The Real Spartacus

The following is an article from The Best of the Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

The true story of the slave who became the most feared man in the Roman Empire! A noble hero meets a black-hearted villain in battle! A rebel uprising! Romance, adventure, and a cast of thousands!


As the movie Spartacus opens, the hero is sweaty and bedraggled, breaking up rocks. The voice-over tells us that he is the son of a slave, sold into slavery when he was 13.

Not exactly. The real Spartacus was a tribal warrior from the ancient region of Thrace, which is now part of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. His tribe was probably conquered by the Roman army -history's a little unclear on this- because he became a Roman soldier. Then he deserted the army, was captured, was brought to Rome, and then was sold into slavery. The year: 73 B.C.


Unlike the movie, where Spartacus was a bachelor so he can fall in love with a beautiful slave girl, the real Spartacus was married by the time he became a slave. His wife, a priestess, was captured along with him. Legend has it that when they were together in the slave market, a snake coiled itself around Spartacus's face as he slept. His wife interpreted the snake as a lucky sign, an omen that her husband would become powerful. But soon afterward, both of them became the property of a man named Lentulus Batiates. Their new owner ran a gladiator school in Capua, near Mount Vesuvius.


Some of Spartacus's fellow students at the imperial gladiator school were prisoners of war from northern Europe, while others were convicted criminals whose lives were spared because they were tough enough to qualify for gladiator training. The "school" was actually a prison, with plenty of opportunity to fight with other "students." The men were taught how to handle the gladiatorial weapons: fishing spears, chains, swords, nets, and lassos.

All across Rome, gladiators were big-name celebrities. Wealthy citizens decorated the walls of their villas with portraits of the greatest gladiators. Teenagers swooned over their favorites the way they do over pop stars today. In the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists found love notes to gladiators that young girls had scribbled on public walls.

But Spartacus wasn't interested in fame. He reportedly told the others, "If we must fight, we might as well fight for freedom." One day they got their chance.


Spartacus' words inspired 200 of his fellow gladiators to stage a revolt. Using knives and skewers from the school's kitchen, they fought their way out. About 80 managed to escape, including Spartacus and his wife. And in a twist that sounds like an unbelievable movie plot, as the gladiators ran through Capua, they found carts full of gladiatorial weapons. The escapees swapped their kitchen tools for the real things and fled.

Once the rebels made it to the countryside, they selected Spartacus as their leader. His first order of business was to lead his troops against the soldiers who'd followed them.  The gladiators defeated their pursuers and traded up in weaponry again. Now they were equipped to handle nearly anything. They headed south toward Mount Vesuvius, plundering farms for food and freeing slaves. Most of the slaves were happy to join the ever-growing band.


Back in Capua, the local authorities called in the troops. With 3,000 Roman soldiers bearing down on them, Spartacus and company retreated up a narrow path that was the only access to Vesuvius. The rest of the mountaintop was too steep and slippery to climb. It looked like the Romans, who waited nonchalantly at the bottom, had them trapped.

At the top of Vesuvius, the rebels improvised rope ladders from vines and climbed down the other side. They had the perfect opportunity to sneak away, but Spartacus couldn't resist ambushing the Romans. The rebels stormed the rear of the Roman camp and captured it easily.


Though the Roman senate sent armies out to capture Spartacus, the best and strongest of Rome's fighting men were out conquering the rest of the world. The next two armies they assembled were thrown together piecemeal: an elderly man here, a dreg of society there. Spartacus and his men easily mowed them down.

Every victory brought Spartacus more fame- and more slaves to his side. Less than a year after the escape from Capua, the army of slaves totaled a whopping 70,000. The Roman senate became terrified that the rebels were going to head straight for Rome.

But that was the last thing Spartacus wanted. He knew only too well the power of Rome and was as frightened of the real Roman army as the senate was of him. So he started his troops north toward the Alps. But Spartacus had created a monster -his men didn't want to escape. They wanted to go on looting and plundering.


Rome now had to enlist its best troops against Spartacus. The only problem was that the senate couldn't find a general to lead them: Possibly losing to a ragtag bunch of rebels was more indignity than most men wanted to face.

But they found a volunteer in Marcus Crassus, who had been waiting for the right moment to step into the limelight. Crassus was the richest man in Rome, and one of the most unprincipled -in a city where corruption was already rampant. He'd made his money in various shady business, and is still famous for starting Rome's first fire brigade. But his firefighting method also had its profits -the property owner had to pay an exorbitant fee before his fire brigade would help them (and the fires were often set by Crassus's employees). This was the man charged with the task of leading 10 Roman legions against Spartacus.


Crassus was smart enough to know that Spartacus wanted to get far away from Rome. So he sent a lieutenant named Mummius with two legions and strict orders not to fight, but to provoke the rebels into marching north, where he would wait for them. But instead, Mummius attacked Spartacus's rebels ...and were soundly defeated.

Crassus was furious, and after Mummius retreated and returned with his men to camp, Crassus sentenced the defeated legions to the traditional Roman punishment, known as "decimation." The soldiers were divided into groups of 10, and each group drew lots to see which of them would die. The unlucky one-in-ten were executed in front of the whole army. This, Crassus felt, would inspire the men to obey orders next time.


The rebels didn't head north, as Crassus predicted, but instead turned toward the south. Crassus and his legions chased them all the way to the toe of the Italian boot, just across the water from the island of Sicily. The slaves stood with their backs to the sea, facing 50,000 of the best-trained soldiers in the world. To make things worse, Crassus has his men dig a ditch 37 miles long and 15 feet wide and deep. It cut the rebels off from any escape route but the sea. For extra insurance, the ditch was backed by a wall. The rebels managed to cross the ditch and tried to scale the wall, but were beaten back after losing more than 10,000 men. Spartacus heard another army was on its way to join Crassus, he led his men in one more desperate charge. This time the rebels made it over the wall and through enemy lines. But as they fled, the new army blocked their way. Spartacus decided to turn and fight.


In the long and bloody battle, Spartacus was killed, though his body was never found among the tens of thousands of dead. His followers fled to the mountains, pursued by Crassus. After one last battle, 6,000 slaves were captured. Crassus had them all crucified, their bodies spaced evenly along the road from Capua to Rome. No record has ever been found of the fate of Spartacus's wife.

Movie note: At the end of the film Spartacus, Spartacus survives the battle, leading to the inspiring scene where Crassus promises that he won't crucify the remaining men if someone will point out Spartacus. Of course, Kirk Douglas is about to speak up when the other men, one by one, stand up and shout, "I'm Spartacus!" "I'm Spartacus!" According to Kirk Douglas, the slave army's cries were actually shouted out by a crowd at a Michigan State (Spartans) vs. Notre Dame football game.

(YouTube link)


The article above was reprinted with permission from The Best of the Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Newest 3
Newest 3 Comments

It's hard to take the Roman officer seriously when he sounds like Paul Frees. I keep thinking he's going to transition into the "Haunted Mansion" narrative or Boris Badenov.

"Yes, Caesar. We will capture Moose and slave!"
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"The Real Spartacus"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More