Spartacus and the Slave Wars

Although some Romans argued that slaves should be treated better it was extremely rare for anyone to challenge the right to own slaves. Romans believed that, as most slaves had originally been defeated soldiers, they should be grateful they had been allowed to live. This was the reason that slaves became known as the "living dead".

Slaves were seen by the Romans as a subhuman species and therefore could be treated as badly as their owners wished. After all, it was claimed, you cannot tell people what to do with their own property.

Slaves made valiant attempts to fight back. They used a variety of tactics to undermine the system of slavery. This included working as slowly as possible, breaking tools, self-mutilation and in some cases, suicide.

There were also instances of slaves killing their masters. To stop this happening, a law was passed stating that if a slave murdered his or her master, all the slaves in the household would be killed.

There were also several slave revolts. The most famous of these was led by a slave called Spartacus. He was a shepherd from Thrace who had been captured by the Romans and sent to Capua to become a gladiator. In 73 BC Spartacus and eighty companions escaped from the gladiatorial school. The group then ambushed a convoy of carts taking weapons to another town.

When other slaves in the area heard about the success of the revolt, they ran away from their masters and joined Spartacus' campaign for freedom. During the next two years Spartacus' slave army defeated four Roman armies. After two years Spartacus' army numbered 90,000 men and controlled most of southern Italy. However, they were unable to break out of Italy and reach their homelands.

In 71 BC the Roman senate sent a large army to deal with Spartacus. Outnumbered, Spartacus' army was defeated at a place called Apulia. The 6,000 slaves who were taken prisoner were crucified along the Appian Way (the main road into Rome). Their bodies were left to hang on the crosses for several months as a warning to other slaves who might consider the possibility of rebelling against their Roman masters.

Primary Sources

(1) Pliny the Elder describes an incident that took place when Augustus visited the house of Vedius Pollio for dinner. (c. AD 75)

One of the slaves had broken a crystal cup. Vedius ordered his arrest and condemned him to a novel death, to be thrown to the gigantic lampreys he kept in his fishpond.

(2) Diodorus, Historical Library (c. 60 BC)

The Slave War broke out from the following cause. The Sicilians, being very rich and elegant in their manner of living, purchased large numbers of slaves. They... branded them with marks on their bodies...

on account of the immense wealth of those exploiting this rich island, practically all the very wealthy revelled in luxury... the hatred of the slaves burst forth one day... without pre-arrangement, many thousands quickly gathered together to destroy their masters.

1. Why did the Romans crucify 6,000 of Spartacus' army on the Appian Way?

2. How do the sources in this unit help to explain why slave revolts like the one led by Spartacus took place?