Smarty Sparty (Final Part) – ‘Spartacus Spring’ passes into history


I thought you might like to know where and when shit happened and so this marked-up map 

Right, we are now in the spring of 72 BC. No one has the time to celebrate Groundhog Day over here, I can tell you that. Hibernation and sundry plunders over, the slave army trekked northward, pursued by the two consuls and their legions, Gellius now having joined up with Lentulus, after destroying Sparty’s comrade-in-arms, Crixus and his critters.

In three separate engagements, Spartacus defeated both consuls. I am not sure where Crixus had his ass licked and therefore haven’t put a marker in the map above. But you’ll understand. Who gives a crap where Crixus got his fixus? He was just a dumb bastard who got what was coming to him.

What we do know is that in olden times, an eye for an eye was a mild form of vengeance, reserved only for wimps. The 100 BC male in Rome tried his best not to appear a wimp since it could get him killed or buggered. Vengeance was more like a testicle for a testicle. Spartacus was not a great pal of Crixus’s, given that Crixus had split with a sizeable segment of his army.

But then, at some point Sparty must have felt like a mushy Rajendra Kumar to Crixus’s Raj Kapoor and begun a Thracian version of ‘dost dost na raha, pyar pyar na raha’. To exact retribution for the killing of Crixus, Spartacus put to the sword 300 legionaries and had another 300 fight each other to death as gladiators. Hey, even vengeance could be made a fun thing, no?

Further north, at Mutina (present-day Modena) in the Cisalpine Gaul region of northern Italy, where the Italian peninsula joins the European landmass, just a day’s march from the Alps and freedom, the Roman governor, Gaius Cassius, tried to block the slaves’ passage with an army of 10,000 men.

In yet another brilliant piece of military planning, Spartacus’s men struck at the center of Cassius’s army, slaughtering the legionaries in bloody close-quarter hand-to-hand combat. You could smell the stench of their sweat and the garlic in their breath as you ran your sword through their jugulars and their warm blood spurted onto your face. Cassius’s army literally ceased to exist.

Cassius managed to escape however. He had a chopper ready and he was lucky the slaves had run out of ammo for their shoulder-fired RPGs. But seriously, a fast Arabian horse named Golgotha that Cassius had bred specifically for such an eventuality carried him to safety (just as Martin Bormann had done, having a Fiesler Storch ready, engine idling, inside a large shed at the end of Tiergarten, Berlin, on April 30th, 1945).


While Cassius managed to get away, his more illustrious son, Gaius Cassius Longinus, the brain behind the assassination of Julius Caesar three decades later, did not.

At the Battle of Phillipi, against the forces of Mark Anthony and Octavian (later to become Emperor Augustus), Cassius Jr. committed suicide by commanding his major-domo, a freed slave named Pindarus, to run him through with his sword, mistakenly thinking that the battle was lost, when in fact, his comrade-in-arms, Marcus Junius Brutus, had defeated Octavian in a separate skirmish at another place and he had misunderstood the courier who came to give him the message.

I guess what Cass really missed having was a satellite phone, no?

JULIUS CAESAR, from left: John Gielgud, Michael Ansara, 1953

Cassius Jr. handing Pindarus his sword to run him through. Old Cass must have writhed around in agony for twennie minutes before he finally gave up the ghost. What a perfectly horrible way to choose to die. Boy, aren’t we glad to have dear friends like Smith and Wesson today? One touch of the trigger and blam, you’re history. (Photo shows Sir John Gielgud as Cassius (left) and Michael Ansara as Pindarus (right). Sir John is looking at Ansara uneasily, like he’s saying, ‘watch it, ars—le, this is just a movie’)


With Cassius’s army demolished, the way to freedom over the Alps now lay clear. This was the moment for which Spartacus and his men had fought so hard.

Heading for the hills is what would have dawned on 50,767,291 people, assuming that the population of the world then was 50,767,292. Inexplicably, it didn’t for one man – Spartacus. He chose to turn south and lead his slaves back into Italy.

No one knows exactly why Sparty did what he did. Perhaps some of his fellow gladiators missed all the looting and wanted some more, just like Crixus had. Besides, the world beyond was where the barbarian tribes roamed, outside the safety and discipline of the Roman Empire and the slaves didn’t want to have to fight their way through hordes who knew absolutely no discipline and didn’t have a method to their madness.

