The Roman Empire. It was one of the most advanced empires to ever be seen in the history of the world, and the impact that this empire would have on world history can still be seen – physically, theologically, and philosophically – for millenia to come (mille coming from the Roman Latin root word mille meaning thousand).
It is possible to see the influence of the Roman Empire everywhere. From Hadrian’s wall on the border of England and Scotland to the Appian Way in Italy, from the Leptis Magna in Libya to the port city of Caesarea in Israel, Roman ruins litter vast swathes of three different continents, a testament to the sturdiness and engineering of Roman construction, and something which would not be replicated until humans re-discovered how to make concrete close to a millennium and a half later.
A lot of Roman culture has been passed down to us through stories as well as the archaeological record, so we are able to get a glimpse into the lives of the average Roman citizen living in Rome, Palmyra, Nazareth, Gaul, and Cyrenaica. And one of the things that Romans loved to do was watch competitions – just like us!
These competitions could be anything from sports to full on naval battles (they used to actually flood the colosseum in Rome so that ships could be sailed in the middle of the city!) to plays. But of course, one of the most famous feats of strength and entertainment that nearly everybody in the empire enjoyed was a good, old fashioned, blood contest.
These contests involved two warriors fighting each other to the death. These warriors were what know as gladiators. Coming from the Latin word “gladius” – meaning sword – these big and burly men would be trained up to fight each other to the bitter end. When two of these men (and sometimes even women) entered the gladiatorial ring for combat, only one came back out alive. The men were typically forced into combat as they were usually slaves. Needless to say, this was perhaps the most popular sport in the Roman Empire.
And there is perhaps no gladiator better known for his impact on history than a man named Spartacus. Spartacus, in a bid for freedom, decided that he would release himself and his friends from bondage, and went on to start one of the most important slave revolts in history. In fact…
Who was Spartacus?
Spartacus was a slave from the area of Thrace (which comprises present day Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece), and he was most likely of Maedian descent. He was said to have been born somewhere along the Struma River in present day Bulgaria, before he was taken by the Romans and forced to be a slave. At first he was trained to be a Roman soldier, but then, do to his fighting skills and ferocity, he was picked to become a gladiator.
The television show
There have been many iterations the portrayal of Spartacus throughout the years, and one of the more recent biographies of his life is the docu-drama created by the Starz premium television network. The show won two prestigious Saturn Awards for Best Supporting Actress on Television as well as Best DVD/Blu-ray TV Series, and was nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Television Series, and a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Premium Cable TV Show, amongst others.
Learning from Plutarch
One of the main ways that anyone knows anything about Spartacus is due to the writings of a man named Plutarch. Plutarch was what we would call a historian today, wandering around Greece and the Roman Empire at around 70 AD. He wrote extensively about the Spartans and Alexander the Great, along with Spartacus. He says that Spartacus was imprisoned and sold into slavery with his wife Sura, who herself was a Midean prophetess and priestess.
When the Romans decided that Spartacus was to become a Roman Gladiator, he was sent to learn the skills of the trade at an Iudus outside of the city of Capua at. An Iudus was a formal school where the art of learning to fight like a gladiator was taught. The Iudus was reportedly owned by a wealthy landowner named Lentulus Batiatus who used the slaves at his Iudus to fight other slaves for his and Rome’s enjoyment.
What exactly is a gladiator?
A gladiator was a fighter who fought in an arena for the entertainment of others. Just as we watch boxing or mixed martial arts for entertainment today, the main difference with gladiators is that they fought with swords and hooks, and the goal of the fight was to kill the competitor, not to knock them out. Typically slaves, the gladiators would fight anything from lions and elephants to criminals to other gladiators. Whoever was left alive by the end was deemed the winner.
Not all are the same
There were several different kinds of gladiator and each one had a different role, with different strengths and abilities in a manner not unlike when choosing a video game character. There was the Gallus, who took up the armor and weapons of a Gallic soldier; the Hoplomachus, a gladiator based on Greek soldiers (and who were usually captured Greek soldiers); the Murmillo, who was based on Roman legionnaires; as well as several other types.
Whenever we think sponsorship deals we usually think of people like Michael Jordan and Nike, Peyton Manning and Papa John’s, and that sponsorship deals in general are products of the modern era. Well, as it turns out, the gladiators back in the days of ancient Rome also had sponsorship deals, and they made quite a lot of money doing it. Politicians and business owners would buy gladiators to fight and raise brand awareness for themselves. Imagine a president campaigning on the strength of Floyd Mayweather’s punch!
