At the beginning of the first Punic War, or war with Carthage, a new form of entertainment was introduced into Rome. This was the gladiatorial show, the fights of armed men in the arena, the first of which was given in the year 264 b.c. , at the funeral of D. Junius Brutus. These exhibitions were long confined to funeral occasions, money being frequently left for this purpose in wills, but they gradually extended to other occasions, and finally became the choice amusement of the brutal Roman mob. The gladiators were divided into several classes, in accordance with their particular weapons and modes of fighting, and great pains were taken to instruct them in the use of their special arms. But in the period that followed the death of Sulla Rome was to have a gladiatorial exhibition of a different sort.
In the city of Capua was a school of gladiators, kept by a man named Lentulus. It was his practice to hire out his trained pupils to nobles for battles in the arena during public festivals. His school was a large one, and included in its numbers a Thracian named Spartacus, who had been taken prisoner while leading his countrymen against the Romans, and was to be punished for his presumption by making sport for his conquerors.
But Spartacus had other and nobler aims. He formed a plot of flight to freedom in which two hundred of his fellows joined, though only seventy-eight succeeded in making their escape. These men, armed merely with the knives and spits which they had seized as they fled, made their way to the neighboring mountains, and sought a refuge in the crater of Mount Vesuvius. It must be borne in mind that this mountain, in that year of 73 b.c. , was silent and seemingly extinct, though before another century passed it was to awake to vital activity. It was only biding its time in slumber.
It was better to die on the open field than in the amphitheatre, argued Spartacus, and his followers agreed with him. Their position in the crater was a strong one, and the news of their revolt soon brought them a multitude of allies,—slaves and out-laws of every kind. These Spartacus organized and drilled, supplying them with officers from the gladiators, mostly old soldiers, and placing them under rigid discipline. It was liberty he wanted, not rapine, and he did his utmost to restrain his lawless followers from acts of violence.
Pompey, the chief Roman general of that day, was then absent in Spain, fighting with a remnant of the Marian forces. Two Roman prætors led their forces against the gladiators, but were driven back with loss, and the army of Spartacus swelled day by day. The wild herdsmen of Apulia joined him in large numbers. They were slaves to their lords, whom they hated bitterly, and here was an opening for freedom and revenge.
It was soon evident that Rome had on its hands the greatest and most dangerous of its servile wars. Spartacus was brave and prudent, and possessed the qualities of an able leader. Unfortunately for him, he led an unmanageable host. In the next year both the consuls took the field against him. By this time his army had swelled to more than one hundred thousand men, and with these he pushed his way northward through the passes of the Apennines. But now insubordination appeared. Crixus, one of his lieutenants, ambitious of independent command, led off a large division of the army, chiefly Germans. He was quickly punished for his temerity, being surprised and slain with the whole of his force.
Spartacus, wise enough to know that he could not long hold out against the whole power of Rome, kept on northward, hoping to pass the Alps and find a place of refuge remote from the stronghold of his foes. Both the consuls attacked him in his march, and both were defeated, while he retaliated on Rome by forcing his prisoners to fight as gladiators in memory of the slain Crixus.
Reaching the provinces of the north, his diminished force was repulsed by Crassus, one of the richest men of Rome, who had taken the field as prætor. Spartacus would still have fought his way towards the Alps but for his followers, whose impatient thirst for rapine forced him to march southward again.
Every Roman force that assailed him on this march was hurled back in defeat. He even meditated an attack on Rome itself, but relinquished this plan as too desperate, and instead employed his men in collecting arms and treasure from the cities of central and southern Italy. Discipline was almost at an end. The wild horde of slaves and outlaws were beyond any strict military control. So great and general were their ravages that in a later day the poet Horace promised his friend a jar of wine made in the Social War, "if he could find one that had escaped the ravages of roaming Spartacus."
In the year 71 b.c. the most vigorous efforts were made to put down this dangerous revolt. Pompey was still in Spain. The only man at home of any military reputation was the prætor Crassus, who had amassed an enormous fortune by buying up property at famine prices during the Proscription of Sulla, and in speculative measures since.
He was given full command, took the field with a large army, restored discipline to the beaten bands of the consuls by cruel and rigorous measures, and assailed Spartacus in Calabria, where he was seeking to rekindle the Servile War, or slave outbreak, in Sicily. He had even engaged with pirate captains to transport a part of his force to Sicily, but the freebooters took the money and sailed away without the men.
And now began a struggle for life and death. Spartacus was in the narrowest part of the foot of Southern Italy. Crassus determined to keep him there by building strong lines of intrenchment across the neck of land. Spartacus attacked his works twice in one day, but each time was repulsed with great slaughter. But he defended himself vigorously.
Pompey was now returning from Spain. Crassus, not caring to be robbed of the results of his labors, determined to assault Spartacus in his camp. But before he could do so the daring gladiator attacked his lines again, forced his way through, and marched for Brundusium, where he hoped to find ships that would convey him and his men from Italy.
As it happened, a large body of Roman veterans, returning from Macedonia, had just reached Brundusium, and undertook its defence. Foiled in his purpose, Spartacus turned upon the pursuing army of Crassus, like a wolf at bay, and attacked it with the energy of desperation. The battle that ensued was contested with the fiercest courage. Spartacus and his men were fighting for their lives, and the result continued doubtful till the brave gladiator was wounded in the thigh by a javelin. Falling on his knee, he fought with the courage of a hero until, overpowered by numbers, he fell dead.
His death decided the conflict. Most of his followers were slain on the field. A strong body escaped to the mountains, but these were pursued, and many fell. Five thousand of them made their way to the north of Italy, where they were met by Pompey, on his return from Spain, and slaughtered to a man.
Crassus took six thousand prisoners, and these he disposed of in the cruel Roman way of dealing with revolted slaves, hanging or crucifying the whole of them along the road between Rome and Capua.
Thus ended far the most important outbreak of Roman gladiators and slaves. The south of Italy suffered horribly from its ravages, but not through any act of Spartacus, who throughout showed a moderation equal to his courage and military ability. Had it not been for the lawless character of his followers his career might have had a very different ending, for he had shown himself a commander of rare ability and unconquerable courage.