by Daniel Russ on October 19, 2011

Gladiators, Guy In White Is A Referee

In 72 BC one in three Romans was a slave. So roughly two million slaves attended to the needs of four million Romans. A slave was considered property. A slave’s life and well-being depended on the whims of the masters of the household. Slaves couldn’t own property or vote or testify in a courtroom. If a slave killed a master, then all the slaves in the household no matter the innocence or disposition, had to be slaughtered. The construction on the elliptical amphitheater in the center of Rome, the coliseum, had begun by 72 BC and a perfect storm of entertainment business and available gladiator assets created a new form of entertainment, and nurtured it. Prior to Rome, no urban area had exited with such a dense population. Consuls grew nervous when grain prices were high, or some civil disturbance occurred while Roman legions were deployed across the world to keep order. An uprising would be devastating and hard to stop. Like today, we distract the masses with infotainment, or worthless mind numbing controversies. So too, in Rome, “Bread and Circuses” became a way to keep the masses happy and for lack of a better term, distracted.


Slaves that were strong and very fit were forced to fight as gladiators. They weren’t just thrown together by the way. Gladiators were trained to fight at Capua and other training centers. It was a business. The


gladiators were rock stars in their days and though they each knew they were likely to die at the business end of an edged weapon, they still had fans and supporters. Graffiti in ancient Rome read: “All the girls love Paris”- at the time Paris was a gladiator. Spartacus was a Thracian who served in a Roman auxiliary and then went AWOL. Upon capture he was sold into slavery and sent to Capua to become a gladiator. Some think Spartacus was of Thracian royal blood, but he whatever his origins, he was charismatic and a good organizer. Apparently, in 83 AD, he led a revolt at Capua using weapons he fossicked together from the kitchen, knives, spits, whatever was made of metal and could be used to bludgeon or cut with was a weapon. After a furious battle he only made it out of the place with 70 gladiators. The idea that slaves might rebel was horrifying to the Roman upper classes. What took place over the next two years had terrified the Romans and put the Senate in high dudgeon. Most of the Roman Army was deployed to the fringes of the empire fighting barbarian tribes encroaching form the north, or the Parthians in Central Asia or Spanish tribes. Whatever troops could be assembled were auxiliaries, reserve troops composed of conquered peoples, or trainers or whomever owned weapons and was willing to fight. These were not the blooded troops in the field. So units sent to stop Spartacus were overwhelmed and dealt with quickly. Also they under estimated the ability of a few hundred well trained men to fight. As Spartacus moved, he freed slaves and other gladiators and grew his army. He robbed garrisons of weapons and replenished his spavined old kitchen knives with gladii and shields. Like a ball that gains momentum on the way down, Spartacus was able to cull together over time 70,000 to 100,000 slaves into an army.


Claudius sent 3,000 men to stop him just south of Mount Vesuvius. Spartacus and his men were caught on a steep hill by this half a legion of men assembled in front of it. So he told his men to make ropes out of the vines in the area and over night they secreted themselves off of the mountain and hid behind the Romans in the field of battle below the now abandoned redoubt. In the morning the Romans lined up in battle array and faced the hill. Behind them the slaves emerged from the wood line and made short work of Claudius’ troops.


This was a telling moment about Spartacus’ leadership. He was commanding a very diverse group of men: Spanish, African, Gallic, Germanic tribesmen. Yet he had unit cohesion and surprise and the discipline one might not expect from an untrained army. He also had the fury of thousands of men who had been suffering under the hands of the Romans for decades. Not two hundred years before, this same nightmare happened to Rome for the first time, when Hannibal Barca led tens of thousands of Carthaginian troops over the Alps and into Rome proper. There they stayed for twelve years and plundered the countryside before little by little Hannibal was forced off of the continent to meet his fate in North Africa in 202 BC at Zama.


Thusly, a series of cobbled together troop formations were all rolled up by the fast moving gladiatorial army.

Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives

Spartacus’ plan was to move up past Rome heading north through Alpine Gaul. There he would leave the Gauls and the Germans to disband and find their way back to their homes. As they headed north, Spartacus was able to hold together the coalition, but was surprised to see that the slave armies were enjoying the plundering part of the escape enough to want to stay and continue. Certainly after defeating one Roman legion after another they had no fear. Of course they didn’t know that these were weak, understrength and poorly led Legions. The slaves didn’t realize how good a real Roman Army could be. Crixus, the Gallic leader led a revolt inside a revolt and took 20,000 troops and left Spartacus. Immediately a Roman force attacked Crixus, but they held off the attack. This was followed closely by a heady alcohol fueled celebration. When the Romans counterattacked, the Gauls and their leaders were too drunk to defend themselves. The entire force was wiped out.


Spartacus turned south towards Rome. He feinted an attack to the city and moved past towards the heel of the boot of Italy. Close behind him, rich Crassus led four Roman Legions and stayed on Spartacus’ tail. The slaves fought well in early clashes and Crassus meant to make a point about winning, so he took a cohort that had fought badly and decimated them. Literally he took them, lined them up, and each tenth man had to be beaten to death or put to the sword by the other nine. So yes, the Romans were brutal extreme right wing nutcases when it came to rights and management. They were poor on “people” skills. Keep in mind that they ruled the world for 500 years.


Spartacus cut a deal with a group of pirates to meet him with a bevy of ships at the coastline and he would take his remaining troops to Sicily. Alas the pirates spoliated the plan by not showing up.


Crassus by them had four legions or 32,000 men and had them build a wall from the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic Sea, about 40 miles across. Crassus wanted to starve out Spartacus over the winter. But he then learned that Pompey had assembled a huge army and was headed that way to “help”. In a fight for glory, Crassus decided to move immediately. When it finally did happen, that the Romans had finally cornered this force, they set out to mundify the Roman landscape of them. Spartacus attacked near Brutium and managed to push through with 35,000 men.


Al of them were captured or killed. Enough were captured to crucify them 40 meters apart for 10 kilometers along the Appian Way.


Source: Wiki, History Channel, Oxford Companion To Military History


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