1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Spartacus
SPARTACUS, leader in the Slave or Gladiatorial War against Rome (73–71 B.C.), a Thracian by birth. He served in the Roman army, but seems to have deserted, for we are told that he was taken prisoner and sold as a slave. Destined for the arena, he, with a band of his fellow-gladiators, broke out of a training school at Capua and took refuge on Mt Vesuvius (73). Here he maintained himself as a captain of brigands, his lieutenants being two Celts named Crixus and Oenomaus, who like himself had been gladiators. A hastily collected force of 3000 men under C. Claudius Pulcher endeavoured to starve out the rebels, but the latter clambered down the precipices and put the Romans to flight. Swarms of hardy and desperate men now joined the rebels, and when the praetor Publius Varinius took the field against them he found them entrenched like a regular army on the plain. But they gave him the slip, and when he advanced to storm their lines he found them deserted. From Campania the rebels marched into Lucania, a country better suited for guerrilla warfare. Varinius followed, but was defeated in several engagements and narrowly escaped being taken prisoner. The insurgents reoccupied Campania, and by the defeat of C. Thoranius, the quaestor of Varinius, obtained possession of nearly the whole of southern Italy. Nola and Nuceria in Campania, Thurii and Metapontum in Lucania were sacked. The senate at last despatched both consuls against the rebels (72). The German slaves under Crixus were defeated at Mt Garganus in Apulia by the praetor Q. Arrius. But Spartacus overthrew both consuls, one after the other, and then pressed towards the Alps. Gaius Cassius, governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and the praetor Gnaeus Manlius, who attempted to stop him, were defeated at Mutina. Freedom was within sight, but with fatal infatuation the slaves refused to abandon Italy. Spartacus led them against Rome, but their hearts seem to have failed them; and instead of attacking the capital, he passed on again to Lucania. The conduct of the war was now entrusted to the praetor Marcus Licinius Crassus. In the next battle Spartacus was worsted and retreated towards the straits of Messina, intending to cross into Sicily, where he would have been welcomed by fresh hordes of slaves; but the pirates who had agreed to transport his army proved faithless. Crassus endeavoured to shut in the rebels by carrying a ditch and rampart right across the peninsula, but Spartacus forced the lines, and once more Italy lay at his feet. Disunion, however, was at work in the rebel camp. The Gauls and Germans, who had withdrawn from the main body, were attacked and destroyed. Spartacus now took up a strong position in the mountainous country of Petelia (near Strongoli in Calabria) and inflicted a severe defeat on the vanguard of the pursuing army. But his men refused to retreat farther, and in a pitched battle which followed soon afterwards the rebel army was annihilated. Spartacus, who had stabbed his horse before the battle, fell sword in hand. A body of the rebels which had escaped from the field was met and cut to pieces at the foot of the Alps by Pompey (the Great), who was returning from Spain. Pompey claimed the credit of finishing the war, and received the honour of a triumph, while only a simple ovation was decreed to Crassus. Spartacus was a capable and energetic leader; he did his best to check the excesses of the lawless bands which he commanded, and treated his prisoners with humanity. His character has been misrepresented by Roman writers, whom his name inspired with terror down to the times of the empire.
The story has to be pieced together from the vague and somewhat discrepant accounts of Plutarch (Crassus, 8–11; Pompey, 21), Appian (Bell. civ. i. 116–120), Florus, (ii. 8), Livy (Epit. 95–97), and the fragments of the Histories of Sallust, whose account seems to have been full and graphic.