Ancient History & Civilisation


The Stoic

It was a war without glory. In 72 BC Rome needed men to fight against Spartacus. About 150,000 Roman citizens, all from Italy, were already in arms abroad, well above the average annual figure of 90,000 Romans in arms between 79 and 50 BC. But the recruiters would have to find many more soldiers. Cato volunteered.

Marcus Porcius Cato - Cato the Younger - had the bloodlines to make him Rome’s ‘Mr Conservative’. His great-grandfather, Marcus Porcius Cato ‘the Censor’ (234-149 BC), championed Roman simplicity over Greek culture and coldly insisted: delenda est Karthago, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. His uncle was Marcus Livius Drusus, known as ‘the patron of the Senate’ for his proposed constitutional changes, which were an attempt to coopt challengers to the old guard by bringing them into the elite. Drusus’s bold plan only got him assassinated but it was a lesson in courage for young Cato, already an orphan, who was raised in Drusus’s household.

In 72 BC Cato was 23 years old. He was a patriot, but not too idealistic to forget his family. Cato idealized his older half-brother, Quintus Servilius Caepio, son of his mother’s first marriage. Caepio was chosen as a junior officer against Spartacus, serving under one of the consuls for 72 BC, Lucius Gellius, so Cato followed Caepio into the army. Cato’s family owned land in Lucania, which made them well aware of the danger posed by Spartacus, and maybe even made Cato one of Spartacus’s victims.

The young soldier displayed the toughness for which Cato would become famous. He was, for example, a pedestrian for all seasons. Regardless of the weather, he never rode: there were no litters for the young follower of the Stoic philosophy. Cato always travelled on foot; indeed, he sometimes walked the streets of the city of Rome barefoot. He would have needed all his energy for Spartacus in 72 BC. The ex-gladiator led the Romans on a chase for nearly all of Italy’s 700-mile length. The Romans wanted to hit the rebels hard. Spartacus dared them to reach a moving target.

By late 73 BC the Roman Senate, as one source claims, was no longer merely ashamed but afraid. No more praetors: it was time to dispatch the two consuls. They would have four new legions, about 20,000 men, raised in the final months of 73 BC. The consuls-elect sent out ‘searchers’ (conquisitores), that is, recruiting officers, to Italy’s various towns. They preferred volunteers but did not hesitate to pull out the census lists and force men to do their duty.

Much as the Romans hated to admit it, they no longer faced a police action but a war. But to fight Spartacus, they had to find him. He would not make it easy. As the Romans came south, Spartacus would go north. He planned to march up Italy’s mountainous spine, keeping his mobile forces out of the heavily armed Romans’ reach. He would stop from time to time to forage, to loot easy targets, and to pick up new recruits. But mainly he would keep moving, heading ever northwards. A few of the rebels rode on horseback or in carts, but the vast majority walked. No doubt they were often hungry, tired and cold; surely most of them were barefoot and dirty; certainly they lost men to desertion, illness and death. They kept going.

Their audacious goal was the Alps. Spartacus sought safety for his men across the mountains where they could head for their Celtic or Thracian homelands. In northern Europe, out of Rome’s reach, they had a fighting chance. Italy would be their graveyard.

Meanwhile, if the Romans did find him on the march, Spartacus would fight them, but not by the books. Not for him to line up the men in methodical ranks and march them into a killing zone of Rome’s choosing. He would not send men armed with branch and rawhide shields and wooden spearheads against a wall of iron. Spartacus knew that irregulars could not beat the legion at its own game, not even a legion as soft as one of the new units of 72 BC.

Still, the sources state that Spartacus fought at least one if not several pitched battles against the Romans that year. It is plausible that he dared to do so under the right circumstances. Hill country and mountains provided favourable terrain for the insurgents. Ambush, trickery, surprise, speed and psychological warfare all offered promising lines of attack. Superiority in cavalry gave Spartacus a way to harass the enemy’s flanks and to neutralize Roman light-armed troops.

The events of the Spartacus War of 72 BC exploded into Rome’s consciousness. They shocked the city and marked the turning point in the rebels’ fortunes. But with the exception of an episode or two at the year’s end, most of the year’s activities survive in only the sketchiest form. Hence, the narrative must be even more speculative here than elsewhere.

