since the start of the 19th century. Spartacus is seen as a folk-hero among the ancient and modern cultures for his rebellion which is seen as inspirational.
In the early days, the Roman Economy was rooted on Agriculture and also war. The occupation of the roman citizen was either a peasant or a farmer. In the period between 218-202 during the second Punic war, this fact began to adjust. The Romans had to battle overseas and when they went for the fights, they came back to find that their farms were bankrupt. The soldiers often stayed overseas for a long time during the war and could therefore not manage their farms well. After they found their farms bankrupt, the only solution was to sell the farms and move to the city  .
The cities of Italy seemed to be advancing fast together with the countryside. small farms were substituted by huge plantations where most of the work was carried out by slaves who could not be recruited to the army. The rich made use of persuasion or even force to grab or purchase property which connected to theirs or any other small property which belonged to the poor. Because of this, they ended up operating large farms instead of small ones. They therefore employed slaves and shepherds to work on these estates. The slaves had many children and the rich benefited from this as more work was done in the farms. With time, the powerful went on to become very rich and the number of slaves was also increasing everyday. Meanwhile, the Italians suffered from depopulation and shortage of men. They also were not employed as the lands belonged to the rich and slaves worked on them instead of using the free men.
Because of this, the countryside became overcrowded by slaves who were usually prisoners of war or bought from slave traders. During some times, the strong captives were forced to fight as gladiators and this was a bloody spectacle which was loved by the ancients.
Spartacus was one of the slaves who became a leader of the rebellion of gladiators which rose to a full-scale war. The early sources come to a common agreement that Spartacus was a Thracian. These were a group of indo-European tribes living in areas in Eastern, Central and southeastern Europe. He is believed to have served as a soldier with the Romans but later became a prisoner and sold to the gladiator. Different writers however have different believes about his origin, it can be concluded that he was either an auxiliary from the legions of the Romans and was later condemned to slavery or a captive who had been taken by the legions. He was given training in the gladiator school  .
In the year 73 BC, Spartacus was one in a group of gladiators planning to escape but this plan was betrayed although about 70 of the men managed to fight their way from the school by te use of kitchen implements. They also managed to steal a number of wagons of gladiatorial shield and arms. The escaped gladiators chose three leaders who included Spartacus, Crixus and Oenomaus. Some writers believe that this selection was intended as a representation of their different backgrounds. According to Plutarch,
Spartacus was a Thracian from the nomadic tribes and not only had a great spirit and great physical strength, but was, much more than one would expect from his condition, most intelligent and cultured, being more like a Greek than a Thracian  .
The last part is a cliché which is used by many writers of the ancient literature. Any person who was not Greek or roman and had done something considered special was seen as intelligent compared to the rest of the barbarians. Several sources have it that Spartacus’ success was as a result of fighting in Roman auxiliaries.
Other people like shepherds, herdsmen and runaway slaves joined the gladiators. This is an assumption made because it would not be possible to clarify how they managed to defeat a militia which had been sent to deal with them. The gladiators increased in numbers.
Rome’s central government had to intervene and it sent out an army of about 3, 000 men who were untrained. Maybe this was because the power of the gladiators was underestimated at that time or maybe Rome was not able to send a stronger force. This was because the empire was facing two wars at that time one being that of General Pompey who was fighting in Hispania and his partner Lucullus was fighting in the east. The city was also under stress ass there was scarcity in grains. Claudius had a small army which was not trained but he almost came to success. He isolated his enemies on a hill which was enclosed with vines. The gladiators however managed to make ladders and descended down the hill while the enemy was asleep and they managed to go behind the enemy line. The German soldiers panicked and they ran away leaving their camp to be looted by the gladiators.
Rome came up with a second attack against the gladiators and this time, it was led by Publius Varinius. He made his team into several divisions which were easily defeated by the gladiators. The reason for the division is not known. Varinius’ horse was lost and he was very humiliated as his people were taken prisoners. the shepherds found in the southern towns now became members of the gladiator group.
During the following year, the senate thought that this was a serious matter. Spartacus was now in command of about 70,000 people and this was a threat to the wealthy leaders in who owned large farms with many slaves. This was because they knew that the slaves could run away to join the gladiators at any time. Now the senate thought about it and concluded to send both diplomats, Gnaeus Cornelius and Lucius Gellius to proceed against the team of gladiators.
During the winter, Spartacus manufactured weapons. He planned to cross the Apennines and move towards the north where his people could go back to their homelands. Because the people were many and could not all move together, they had to march in separate groups. This was an opportunity for the Romans. Consul Lucius attacked a part o this group where around 3000 men from the group were killed. During the same time, Gnaeus intercepted the main group and he intended to wait for his colleague so that they could attack the enemy from two sides. Spartacus was however able to defeat both groups but separately and he took their equipment and went on towards the Adriatic Sea.
