By the time of Spartacus’s revolt in 73BC, Rome was already the center of the universe, with almost 2 million slaves imported from conquered lands and made to shed their sweat, in order to support the lavish lifestyles of Roman citizens.
One soul in every three on the Italian mainland was a slave, a commodity that was now a life-blood to Rome’s economic prosperity. Imagine a General Motors churning out cars built with zero labor cost and employees you could just line up and execute with a bullet in the head, if they stepped out of line. Hey, ancient Rome must have been every employer’s wet dream.
Every household, even middle class homes, had two distinct sections – one, in which the members of the household lived in extreme comfort and the other, a warren of tightly packed little dungeons below ground level, where the slaves lived, when they were not being made to toil above ground, either in the master’s household or out in his fields. If you think of the living conditions inside the Bergen Belsen Nazi Concentration Camp and multiply the hardships by a factor of ten and you’ll be close, to what slaves in ancient Rome had to face.
A typical home in downtown Rome that was excavated recently, had living quarters for slaves that consisted of 200 single-bed sized cubbyholes in it`s basement with a ceiling that a guy grazed with his head when he was seated. Considering historical accounts that spoke of two slaves per cubbyhole, that mansion must have had 400 slaves living underground.
The master-slave relationship was an uneasy one. For the slaves, life had grown infinitely more harsh after the first and second Sicilian revolts (ie: the first two servile wars). They lived every moment in terror, of being flogged or starved if the master was feeling kind and crucified if it was just another day, for even the tiniest of infractions. There were no qualms. Barbarians in the far reaches, were doing exactly the same thing to Roman citizens, when caught.
The moment a slave was found to be ill or otherwise unable to carry out his duties, he was put to death. Slavery had already been two thousand years old by the time that the Almighty decided to send down a series of messiahs who were singularly typical in one thing – they liked to leave behind a job half done.
Actually two things. The other is obvious – incompetence. I mean, have these messiahs, these so-called deliverers, made any difference at all? Perhaps they have actually worsened matters, with the institutionalizing of organized religions that actually advocate slaughter in his name. And I am not referring only to Islam. Take a good look at the photo below…..
American soldiers praying before ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – What must they be praying for? Lord, may you give me the strength to kick Iraqi butt. May Blackwater slaughter innocents, the younger the better. May our colleagues at Abu Ghraib torture and humiliate Iraqi prisoners with the gayest of gay abandons. May you always find me a Quran to pee on, when I just have ta go take a leak (maybe even when I don’t, Lord).
When the Lord did deign to send down baby Jesus (along with a container-load of Frankincense and Myrrh, stuff that if you look for them in a grocery store, they’ll think you’re a retard), slavery was so well entrenched that it was simply too much, even for a member of the Holy Trinity. Frankly, that member should have stuck to what he did best – carpentry.
But then the Lord God has his moments, I guess, no?
And as for the slaves’ sadistic masters, the Romans, they slept an uneasy sleep, constantly having nightmares in which they saw those slaves in the rabbit warrens below overpowering the guards one night and sneaking up and slaughtering them, their wives and their children.
In the immediate aftermath of the kitchen revolt and breakout, word of Spartacus’s revolt must have spread like wild fire, carried across by wandering peasants and shepherds, about the rebellion and the rebels’ make-shift encampment inside the caldera of the dormant volcano, Vesuvius, which had overnight, turned into a beacon for all those who felt persecuted by Rome.
All of a sudden, freedom, a concept that had been only a myth to the wretched, began to seem like a doable thing. The idea that they could throw down their timber loads and their hoes and shovels and begin to live as they pleased, without the fear of being beaten into submission, sexually abused or crucified, must have made them feel the same way as Jewish concentration camp survivors felt on being liberated at the end of the Second World War.