Then again, maybe Spartacus feared that if he refused to go along with the slaves’ desire to do a little more plundering, there would be a further division of his force and that would be disastrous if the pursuing Roman legions caught up and forced them into battle.

He may have even entertained a far grander idea, as the historian, Plutarch, likes to believe – taking charge in Rome and doing the right thing, abolishing slavery.

Whatever the reason, he led his hordes back south, into the thick of it, once again into the lion’s mouth.

Meanwhile, with the loss of multiple legions, Rome was reeling. The gladiators were now 120,000 strong. The city of Rome itself was short of available battle-ready troops and able commanders. The most experienced generals, Quintus Metellus and Gnaeus Pompeus Magnus (otherwise known in history books as Pompey the Great, the other member of the future Triumvirate), were out quelling rebellions in Spain, while another general, Lucius Lucullus had his hands full in Asia Minor, fighting the Parthians.

Other consuls and generals shied away from accepting the challenge with excuses like `my mom-in-law is unwell` or `my richard got the clap in Antioch` or simply `f–k you, I`m just back from Germania and have a month of orgies lined up. I have to hang up now’ or ‘my shipment of nymphs just arrived. What, baby? Hey, anybody here speak Eejipshun? I need ta know what this broad is talkin’ about.`

Only poorly trained rookies were available, for the defense of Rome.

At this point, fate, in the form of raw ambition, stepped up to the plate. The Senator, Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the three future members of the Triumvirate and the richest man in Rome, offered to take charge of the final Roman response to the revolt. A multi-millionaire land developer and con-man, Crassus had built his fortune through astute real estate deals.

More importantly, Crassus had gained valuable experience while serving under the command of the legendary Roman general, Sulla(deceased). Crassus was an ambitious man and he understood that in Rome, one currency mattered more than gold – a CV that bulged with military conquests. Conquer and annex more than anybody else and you could get a crack at being Emperor, a position which Crassus had his eyes on.

Crassus inherited the remnants of Publius Varinius’s legions that had fled the battlefield in their earlier disastrous engagement with the gladiators. In addition, he paid for the raising of six new legions with funds from his own personal coffers.

From this point their fortunes were locked together, the gladiator against the general, the slave against the master, the poor against the rich.


News then reached the Romans that Spartacus was marching through Picenum, along Italy’s central Adriatic coast. Crassus ordered his lieutenant Mummius to lead four of the new legions in a circle behind the slave ‘rabble’. Mummius’s orders were not to engage but to just encircle and wait.

In battle, especially in the days when the only way to communicate was through couriers and runners, the man on the ground had to make choices and something must have made Mummius choose to attack the gladiators from the rear. Maybe he thought that he would have the advantage of surprise. In the ensuing melee, Mimmius was killed, along with hundreds of his men. The rest, around 20000, broke rank and fled.

Crassus was livid with anger. Assembling the shattered remains of Mummius’ legions, he ordered them to be divided into fifty groups of ten each. Lots were drawn in each group and one unlucky soldier was drawn, for execution. This one-in-ten process of execution was how the word ‘decimation’ came into being, the punishment killing of every tenth man in the brigade.

Decimation had been an ancient Roman custom for centuries prior, but never really practiced. Till Crassus chose to restart it. Since Mummius is reported to have started with 30000 men, of whom 20000 remained alive, that would mean that 2000 were executed by the ‘decimation’ process. Those 2000 were beaten to death by a special goon squad that Crassus kept handy, while the entire army was forced to witness the executions, as a warning to anyone who was thinking of desertion.

Imagine the leeway that military commanders had those days, in delivering summary punishment. If the ‘decimation’ tradition had been carried on to say, the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the 58,300 American KIAs would probably have been 1,000,000.

With eight new legions under his command, Crassus pursued Spartacus south, through the constricted neck of the Bruttium peninsula at the toe of the Italy, finally reaching the coastal city of Rhegium at the Strait of Messina. Sicily being the fertile bread basket for Rome’s food grain requirements, Sparty’s objective became – to make Sicily his rebel stronghold and cut off Rome’s food supply and harass merchant shipping that tried to ply between North Africa and the Italian mainland.

In order to make this dream happen, Sparty needed  to get his men across the Messina Strait into Sicily and that required ships – from the Celician pirates. He had managed to contact the pirates, paying them handsomely from the gold looted from countless estates, to meet his men at a designated rendezvous point and ferry his entire army across to Syracuse, in Sicily. He thought that the Sicilians and the pirates would be happy to see him. He was wrong.

