In 73 B.C., Spartacus began his slave revolt by leading about 70 men in an escape from school -- gladiator school, that is. A former soldier-turned-gladiator-turned rebel, his name became legendary for resisting the most powerful empire of his time. Though it probably wasn't his intention when he escaped, Spartacus led an army of tens of thousands of slaves across Italy.
The common thread of captivity bound Spartacus and his followers. The men who fought as gladiators were usually prisoners of war, slaves or convicted criminals. In other words, gladiators were not people whose lives were not highly valued, though they did represent a significant investment to their owners.
Gladiator combat was often a fight to the death. Sometimes, if a gladiator was merely wounded and unable to fight, members of the crowd would voice their opinions as to whether he should live or die. Thumbs up meant the fighter lived, and thumbs down meant "die." Though slaves, gladiators lived almost as professional athletes; they were in constant training, sometimes famous, and often travelling in troupes from one arena to the next. Some gladiators were born free but volunteered for the job in exchange for a lavish down payment they'd received from troupe owners, essentially selling themselves into a job where they gave up their lives. Whether they won or died, the earnings usually went to their owners [source: BBC].
Not long after his escape, Spartacus soon had 70,000 rebellious slaves in his army; some estimates put the number even higher. In fact, this was actually the third in a series of slave rebellions in Rome. At first, the escaped slaves were seen more as a crime wave than a rebellion. Spartacus intended to lead the slaves to freedom across the Alps, but Roman leaders sent troops after them -- these forces were sometimes hastily assembled militias. Practicing guerilla warfare, Spartacus and his army were able to win victories against the Romans. Soon, a larger Roman force led by Marcus Crassus blocked the route and forced Spartacus and the slave army south. It is assumed that they were probably looking for a way to connect with Sicily, the site of a previous slave rebellion.
Spartacus' men were not trained soldiers. Discipline and order broke down on the long marches, and men deserted and plundered the countryside. Eventually, in 71 B.C., the Roman army surrounded Spartacus' forces. In Plutarch's retelling of the story, one battle between the two forces saw 12,300 slaves killed with only two pierced in the back, denoting their willingness to go toe-to-toe against trained Roman soldiers [source: Plutarch]. Spartacus and most of his men were killed in the ensuing battles as the Third Servile War was put to an end. The Romans executed whatever rebel slaves they captured by crucifixion.
Unfortunately, our collective memory of Spartacus and his intentions remains fuzzy and open to interpretation since not much is known about his early life, and those who followed him were killed. That's where fiction has stepped in to fill many of the gaps.
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