POMPEY'S services were sorely needed at home at this time, and it was fortunate that the war in Spain was near its end. The cause of the trouble in Italy was a general revolt of the slaves.
It seems that at Capua, in southern Italy, there was a famous school of gladiators. Now, as you doubtless remember, the gladiators were prisoners of war whom the Romans trained to fight in the circuses for their amusement.
Spartacus, a Thracian, was the leader of these men; and, when they broke away from their captivity, he led them to Mount Vesuvius, where they were soon joined by many other gladiators and runaway slaves. In this position they could easily defend themselves, and from Mount Vesuvius they made many a raid down into the surrounding country, in search of provisions and spoil.
Little by little, all the Thracian, Gallic, and Teutonic slaves joined them here, and before long Spartacus found himself at the head of an army of more than a hundred thousand men. Many legions were sent out to conquer them; but the slaves were so eager to keep their liberty that they fought very well, and defeated the Romans again and again.
Spartacus, having tried his men, now prepared to lead them across Italy to the Alps, where he proposed that they should scatter and all rejoin their native tribes. But this plan did not meet with the approval of the slaves; for they were anxious to avenge their injuries, and to secure much booty before they returned home.
So, although Spartacus led them nearly to the foot of the Alps, they induced him to turn southward once more, and said that they were going to besiege Rome. In their fear of the approaching rebels, the Romans bade Crassus, one of Sulla's officers, take a large army, and check the advance of the slaves. At the same time, they sent Pompey an urgent summons to hasten his return from Spain.
The armies of Crassus and Spartacus met face to face, after many of the slaves had deserted their leader. The Thracian must have felt that he would be defeated; for he is said to have killed his war horse just before the battle began. When one of his companions asked him why he did so, he replied:
"If I win the fight, I shall have a great many better horses; if I lose it, I shall need none."
Although wounded in one leg at the beginning of the battle, Spartacus fought bravely on his knees, until he fell lifeless upon the heap of soldiers whom he had slain. Forty thousand of his men perished with him, and the rest fled. Before these could reach a place of safety, they were overtaken by Pompey, who cut them all to pieces.
Pompey had come up just in time to win the last battle, and reap all the honors of the war. He was very proud of this victory, and wrote a boastful letter to the senate, in which he said: "Crassus has overcome the gladiators in a pitched battle, but I have plucked up the war by the roots!"
Then, to make an example which would prevent the slaves from ever rising up against their masters again, the Romans crucified six thousand of the rebels along the road from Capua to Rome.