At the foot of the Vesuvius lay Rome’s soft under-belly, Pompeii, a city notorious for it’s self-indulgence, it’s citizens the most enthusiastic spectators of the bloodbath that was otherwise known as the gladiatorial games or the munera. The munera in Pompeii looked like an early version of today`s Saturday show `Hockey night in Canada`, ice-hockey being a sport that has a similar proportion of senseless violence.
Tonight the stands of Pompeii’s amphitheater would be thronged, but not by it’s citizens, in anticipation of another munera. They would be cowering in terror in their homes instead and the spectators on the stands would be the gladiator slaves. Tonight, the screams of ‘Moriatur! Moriatur!’ would be theirs.
There were no regular Roman army units nearby, only a contingent 3,000 ill-trained rookie militiamen under the command of a Praetor (a rank similar to a Lt. Colonel), Gaius Claudius Glaber, that was stationed nearby. Untested in any kind of battle, Glaber’s militia was meant only for quelling riots or sudden spates of robberies from wandering aliens. The nearest legion of the regular army, was at least a day’s march away. A legion was a unit of around 5000 men, much like a brigade in a modern army. While a brigade is led by a one-star general or brigadier, a legion was commanded by a proconsul.
Glaber thought he would starve the slaves out. He laid siege at the base of the Vesuvius, blocking what he thought was the only path that led down from the mountain, which was otherwise hemmed in by sheer cliffs of pumice. His men pitched tents, started bonfires and hunkered down, not the least bit worried about being attacked by a ragtag bunch such as this.
It is said that a man is capable of superhuman feats if he finds his back against the wall and so it was with Spartacus and his band. Not willing to be besieged, he ordered his men to hack down the abundant vines that were hanging over the precipices and fashion them into crude ladders that could be used to shiny down the steep mountain, on the side of the Vesuvius that was opposite to where Glaber’s militia were bivouacked.
Many of Sparty’s men died in the process of securing the vines, some of which gave under the load, but most managed to climb down to the foot of the mountain, where they waited till dusk fell. Then, as the moon slipped behind a bank of cumulus clouds that had just rolled in and blotted out the sky, the slaves fell upon the few sentries Glaber had bothered to post.
Soon, the gladiators were slashing their way through the slumbering Roman camp, seizing all the arms and armor that they could lay their hands on. The rout of Glaber’s militia was total. History hasn’t recorded what fate Glaber met, though it seems most likely that his body did undergo a certain amount of disassembly.
The Third Servile War was on.
First came the immediate reaction in Rome to the revolt. In spite of similar mass uprisings just a generation earlier, it still took the Roman establishment by complete surprise. Why, I fail to understand, given that there had already been two earlier equally massive revolts. Knowing full well that gladiators are essentially fighting machines, they should have been better secured.
That’s who we are though. Throughout history, when the crunch has come, we were never prepared. Pearl Harbor, Sept 11, 2001 (that is, if you wish to close your mind to the gradually strengthening possibility that it was actually an inside job), Kargill, D-Day, India`s 26/11, you name it, they were all sudden attacks that were clearly foreseeable but weren`t anticipated.
Then came the knee-jerk reaction. Rome reacted to the rebellion in much the same manner in which most large governments mobilise – with lethargy and denial, that a rag-tag army could be a threat. To the Romans, with their superior military training and weaponry, Sparty seemed like a pushover.
However, when the news of the massacre of Glaber`s militia trickled in, the Roman Senate wizened up. Retaliation was massive, in the same scale in which Vladimir Putin threw his brigades at Grozny in 2000. Two more legions of militiamen, these more experienced in combat than Glaber’s men had been, were despatched under the command of the Praetor, Publius Varinius, to nab the insurgents.
The slaves now had bands of shepherds and farmers who knew the lay of the land more intimately than did the Roman legions. This time Spartacus was waiting, able to track the Roman troop movements from his vantage point on top of the Vesuvius. Not only that, his men now outnumbered the Roman legions 7 to 1. The rout was, once again, complete.