The pirates had no plans of providing Spartacus with any support whatsoever. Not wanting to tick the Romans off unnecessarily and also not wanting to play host to a bunch of aliens who would probably be whole load of trouble, they accepted Spartacus’s payment but failed to take their fleet to the agreed rendezvous. The slave army found itself left high and dry on the Bruttium peninsula.

Crassus quickly realized he had the slaves trapped. Rather than face them in a pitched battle, he ordered his legions to construct a wall across the narrowest segment of the Bruttium peninsula, where it was just 32 kms across, in order to hem in the slaves and starve them into submission. His legionaries excavated a ditch 15 feet deep and wide across the peninsula and fashioned a wood and stone wall along one edge of the ditch. Now we all know that the Romans were masters at building walls. Remember Hadrian’s Wall, built across a similarly constricted section of the British Isles, by the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, a two centuries later?

Spartacus desperately searched for some other means to transport his army but could not find one. With winter setting in and supplies running low, he determined his only recourse was to smash through Crassus’s Wall and head north again. The Thracian waited for a snowy night and a wintry storm, when he filled up a small portion of the ditch with earth and timber and then battered his way through.

With the rebel army once again swarming toward Lucania, Rome panicked. The senate authorized the return of Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from Parthia, to bolster the Crassus’s legions. Crassus saw Pompey and Lucullus as his rivals. He feared that after all the effort that he had put in so far, the glory of prevailing over the army of slaves would be won by those two.

Crassus decided to step up his campaign a notch or two and at the same time, he got lucky. Two more Gauls – Ganicus and Cestus, broke away from the main rebel army, to plunder more villages and estates, taking with them 30000 men. They didn’t go far, however. Encamped at the Lucanian Lake, this splinter group was ambushed and destroyed by Crassus and his legions.

The Romans were now in hot pursuit. With the legions of his political rivals rapidly approaching, Crassus was determined to bring Spartacus to a decisive battle. His legions hounded the gladiators as they fled northward toward Apulia, a region that forms the ankle of Italy. When word reached him that Lucullus had landed at Brundisium and was marching inland, Crassus knew he had the Thracian at his mercy.

At Apulia, Spartacus now found himself trapped between the two armies – Crassus’s to the north and Lucullus’s, to the south, with the legions of Pompey still somewhere in the north, on their way. He began gathering his forces to face Crassus, who happened to be the closest. In order to send a message to his desperados, Spartacus commanded that his horse be brought to him. Drawing his sword, the slave leader stabbed the animal to show his men that, here on, there would be no retreat, just victory or death.

Sweeping forward in a wave of humanity, the slaves sought to overwhelm the Romans by sheer numbers. Sighting Crassus through the confusion, Spartacus fought to reach the Roman general. With weapons flying around him, the Thracian nearly reached his goal, slaying two centurions in individual combat before being surrounded by the enemy. Although he was seriously wounded, Sparty continued to wield his spear and shield until the Romans swarmed all over him and captured him alive.

Seeing their leader, Spartacus, now in the hands of the Romans with little hope of being spared, the surviving rebels, all 6000 of them, tried to make a dash for it into the hills but couldn’t make it. They were captured and along with Sparty, crucified by Crassus’s men, along the Appian Way that lead from Capua to Rome, as a warning to all those who might think of rebellion.  A crucifixion can be a very slow and painful death and at the same time, an excellent method of making an example of the perp.

The Roman victory was complete. Almost the entire slave army was annihilated, while a few thousands managed to blend into the nearby hills, but only for a short while. Although Crassus was accorded the victory, his own decimated legions were unable to track down all the fugitives. That dubious honor fell to Pompey, who had just then arrived on the scene. Pompey finished what Crassus had begun. More roadside crucifixions followed. Two-by-fours must have been flying off the shelves here.

The Spartacus rebellion was not the last slave insurrection, though it was by far the most written about. During the reign of Nero (54-68 AD), there was a major slave uprising that was quickly brought under control before it got out of hand. As always, this time too, the rebels were caught and given the choice of fighting in the arena – inside cages with deliberately starved lions. They were torn apart, alive, and eaten.

‘Spartacus Spring’ passed into history, one more bloody flagstone in the chronicles of oppression.


2 thoughts on “Smarty Sparty (Final Part) – ‘Spartacus Spring’ passes into history”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    Great entertaining and very informative story, Achyut! 🙂


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