At the start of the campaign season in spring 72 BC, the Romans learned that the rebels had split into two groups: one led by Spartacus, the other by Crixus. Both men were on the move. Crixus’s group remained in southern Italy but not in Thurii. It headed to Apulia (today’s Puglia), a wealthy agricultural region of gently rolling hills and one stark mountain. Spartacus’s forces, meanwhile, turned northwards.

Like the Romans, we cannot be sure just what the two groups were up to. Was the split tactical or strategic, friendly or hostile? One ancient source says that Crixus left because of his ‘arrogance and presumption’. Perhaps, but irregular armies break up as easily as volcanic soil. Crixus and Spartacus had already disagreed the year before over whether to stay in Italy and loot. Meanwhile, ethnic differences, rival ambitions and the natural jealousies of former gladiators made common cause difficult. A friendly divorce made sense.

Sound tactics argued similarly. The rebels needed food. They had no commissariat to feed 40,000 soldiers plus an unknown number of women and children. The prospects were better for two smaller groups, foraging in separate locations, than for one large group descending on a single spot.

Spartacus had the big battalions. The sources say that he began the campaign season with 30,000 men, while Crixus had only 10,000. This seems right, however much ethnic ties bound his fellow Celts and their German allies to Crixus. Spartacus’s supporters followed him not because he was Thracian but because he was Spartacus. By now the rebels had taken his measure. They recognized a winning general and a favourite of the gods as well as a giant gladiator. His vivid gestures moved them. His austerity hardened them; his generosity helped them. His care for innocent civilians might have left them cold, but it underscored the word that sums up Spartacus: righteous.

Spartacus’s authority was neither formal nor forced; it was moral. As Napoleon said, ‘in war the moral is to the material as three to one.’ No wonder three-quarters of the army followed Spartacus.

But where did he tell them that they were going? They couldn’t stay in the Plain of Sybaris. When the Romans came they would force a battle, and the insurgents would want to fight in the hills, where the terrain was better suited for ambush, trickery and surprise. Sybaris is ringed by hills but, if they camped there, the rebels would have run out of food in short order. To the south lay the sea but they had no ships, so they had to go north. Italy had plenty of fertile land, plenty of loot and plenty of slaves to recruit. Let the Romans chase them.

Every chase comes to an end, however, and Spartacus knew it. His plan was probably to lead his people to safety out of Italy, over the Alps, to Gaul or Thrace or - after dividing the army - both. The rebels could hardly have been sanguine about so daunting a task, and a prudent commander might have kept the plan to himself. We might speculate that Spartacus did not level with the army as they marched north. Perhaps he floated the notion that they were simply spreading the revolt and searching for loot in another part of Italy. Later, when they were caught between the Romans and the Alps, they would surely find it easier to accept the unacceptable. So Spartacus might have reckoned.

After their forces split, Spartacus and Crixus had every reason to keep the door open. Each man should have hoped for the other’s success, if only to keep the Romans busy. Spartacus was too shrewd to burn his bridges. As an experienced soldier, he would have known the risks of his long journey. He had to retain the option of returning to the south and re-establishing contact with Crixus. Meanwhile, Crixus had no interest in hurrying Spartacus out of Italy and freeing the Romans to concentrate on him. Crixus might have encouraged Spartacus to take his time gathering supporters among the downtrodden of central and northern Italy. Both sides likely kept in touch via messengers.

Rome surely knew little of this in spring 72 BC. The consuls were Lucius Gellius and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus. They held the highest regular office in Rome, each already having held the second-highest office, the praetorship. Ambitious Romans aimed for the consulship soon after their term as praetor. Lentulus had been praetor in 75 BC, so as consul in 72 BC he knew that his career was on track. But Gellius had waited two long decades since serving as praetor in 94 BC. In 93 BC he held office as a Roman official in the East and got egg on his face when he waded into a dispute among Athenian philosophers. Now, in 72 BC, his time had finally come. Was he ready for it? Neither he nor Lentulus was known for previous military commands. And Gellius was not young: he was at least 62 years old. No wonder that Gellius received a high-level assistant, another praetor of 73 BC, Quintus Arrius. He had been slated to take over the governorship of Sicily in 72 BC but the Spartacus War got in the way, and Arrius was reassigned to Gellius’s staff, with the rank of propraetor.