A plot begins to thicken
A strong fighter and a persuasive leader, Spartacus also happened to be one of the strongest and best gladiators of the highest gladiator class, the Murmillo. He was sick and tired of the torment and abuse that his captors forced upon him and his friends from the Iudus, and he yearned for freedom from the yoke of being forced to fight strangers for the temporary amusement of others. So he and 70 other of the strongest gladiators at the school plotted a mutiny.
The day finally came in 73 BCE when Spartacus and his band of gladiators decided that they had had enough. Using kitchen utensils as weapons, they overpowered the guards, broke into the armory which stored their weapons, and fled out into the night. Dozens of soldiers came after them, but they were no match for champion gladiators. The band pillaged the area around the Iudus, freeing slaves as they went and adding to their growing force.
Spartacus was known to have two people who were his lieutenants who helped him with the revolt, Gallic slaves named Crixus and Oenomaus. The two men came from the region of Gaul, which is in common-day France. They too strove for their own liberty and equality, and helped to forge the fraternal bonds which kept the band of rebels unified. The region of Gaul was always a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire, as it people had always yearned to be free and independent of the vast empire.
Where is the cavalry?
One of the main reasons that the Spartacus slave-gladiator revolt was so successful was because at the beginning of the revolt, the government believed that Spartacus and his bands of people were nothing more than a bunch of hooligans who were releasing a crime wave upon southern Italy. The Roman government therefore did not send in its main forces to try to take down Spartacus – they thought that their police could do it.
Third Sevile War
It took a few months for the Roman government to fully understand that they were not just dealing with a bunch of escaped slaves wreaking havoc on the countryside, but of an actual slave revolt. The government sent the military to defeat the rebels, but, being former gladiators, they were able to easily defeat the legions of soldiers sent after them. This was the third time that Roman slaves had revolted against the government, but the first time that they were attacking on the Italian peninsula.
Off to Vesuvius
Everyone knows Mt. Vesuvius as the volcano which destroyed the city of Pompeii, but before it blew its top, it was actually a refuge for Spartacus and his band of followers from the Roman legions chasing after them. The Roman legions knew they were hiding out on the mountain and decided to enact a siege, attempting to starve the rebels and escaped slaves into submission. However, Spartacus had other plans…
Down the side
The Roman military was camped around the base of the volcano, primarily centered around the points which were easily climbable and not concentrating so much on the inaccessible cliffs. Spartacus knew this, and so him and a group of his soldiers took the grape vines that grew around the volcano, turned them into ropes, repelled down the cliffs of the volcano, and slaughtered the Roman legion from the weakly defended back of their encampment.
The Roman government, humiliated at their defeat at the hands of a ragtag group of rebels and slaves, decided to send another military expedition to finally defeat these rabble rousers. However, the contingent sent to eliminate the rebels was quickly defeated, and the Roman politician overseeing the operation was almost captured. Meanwhile, Spartacus managed to attain tons of weapons and instilled fear in the highest echelons of the Roman Empire. He was figuratively and literally making a killing.
Raising an army
After word spread that Spartacus was beating the Roman Empire on its home turf, thousands of people began flocking to join the gladiator rebel. And it wasn’t just slaves either, but thousands upon thousands of people from the lower classes, including shepherds and various herdsmen. We are not sure if they joined out of pressure or in pursuit of overthrowing the vast Roman Empire, but we do know that Spartacus’ ranks swelled to 70,000 men.
Can he be stopped?
The fighting and pillaging mainly stopped in the winter of 73 BCE, and Spartacus’ band of warrior-slaves spent the majority of their time studying strategy and fighting techniques. The rebel army also relied on their extensive knowledge of the local terrain to be able to shock and awe the Roman troops coming after them. All of this training and knowledge enabled the rebels to defeat two whole legions of the Roman military, something which shocked Roman political leaders.
It was around the middle of 72 BCE that Spartacus’s army reached its full strength, with 120,000 men and thousands more women joining in the ranks to fight against the Roman military. The rebels were ferocious fighters and beat the Roman legions any time they got anywhere near them. The commander of the Roman forces going after Spartacus, named Marcus Licinius Crassus, go so mad that he re-instated the collective punishment of decimation on his soldiers, i.e. murdering every tenth soldier, in a bid to get them to fight better.
