While Roman leaders cavorted and gulped wine, impoverished commoners seethed with resentment and rage. Then, one man became a symbol of an uprising against political corruption and moral callousness, and to this very day he's regarded as a hero.
His name? Spartacus.
Spartacus, a Thracian man, wasn't born to wealth or power. Instead, he was considered part of the dregs of society. Born in roughly 109 B.C.E., his life's mostly a mystery to history until he became a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire.
But we do know that he was sent to a gladiator school in Capua where he was trained to fight others with various weapons, as entertainment for massive crowds in arenas. Discipline in these schools was harsh.
"Gladiators were a longstanding tradition in Rome, one that was originally related to funerals. Fundamentally though, gladiators were slaves, and generally they were considered the lowest of the low, the most worthless and useless of slaves," says Aaron Irvin, a history professor at Murray State University in Kentucky. Irvin is a well-regarded historian who's also consulted on many TV series, including "Spartacus" (2010), "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" (2011), and "Roman Empire" (2016).
"A slave was made a gladiator as a last resort, because the owner saw no other feasible way of making money off of the slave, so he might as well make the slave's death entertaining," he says in an email interview.
Not all gladiator fights were to the death, notes Irvin. Some ended when a fighter drew first blood or drove his opponent into submission. But in an age where basic hygiene like handwashing was rare and antibiotics didn't exist, even superficial wounds could prove fatal for one or both fighters. And many fights only ended when one gladiator had killed another.
A few fortunate gladiators found fame through bloodshed. They won fight after fight, making names for themselves and becoming something akin to Roman rock stars. They had slaves to look after them and in very rare cases became the most popular figures in their cities.
"Gladiator helmets were crafted to specifically hide the face of the gladiators, making the fighters recognizable in their gear, but otherwise faceless automata to the crowd," says Irvin. "No longer debased slaves, the gladiators became something extraordinary, something beyond mere humans."
Escape from Brutality
However, the vast numbers of gladiators faced short, desperate lives. That's why Spartacus and 70 other gladiators made a daring escape from a gladiator school in 73 B.C.E. Then, they hijacked a caravan carrying a load of gladiator weapons and armor – and suddenly, they were the equivalent of a heavily armed gang, with Spartacus as their initial leader.
The men continued to train themselves for combat at a location on Mount Vesuvius, occasionally raiding the countryside below. Eventually, Spartacus and his men caught the attention of Rome.
A praetor (a high-ranking government official) by the name of Claudius Glaber was sent to put down Spartacus, says Irvin. "Glaber perhaps brought a small force of professional soldiers, but relied primarily on a local militia, and was soundly defeated by Spartacus and the escaped gladiators."
This victory proved monumental in Roman – and human – history. Before that, slaves in Rome felt so hopeless in their lives that they rarely tried to escape. There was nowhere to escape to, Irvin points out, no equivalent of the northern states during the U.S.'s slavery period. People were so resigned to their sorry fates that they didn't even require supervision.
But Spartacus and his men provided the spark of hope that became a wildfire of armed rage. "When Spartacus beat a Roman praetor though, all of a sudden there was another option; there was a group you could flee to that had managed to not just stand against Rome, but had actually managed to defeat a Roman officer on the battlefield," he says.
Other slaves – and prisoners of war – ran away to join the uprising. Both men and women, of very different backgrounds, saw Spartacus as a way to fight back against their oppressors. Although records from the time are unreliable, they may have swelled the rebel army's ranks to tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Spartacus won at least three more military engagements. As gladiators, these men had nothing to lose, so they fought with little fear. Some probably believed that ultimately, they must bring down the pillars of Roman political power or risk being captured and forced back into bondage. That's exactly why Rome's leaders knew they needed to find a way to kill Spartacus once and for all.
Spartacus' Last Stand
"It wasn't so much that Spartacus rallied these men and women to his 'cause,' or that he even saw himself as leading a cause in the first place," says Irvin. "If anything, it tells us how desperate and how awful things were in Italy in the period, where someone, anyone, even a lowly gladiator, could attract such a massive following after the slightest victory against Rome."
He says that it also helped that Spartacus kept winning, defeating a number of praetors sent against him. The rebel leader even triumphed over armies of the Roman consuls, the heads of the entire Roman government, and commanders-in-chief of the armies.
But how did a lowly slave uprising gain so much momentum, so quickly?
"What the Roman elite didn't anticipate was the existing anger and resentment among the people of Italy that would attach itself to Spartacus' band," explains Irvin.
They also didn't understand that their slim grasp on power relied almost totally on the perception of Roman military might. One chink in that mental armor – a few Spartacus victories – and the revolt became real.
Rome was rattled. Its veteran armies were deployed elsewhere, and the city had only a ragtag force left to oppose any attackers.
So frightening had Spartacus become that, eventually no leaders could be found to take the reins of a force against him. Finally, a wealthy praetor named Marcus Crassus agreed to finance and lead an army against the rebels. A vicious general, he led his men with a sense of brutality, randomly killing soldiers in his units that ran from battle.
He pursued Spartacus across Italy, slowly but surely weakening the gladiators and their legions. Infighting amongst the rebels weakened their resolve and their ability to fight as one.
In 71 B.C.E., at a final battle, Spartacus and his men made a desperate lunge toward Crassus himself, hoping that perhaps Crassus's death might save the rebellion. However, Spartacus was cut down and the rebel army was crushed. Some 6,000 survivors were hunted down and crucified as a warning to other would-be rebels. But Spartacus' body was never found.
Still his death and those of his allies weren't in vain, says Irvin. "In the immediate aftermath of the war against Spartacus, Crassus and Pompey, the two generals who had brought an end to Spartacus' army, passed a number of reforms that strengthened the voice of the Roman people in the government, and forced the elite to pay closer attention to the desires and circumstances of Rome's lower classes."
He adds that you could make the argument that these reforms came about precisely because of Spartacus' revolt, which violently drew attention to the desperate plight of the lower classes in Rome and Italy.
"These same reforms also paved the way for a new populist politician by the name of Julius Caesar, who would combine his own popularity with military success some 25 years later to bring down the entirety of the Roman Republic."
Spartacus' contemporaries had a mixed view of him, says Irvin. Some admired his bravery and military tactics; others feared he could have started the collapse of civilized society. And now?
"Ultimately Spartacus means to us today largely what he meant in his own period: a cry of rage and anger and frustration at an unfair, uncaring, unfeeling world; a people who have finally reached a breaking point, and will follow someone, anyone, who will give them a chance," he says.