Arrius was a self-made man whose life’s ambition was to be elected consul, an honour that had previously eluded his family. As praetor, he was well on his way. Chances are that Arrius would rather have been governor of Sicily than fight Spartacus. Governors could squeeze the locals and raise the equivalent of today’s campaign contributions. Law and politics, not war, were Arrius’s forte. Still, Arrius was ‘a vigorous man’, said Cicero, who once compared Arrius to a boxer. Given the assignment to fight the rebels, Arrius would surely work hard for the victory needed to advance his career.

Even so, the Roman government ought to have been able to do better. Spartacus was too big a threat to give the job to anyone less than an expert general. But Rome faced the crisis with mediocri ties. It had happened surprisingly often in the past, in spite of serious threats such as Hannibal.

Either in Rome or in the field the Romans got the news that the insurgents had divided. Lentulus’s assignment was to deal directly with Spartacus, while Gellius would attack Crixus first and then join the campaign against Spartacus. Lentulus had the much tougher job so we might imagine that he planned to nip at Spartacus’s heels, while avoiding battle until Gellius arrived. As it turned out, Gellius came with a dose of good news: the first Roman victory of the war.

With Arrius’s assistance, Gellius crushed Crixus’s army. The struggle took place in Apulia near Mount Garganus (modern Gargano). Sometimes called the spur of Italy, Mount Garganus could be dubbed the sore thumb. It juts into the Adriatic about 90 miles north of Barium (modern Bari). It is not a peak but a rugged and thickly forested peninsula, attached oddly to Apulia’s undulating countryside. The rocky heights of the Garganus peninsula reach 3,500 feet, its limestone terrain pockmarked by caves, and in Roman times the area was famous for its oak forests. In short, the Garganus was natural guerrilla country.

Mount Garganus would have made a good base for rallying the slaves of Apulia to revolt. The region’s slave shepherds had risen up against Rome before, so the rebel cry might have fallen on ready ears. If things ended up badly, an escape route by sea beckoned. At the end of the Garganus promontory are several harbours, should the rebels have sought help from pirates, as they would shortly afterwards. But Crixus failed to use these natural features to his advantage.

The Romans outgeneralled Crixus: they took him by surprise. The rolling hill country beside the Garganus promontory was well stocked with farms, no doubt tempting Crixus to sally out on a plundering raid. Perhaps this is where the Romans caught him. Or perhaps they trapped him in an upland meadow on the promontory itself.

It was typical for a consul’s army to consist of two legions. The ‘paper’ strength of a legion in the first century BC was 6,200 men; the real strength was about 5,000 men. That is, when the legion was newly formed; in time, after losing men in combat or to illness or desertion, a legion’s strength was probably around 4,000 men. When a consul took office and raised an army of two legions, therefore, it probably comprised some 10,000 men. A legion was only as strong as the sub-units into which it was divided. The basic tactical unit of the legion was the cohort. Each legion consisted of ten cohorts, nominally of 480 men each; each cohort comprised six centuries, nominally of 80 men each. Light-armed troops and cavalrymen added to a legion’s numbers.

The commander of each legion was called a legate. Below him stood six junior officers called military tribunes. Cato’s brother Caepio was a military tribune in one of Gellius’s two legions; Cato no doubt served on his staff. The lowest rank of officer was a centurion, commander of a century. The centurions were often the unsung heroes of the legion, because small-group leadership can make or break an army.

These armies consisted almost entirely of infantrymen, with only small groups of cavalry, light-armed or specialist troops. They were inexperienced and far from the best Rome had, but they were much better armed than the insurgents, and they could be far more confident about food and housing.

We know next to nothing about the battle. In the absence of evidence of creativity on the part of Gellius or Arrius, we might expect that they lined up their army by the book. Each legion was deployed in a three-line formation, with four cohorts (a paper strength of 1,920 men) in the front line and three cohorts (a paper strength of 1,440 men) in each of the two rear lines. The insurgents probably had to organize themselves more hastily. Given their reputation as horsemen, the Celts should have possessed a good cavalry, but might have lacked time to deploy it properly, and the Romans might have outnumbered it.

The heart of the Roman army consisted of the heavy infantrymen, that is, the legionaries. Each legionary was protected by body armour, typically a mail coat, and a bronze or iron helmet. He also carried a big, oblong shield (scutum). His weapons were a javelin (pilum) and a short sword (gladius). Some of Spartacus’s men had similar arms and armour, stripped from the enemy dead, but many of the rebels had only primitive weapons and light protection.

