By the 1st century BC, the gladiatorial games were becoming more and more common as a form of entertainment (and mob distraction). As the political system of the Republic unraveled in the late to mid 1st century, hosting gladiator games was a near essential way for politicians to gain enough popularity for election. With the mass influx of slaves from provincial conquests, the numbers of these combatants soared. It was typical for large schools to house many gladiators either in training or for permanent residence. One such school in Capua became the scene of one of the most potent slave revolts in history.
Spartacus was one of the residents of Capua in 73 BC. He was originally speculated by the historian Appian to be a free born Thracian who had served as a Roman auxiliary. There are some who suggest he even may have been a citizen legionary but this seems unlikely. It may be that he was sold into slavery as punishment for desertion from his unit. Another possibility was that he was a native Thracian fighting against the Roman invaders and made a slave after having been defeated in battle. Regardless, according to Plutarch, he was purchased by a Lentulus Batiatus, the owner of a gladiatorial school. As a soldier, Spartacus would've possessed several traits making him desirable for gladiatorial combat.
Despite the popular conceptions of Spartacus as some sort of anti slavery hero, the reasons for the revolt of 73 BC are unclear. All that is known is that he, a Gallic and Germanic slave, Crixus and Oenomaus, led a revolt of the entire school. 74 gladiators seized kitchen knives and tools and broke free, killing the guards to win their freedom and gathering weapons and armor from the school stores. They set out immediately looting whatever they could from the local countryside and their reputation spread quickly. Farm and heavy labor slaves from all over the region abandoned their own masters and joined the rebel band. Within a short time, Spartacus' army of slaves seized Mt. Vesuvius and their numbers swelled into the tens of thousands.
The rebels plundered the surrounding areas and the spoils were equally divided among the participants. Encouraged by this early success, more slaves, freedmen and the disenfranchised joined the ranks. Rome responded slowly and inadequately, by sending a small and lightly trained force to deal with the gladiator problem. Two praetors, Varinius Glaber and Publius Valerius hastily recruited small units from local conscripts and didn't bother with proper training or equipment. To the Romans, Spartacus and his rebels were nothing more than an armed mob that could be easily put down by any show of force. No real concern was taken over their presence on Vesuvius.
When Glaber and Valerius approached, Spartacus duped the Romans and showed excellent military strategy. The Romans thought the rebels were trapped and were willing to hold them there without forcing the issue. Spartacus and his men scaled down the opposite side of the mountain, swept around and crushed the Roman Praetorian forces with ease. With the victory, hope for freedom and desire for plunder spread all over Italy. People by the thousands flocked once more to Spartacus. By the time of their next encounter with Roman troops, he had over 70,000 under his command.
Spartacus apparently wanted to lead his men across the Alps and out of Italy to avoid future confrontation. His subordinate, Crixus, encouraged by their victories, wished to stay and continue raiding, and the forces split into separate commands. Spartacus would spend the winter in Thurii, preparing weapons and armor, and gathering supplies for the coming Roman advances. The Senate wisely realized that this rebellion was not just a mere collection of fugitive slaves, but a fairly cohesive unit, inspired by freedom and the chance for plunder. In the coming year of 72 BC, the senate recognized Spartacus' rebellion as the 'Third Servile War' and prepared Consular armies to end it.
Did you know...?
Capua's foundation is attributed - according to Cato the Elder - to the Etruscans, and the date given as about 260 years before it was "taken" by Rome.