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Who was Spartacus? A Guide for Primary and Secondary schools

Spartacus as portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the 1960 film.

Who was Spartacus?

Weeeeeeeell, the thing is, despite the title of this blog, we don’t really know! And that’s because historians don’t really know much about Spartacus the person. We have historical sources that tell us Spartacus was born around 103 BC, near the Strymon River. These same sources tell us he was a slave in the Roman Empire and went on to become a Gladiator, fighting as a Murmillo in the arena. But that’s about it! We can’t even be sure that his name was Spartacus. It could have been Dave or something.

I reckon ‘Or Something’ would be a great name. First name ‘Or’, last name ‘something’.

………… Okay.

So, anyway *cough* if we know so little about Spartacus, why do people still know about him today?

That’s because, whilst we don’t know a lot about Spartacus, we know a lot about his actions. Spartacus led an army of slaves that almost destroyed the Roman Empire!

Whoa! Really?!

Yes really.


Exactly. Spartacus was trained as a Gladiator in a Ludos (a bit like a Gladiator school), owned and run by the groovily named Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Vatia. In 73 BC, Spartacus and another 70 slaves plotted to break out of the Ludos. In order to prevent these sorts of daring escapes, Gladiators were not allowed access to any weapons in the Ludos. That didn’t bother Spartacus and his gang though, who grabbed a bunch of kitchen utensils, and proceeded to spoon, spatula, and ladle their way to freedom.

Spartacus and friends charge into battle in the 2010 TV show.

What did the Romans do about the escape?

Not a lot. The Roman Legions were districted fighting in a variety of other wars, so they sent a smaller force of militia to defeat Spartacus. Led by praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, the Romans laid siege to the ex-gladiators who were taking refuge on top of Mount Vesuvius. Gaius had a simple plan, to prevent Spartacus and his friends from leaving the mountain and so starve them to death. The thing is, Gaius didn’t reckon on Sparty and chums being ninja action heroes. But they were. The Gladiators clambered down the mountain on ladders made from vines to strike the Romans from behind. Pretty much all of the Romans were killed in this daring attack.

What happened next?

Well, things were going super great for the Spartinator. He defeated a second Roman force sent to defeat him without hardly breaking a sweat. After this impressive success, loads of slaves escaped to join Spartacus. At its peak, Spartacus’ slave army had something like 70,000 soldiers. Spartacus clearly knew what he was doing, he and his Slave Army even vanquished the combined might of two Roman Legions in 72 BC. Even with their battle formations and artillery, the Romans didn't stand a chance. The Slave Army was clearly well-trained and delighted in whupping Roman butts.

The Slave Army were well trained. An images from the Starz 2010 TV show 'Spartacus'.

The Romans must not have liked that, I have it on good authority that they were not one to take a good butt-whupping sitting down. Mostly because their bums would be sore.

Right, the Romans finally recognised the threat the Slave Army posed. Spartacus and his pals were rampaging across Italy, raiding towns and villages and just generally being loud and obnoxious. With two Legions already defeated, the Romans had to stop The Slave Army or risk the whole of Italy falling apart. Ultimately, the Senate instructed Marcus Licinius Crassus (the richest dude in Rome) to lead an army of 40,000 Roman Legionnaires to destroy Spartacus once and for all.

This is getting very exciting!

For months, Spartacus and Crassus were engaged in skirmishes and battles, chasing each other all over the place, like an epic game of tag that involved 130,000 people. The Slave Army tried to escape to Sicily but Crassus blocked their path. Then Spartacus and co teamed up with some pirates to sail to Sicily but were betrayed and dobbed into the Romans at the last moment by the cheeky eye-patch-wearing peg-leg swingers. With no way to leave, the Slave Army turned to face the Roman Legions in a dramatic final battle.

The Death of Spartacus by Hermann Vogel.

What happened?!

Despite giving it a good go, the Slave Army was defeated and most were killed. Spartacus’ slave rebellion was over.

Oh no! What a bummer of an ending. What happened to Spartacus?

No-one knows. Did he escape? Was he killed in the battle? What I can tell you is this: Spartacus’ name and deeds have lived on for over two thousand years.

The slave who almost brought down the might of the Roman Empire… what a story!


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