10/27/10 - spartacus

In today's excerpt - ancient Rome was built on slavery, and slaves constituted as much as forty percent of the population. This slavery could be unspeakably gruesome, whether it was the tens of thousands of slaves that died in the Roman mines in Spain, or those that were condemned to die as gladiators, and so Rome was left to ruthlessly crush innumerable slave rebellions:

"Spartacus, who was born north of Greece, in Thrace, received training in the Roman army as a barbarian 'auxiliary' (ally) before becoming a slave in 73 BCE. It's not clear why he was enslaved after serving Rome. However, his combat skills made him a natural candidate for the gladiator school at Capua, about one hundred miles from Rome.

"Here Spartacus and his fellow slaves learned how to entertain a Roman audience with dramatic hand-to-hand combat. Knowing they were going to their certain deaths, however, about eighty gladiators followed Spartacus into rebellion—using kitchen utensils as weapons. Before long they armed themselves with real weapons, slaughtering Roman soldiers who tried to stop them. Then they escaped to the countryside, where Spartacus incited a general slave uprising, attracting thousands of field workers to his cause. He led the rebel slaves to a mountaintop, where they built a fortified encampment.

"At first the Roman Senate viewed the uprising as a minor threat, but they soon learned better, and dispatched two commanders (praetors) to besiege the mountain and starve the slave army into submission. Spartacus launched a daring counterattack, ordering his soldiers to use vines to rappel down the side of the mountain.

"Of course the Roman Senate couldn't allow the slave rebellion to succeed, as the Roman economy was increasingly based on slavery. So they dispatched a new commander, Crassus, with twelve legions—a huge force—only to have the advance force of two legions annihilated by the slave army.

"Spartacus now led the rebels south, to Sicily, where he planned to rendezvous with pirates he'd hired to take them to safety. But the pirates never showed, and the slaves found themselves trapped on a narrow peninsula. ... Desperate, Spartacus decided he had no choice but to fight the Romans head on. Here the Romans finally defeated the rebel army, showing no mercy as they butchered sixty thousand runaway slaves, including women and children. Sixty-six hundred survivors were crucified along the Appian Way connecting Capua to Rome. However, the body of Spartacus was never found."


Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur


The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverant Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2008 by Mental Floss LLC


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