There is however a difference from different writers on what happened at this point. According to Plutarch, Spartacus moved towards the Alps but according to Appian,
In the aftermath the consuls retreated in confusion, while Spartacus, first sacrificing 300 Roman prisoners to Crixus, made for Rome with 120,000 foot soldiers after burning the useless equipment and putting all the prisoners to death and slaughtering the draught animals to free himself of all encumbrances  .
It is possible that Plutarch ignored this part of the story as it did not display Spartacus as an intelligent person who had been cultured to be more of a Greek than a Thracian. According to Publius, the story is different,
He also celebrated the obsequies of his officers who had fallen in battle with funerals like those of Roman generals, and ordered his captives to fight at their pyres, just as though he wished to wipe out his entire past dishonor by having become, instead of a gladiator, a giver of gladiatorial shows  .
The two consuls did not accept defeat and they marched their armies to Rome as Spartacus pursued them briefly as a way of creating panic in them. He did not intend to march to Rome and he brought his army to Adriatic, going on towards the Alps. The consuls were aware of what was happening and they led their team to the Adriatic as well. They followed a good road which made them to arrive first. The two fought again and Spartacus managed to win again.
The slaves and gladiators had an opportunity to escape now but the only obstacle on their way was an army of Gallia Cisalpina. According to the initial plan by Spartacus, the gladiators and the slaves were supposed to cross the Alps and make it home, but this is not what happened. The big army instead turned to wards the south. The excuse given by Plutarch is that,
Spartacus’ view was that they should cross the mountains and then disperse to their own homes […]. His men, however, would not listen to him. They were strong in numbers and full of confidence, and they went about Italy ravaging everything in their way  .
This can be considered true considering the fact that the Roman Armies of this time looted terribly after they had won in any war. The gladiators were very confident due to their big size and they might have wanted to loot just like the Romans used to do. It is however possible that some of the slaves crossed through the Alps and managed to get back to their homes.
In Rome, the consuls were allowed to return to their civilian life. A new commander was now chosen: Marcus Licinius Crassus. In the winter of the year 72, Spartacus managed to get into Bruttium and he captured Thurii. He intended to conquer Sicily. There had been several rebellions in the island. A Syrian slave named Eunus had been the leader or king between 132 and 135. In 104, another slave had done the same and he called himself Tryphon. After his death, his revolt was continued by Athenio.
Spartacus is likely to have had the same plan or even a better one because he had collaborated with the pirates. To them, having a base in Sicily was an asset because the Romans did not have much naval experience and the pirates could loot and rob the Italian coast without meeting any opposition. Something however went wrong in that the pirates did not appear. Crassus however appeared and he ordered that a large wall be build across Bruttium running from the Tyrrhenian to the Ionian Sea. The wall was 60 kilometers long but he had a large army so the job was completed fast.
The gladiators attacked first but their attack was repulsed easily. Only three men died among the Romans while six thousand from the gladiators’ side were killed. Spartacus made a decision on smaller actions and did well into improving the morale of his people, “He crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated”  .
Crassus did not hurry in making an attack to the gladiators. He knew that they had been trapped in that it was in winter and their supplies would run out fast. He would then wait for spring and attack the hungry group. The senate did not like the idea as they felt that it was not a good way to conduct war. They thus called upon Pompey who is a Roman general who had just finished conducting a war in Hispania. Because of this Crassus sprang into action. Spartacus decided to attack and broke through Crassus’ lines although he had only a third of his men. The group of gladiators who had managed to move through the roman lines was divided and could easily be beaten, but Spartacus arrived just in time to prevent this. From this moment onwards, the Romans were more powerful interns of numbers. Spartacus was attacked by his enemy in full-scale and this was a dangerous fight for him. The gladiators fought bravely as they knew that the only two options available to them was winning or dying. They were however defeated and it is believed that 12,300 were killed.
Spartacus now went on to Italy again. The Romans hunted for him but his team of gladiators managed to defeat two liutenants from Crassus side. This is believed to be the last victory for the gladiators. Plutarch believes that,
This success turned out to be the undoing of Spartacus, since it filled his slaves with over-confidence. They refused any longer to avoid battle and would not even obey their officers. Instead they surrounded them with arms in their hands as soon as they began to march and forced them to lead them back through Lucania against the Romans  .
Crassus was too eager to win the battle and he camped near his enemy. The gladiators suddenly attacked him and he fought and managed to defeat the gladiators. Spartacus body was never found and this was the end of this war which had taken along time. The gladiator’s men who remained tried to continue the fight but they were eventually defeated. Six thousand of them were captured alive and were crucified.
Spartacus was considered as a criminal by all the ancient writings but in the year 1760, Bernard Joseph presented him as a hero. This was the origin of his today’s positive image of this slave leader. The story too impressed Karl Marx. From that time onwards, he is seen as an image of emancipation of the poor and of the working class.
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