According to Plutarch, when Varinius approached the Vesuvius, he found, not a ragtag bunch, but a well-equipped slave army in full battle formation. Albeit, Sparty had a core group of about a couple of hundred hardened gladiators, but it is still difficult to accept that they could turn thousands of farmhands, cooks, cleaners, shepherds, domestic help and quarry labor into a professional fighting force overnight. This seems more like an awe-struck historian letting his imagination run wild.
But Sparty and his men kicked ass, of that there is little doubt.
The first Roman to die was the man carrying the fasce, a symbolic contraption that the Roman armies always took into battle. It was an battle axe that was bound tightly with a bundle of wooden rods, meant to serve a sign of Roman authority. Spartacus snatched the fasce from the dying man’s hands and smashed it, a symbolic action that had a profound demoralising effect on the Roman legionaries.
Mass desertions followed. Julius Caesar’s favorite line might have been, ‘Veni, vidi, vici’. The only quote heard over and over that afternoon at the foot of the Vesuvius must have been,’ Veni, vidi, spliti’ (I came, I saw, I split).
Spartacus was on a roll now, though he realized that up until now he and his men had been lucky. They had bested many Roman militia units but hadn’t yet faced up against the real battle-hardened legions. The Thracian suggested to his Gallic partner, Crixus, that they should get the hell out of Italy, while the going was good. They could make a lunge north, for the Alps and beyond and then maybe head for Asia Minor, a region that began in present-day Turkey in the west, to the Caspian Sea in the east. They had heard of a great empire there that stretched even further east, upto present-day Afghanistan, that was known as the Parthian Empire. Caravans passing through had spoken of their ruler, Mithridates Callinicus, who would be sympathetic to their struggle since he was himself battling the Romans.
This is the point at which the revolt began unraveling.
Even though they were all in this together, the slave army had two distinct components – the Thracians (present-day Eastern Macedonians, Bulgarians and Romanians) under Spartacus and the Gauls (men from a region that encompassed present-day France, Northern Italy, Belgium and Netherlands), under Crixus. The Germanics too saw themselves as more Gaul than Thracian. Ethnicity mattered.
Crixus had tasted blood and he loved the taste. Filled with bravado over the recent victories over the Roman militia, he insisted on sticking around and going on a nation-wide rampage, plundering villages and towns, hoping to finally reach Rome and topple the Roman Senate itself. He broke off with 30,000 Gallic men and first headed south toward the heel of the Italian peninsula, merrily plundering and exacting taxes and levies on their way.
At this point the winter of 73 BC set in and hostilities had to cease while all sides went looking for shelter, so they could hole up till spring.
The spring of 72 BC spelt the doom for Crixus and his men. No longer considering the gladiator uprising as a mere crime wave, the Roman senate now raised four fresh legions commanded by two experienced consuls. (Consuls were elected politicians who were like senators in peace time and generals in war time). The two consuls split up and one of them, Lucius Gellius, went after Crixus whom he cornered on the Adriatic coast. Crixus was captured and executed, while his men slaughtered to the very last slave.
Oh yeah, wars those days had one simple ideology – while quelling an uprising of slaves, take no prisoners. A mass execution of maybe 6-7000 survivors must have taken a while as it had to be done by hand, the weapon of choice probably a heavy axe that I wouldn`t even be able to lift with both my hands. ( Thank God the Romans didn`t get the chance to conquer Bengal. 😀 )
The other consul, Gnaeus Lentulus, went after Spartacus and his men who were headed for the Alps to the north. Spartacus had made good use of his winter respite while camped in Felsina (present-day Bologna). His men spent the time scouring the area, raiding estates and towns, gathering supplies and feedstock, particularly horses. The slave leader hoped to build and train a cavalry unit for his march through the Alps to freedom. As he stormed more and more towns, his numbers grew as newly released slaves joined up. Soon they were 100,000 strong. As to how he managed to maintain order and even train those who hadn`t fought before, is a mystery though.
That’s ancient history – conjecture and dependence on windbags like Plutarch.
(to be continued….)