Summer – autumn 73 BCE

The slave revolt in southern Italy that began in 73 BCE resulted in humiliating defeats for the legions of the Roman army sent to suppress it. The principal slave leader (there were a number) was a tall, fit Thracian gladiator from what is today Bulgaria, known as Spartacus – a Latin version of his Thracian name Sparadakos, meaning ‘famous for his spear’. When he escaped from captivity with a band of seventy-three gladiators, a mix of Thracian, German and Celtic fighters, he had little chance of defeating a Roman force in open battle. Spartacus and his improvised army relied on stealth, surviving, as gladiators had to do in the arena, on strength and guile.

Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy overlooks the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii. The slave rebels led by Spartacus were blockaded here until they used vine-ropes to climb down the steep side and surprise the Roman camp at night.

The historical record on the Spartacus revolt and its key battles is sparse, but enough is known to reconstruct something of the remarkable year in which the runaway slaves inflicted a series of defeats on the armies sent to crush them. Spartacus had once been trained to fight as a Roman soldier. Why he was subsequently made a captive and forced to fight in the arena as a heavily armed gladiator (named after the short Roman sword, or gladius, that they used) is not known. At some point in 73 BCE, he and around 200 fellow captives decided to escape from the gladiators’ enclosure in the southern city of Capua. Fighting their way out, only seventy-four escaped, together with an unknown Thracian woman – the mistress of Spartacus and a devotee of the Greek god Dionysus, deity of wine and the dance, who is alleged to have given the gladiators the god’s blessing.

The band moved south, destroying a small detachment of men sent from Capua to recapture them. Thirty kilometres (20 miles) away they arrived at Mount Vesuvius, then thought to be extinct, and climbed it to camp in its broad dormant crater. How many slaves joined the march south is not known. Roman writers speculated that there were 10,000, later 20,000, but at this point it seems unlikely that there were more than one or two thousand, using their new-found freedom to rampage through the countryside. A slave revolt was regarded in Rome as a police matter – a tumultus or ‘commotion’ that had to be quickly snuffed out using what men were available. Since Rome’s best armies were on distant battlefields in Spain, the Balkans and Turkey fighting wars of pacification, one of the eight Roman praetors (an elected office-holder, one rank down from the two consuls who conducted Rome’s affairs) named Caius Claudius Glaber was chosen to finish Spartacus off. He marched south with an estimated 3,000 foot soldiers, bearing in front the famous fasces – the bundle of rods tied round an axe, which signified life or death, later adopted by Mussolini’s fascist party. Glaber arrived at Vesuvius, camped at or near its foot and blockaded the slaves. The only narrow path down the side of the volcano was guarded. Glaber probably assumed that it was only a matter of time before hunger drove them down.

The slave band was led not only by Spartacus but by two Celts, Crixus and Oenomaus, who commanded the unknown number of Celts among the band. Like Thracians, Celts from all over Europe had a reputation as tough and brutal fighters: tall, tattoo-covered, bearded, they must have seemed both exotic and terrifying to the local population. The classical sources agree on what happened next, though the details are scrappy. The slaves weaved the wild vines growing on Vesuvius into ropes. They used the ropes to climb down the steepest and most difficult route on the far side, which the Romans regarded as impassable and had left unguarded. This subterfuge allowed them to arrive, probably at night (which Thracians preferred for ambushes), on the outskirts of the Roman camp. The sources vary on how the slaves approached the camp, but with the advantage of surprise and inherited woodcraft, it is likely that they silently killed off the sentries placed outside the stockades, before rushing forward to attack the soldiers sleeping in their rows of leather tents.

For the Roman militia collected by Glaber, the attack was unexpected. On the Roman frontier, surrounded by barbarian tribes, a sudden assault was routine. Here the frontier had been brought into the heart of the Roman countryside: an uncommon silence, followed by the ritual roars and shouts of the slave warriors as they burst into the enclosure. The camp was captured, an unknown number of Roman soldiers killed and the stocks and weapons plundered. Glaber, it seems, escaped, but his praetorian headquarters was in slave hands. The sources agree that now thousands more slaves, commonly used to farm the rich soil around Vesuvius, flocked to join Spartacus. News of Glaber’s humiliation reached Rome and two more praetors, Publius Varinius and Lucius Cossinius, were chosen to lead two entire legions (around 12,000 men) to avenge the defeat.

A nineteenth-century engraving made in 1882 by the German artist Hermann Vogel (1856–1918) depicts the death of Spartacus. The slave leader was finally defeated by Marcus Crassus in a battle on the banks of the River Sele, near the village of Quaglietta, in southern Italy.

The army made its way south in large cohorts, but separated from each other. The slaves ambushed the advance guard of Lucius Furius with 2,000 troops, killing Furius and annihilating his force. They then tracked Cossinius’s slow march south and chose their moment to ambush the second cohort. Cossinius was taking the waters in a villa at Salina, near Pompeii, when he and his guards were surprised by a slave attack. He fled back to his camp but was slaughtered along with many of his soldiers. Varinius, with a force now much reduced, met the same fate. He gathered together the remnants of the other armies and tried to bring the slaves to battle. The details of the final defeat are not known, but an army of perhaps 40,000 slaves seized his camp, slaughtered his forces and captured his standards and fasces, though he himself seems to have escaped.

In six months of fighting around Vesuvius and the rich countryside of Campania, four Roman armies had been annihilated by European slaves who had fewer arms and little training but a great deal of brutal cunning. In the end the revolt failed. In 71 BCE, after long marches up and then down the Italian peninsula, Spartacus and some 40,000 slave warriors were defeated not far from the sites of his original victories. He died fighting with a raw courage under a hail of blows and javelins. The few survivors were crucified and left to rot alongside the Appian Way to Rome. The revolt lived on to become a symbol for Marxist revolutionaries, centuries later, of an ancient class struggle, slave against master, the ancestor of their struggle for proletarian emancipation.