Plundering and looting
Meanwhile, the rebel slaves continued on their path of plundering and looting the southern Italian peninsula, much to the consternation of the elites back in Rome. In fact, one of the reasons why the Roman military and government finally decided to really go after Spartacus was because he started plundering something very close to the elites – their vacation homes and palaces along the southern coast. The Roman government did not take Spartacus’s threat seriously until the elites had been personally impacted.
The final countdown
The Roman Empire finally began to take the slave revolt seriously by the year 71 BCE, so much so that they sent one of their fiercest legions down to the revolt base in order to quell the uprising. Soldiers fresh from subduing the barbarians in present-day Spain were sent to help the legions already fighting the rebels. Spartacus heard about this and tried to offer a peace treaty to Crassus. However, this only egged Crassus on, and he refused the call for peace. The war drums began to beat.
A final battle
Fearing slaughter, a portion of Spartacus’s rebel army ran away, and Crassius sent out men in pursuit of them. However, the rest of the rebels stood tall and decided to fight for their freedom, deciding that it was better to die as free men than live as slaves once again. The battle took place in southern Italy outside of what is now known as Senerchia. There were so many deaths following this battle that Roman armor is still found in the surrounding fields to this day. It is here that Spartacus is believed to have perished.
Of the original 120,000 rebels in Spartacus’s revolutionary slave army, only 6,000 were left alive after the final battle. In retribution for the crime of rebelling against the Roman state, Crassius ordered that the rebels undergo one of the worst, slowest, and most painful forms of corporal punishment there was in the Roman empire – crucifixion. All 6,000 of the survivors were crucified along the Appian Way between Rome and Capua, showing all other slaves what the price for freedom would be.
Why did they do it?
There are many hypothesized reasons for the beginning of the slave revolt which Spartacus led. There are those who say that he was trying to get rid of slavery throughout the Roman Empire. Others argue that the original intention was for all of the Gallic and Thracian slaves to head north and go back home, but the slaves had such as great time pillaging that they just stayed in southern Italy. Whatever the reason, Spartacus and the Third Servile War certainly went down as an important point in history.
Quite a legacy
The heroism and hope that Spartacus instilled in his men and in the slaves of the Roman Empire has never been forgotten. In fact, the slave revolt which created the modern country of Haiti was based upon the stories of Spartacus. Karl Marx credited Spartacus as one of his heroes for rising up and enabling the masses to breathe free, calling him “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history,” and a “real representative of the ancient proletariat.”
It is due to this “rising of the proletariat” and love of Spartacus that Karl Marx had that so many Eastern European and Russian sports teams are named after Spartacus. For instance, there are four soccer clubs, a tennis club, and an ice hockey team named Spartacus in Russia alone! There are also teams sharing this name in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, and even in Kazakhstan.
The show was filmed in New Zealand
Many of us remember the show Spartacus, which aired on the Starz network between 2010 and 2013. But did you know that the entirety of the show, which tells the story of a group of slaves based in Italy, was actually filmed in New Zealand? Just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy! One of the main reasons for this is believed to be due to the fact that the taxes in New Zealand for movie production are super low.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the hit show Spartacus on Starz was the fact that the same actor did not play Spartacus for the entirety of the short series. Actor Andy Whitfield, shown here on the left, played the role of Spartacus in season one, while Liam McIntyre (on the right) took on the role for seasons two and three. The switch was due to Whitfield unfortunately succumbing to cancer before the series could be finished.
A good run
One of the things that we think is really interesting about the show Spartacus is the fact that it only lasted three years – the same amount of time that the actual Third Servile War lasted. The show’s seasons all did a fantastic job of explaining what was going on in each year of the revolt, from the humble beginnings of the rebellion in year one to striking fear in the hearts of the Roman elite in season two, and finally, to the defeat of the rebellion in season three.
The show Spartacus was such a sensation that cable companies all over the world bought the rights to reproduce it, making the show as well as the story one of the more resonating tales of our time (despite the fact that the events portrayed took place more than 2,000 years ago!). Television stations in Hungary, Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland, Italy, Pakistan, India, and little Slovenia picked the series up! We’re guessing that it was all the entertaining storylines, epic battles and bare skin than made it into must-see TV.
Gladiators did not just fight against other gladiators, but sometimes fought against wild beasts. They would be put in the ring and forced to fight against such ferocious animals such as lions, tigers, hyenas, gorillas, bears, elephants, and all other sorts of animals. This was also a form of corporal punishment, where criminals and early Christians were thrown into the ring against theses ferocious beasts for the pleasure of the citizens.