Both armies no doubt advanced with war cries to hearten themselves and frighten their opponent. The Roman light-armed infantry usually tried to soften up the enemy by shooting arrows and slings, some of which had an effective range of perhaps 100 yards. After absorbing any losses, the insurgents probably raised the rebel yell and blew their war trumpets. Roman armies typically advanced by banging javelins on shields and shouting war cries. As the legions closed in, at a distance of about 50 feet, they would have begun throwing their javelins. They shouted, accompanied by the ‘threatening rumble’ of the commander’s horn, followed by the strident call of the trumpets. Then, with their banners flying, they charged the enemy at a run.

Sometimes the Romans would make such an intimidating show of discipline and equipment that the enemy would turn and run away. But on this day it would come down to a hard fight. Legionaries would hack and thrust at the enemy with their swords, while the other side would reply with sword or spear.

Ancient battle lives in the imagination as a climax: a collision, followed by dozens of disorderly, individual fights that go on until one side prevails. Real battle was probably episodic. Like boxers, the two sides combined, broke apart, regrouped each in its own corner, and then hit each other again. Finally, one army would collapse and run. Such typical Roman battle lasted two to three hours, but episodes of hand-to-hand fighting probably each lasted only fifteen to twenty minutes before exhaustion set in.

The only detail of the battle of Mount Garganus to survive is the report that the rebels ‘fought extremely fiercely’: a conventional statement but it might just be true. Celtic warriors were known for their ferocity and tenacity in battle. We might imagine the bravest legionaries circling around the enemy’s flank or trying to stab their way into the enemy lines. Eventually they succeeded, but probably at a price. The insurgents perhaps forced the Romans to fight many ‘rounds’ of battle before a decision was reached. It was enough to do the rebels honour but not to avoid a massacre. According to one source, two-thirds of Crixus’s men died. Among the fallen was Crixus himself. This too fits the picture of Celtic warfare. Celtic warriors were supposed to group themselves around their chiefs in battle. It was a disgrace to abandon one’s chief and it was unthinkable for a chief to do anything but fight to the finish. Germans behaved similarly, to judge by the women of the Cimbri tribe who stood in the rear of one battle, mounted on chariots and killed the fleeing warriors with their own hands rather than let them run away.

It was the first defeat after a string of victories for the insurgency. How can such a reversal of fortune be explained? Not by the prowess of Gellius and Arrius. As events later in 72 BC will show, they had not created a victory machine. The cause of defeat probably lay with Crixus. He was Spartacus’s equal in courage, but not in common sense. That Crixus shared Spartacus’s taste for discipline and austerity is doubtful; that he lacked due diligence when it came to scouts and pickets is apparent.

Meanwhile, Spartacus marched northwards. He was somewhere in the Apennine Mountains in north-central Italy. The rebels had marched from a land of olive oil to one of butter, a zone that was cooler, rainier and greener than the south. There was plenty of fresh water and herds of sheep and goats, but there were also wolves and bears. As a landscape, the Apennines are vertical, narrow and difficult, all of which worked in the insurgents’ favour.

Even so the Romans wanted to fight Spartacus. Roman doctrine called for offensives and Crixus’s fate bode well for success. But Spartacus’s army had reason for optimism. The men had fine leadership; past victories should have raised their morale; and their cavalry force should have been better than the Romans’. Their leader shared the men’s risks; he looked heroic and was physically courageous; he was charismatic and had a flair for the bold gesture; he could be inspiring on the battlefield. The insurgents were nimbler and tougher than the enemy, quick and violent enough to shock an inexperienced foe, and superior in numbers.

The Romans, nonetheless, found the enemy and forced him to fight on what looked like auspicious terms. The consul Lentulus, thanks no doubt to good intelligence, was able to block the road ahead. Meanwhile Gellius, conqueror of Crixus, had marched up from Apulia in rapid pursuit of the main rebel army. Spartacus was trapped.

One plausible theory locates the confrontation in a mountain pass in the Apennines north-west of Florence. The little village of Lentula lies at the foot of Mount Calvi (4,200 feet) in a valley that runs northwards towards Modena (the Roman Mutina). Local tradition insists on a direct connection between the village name and the consul Lentulus, just as it points out that Spartacus later made his way to Mutina. The theory is unproven, but the rugged terrain around Lentula would have made a fine site for the battle.

Spartacus now showed what made him a great battlefield commander. It is possible for a good general to rescue his army from encirclement as long as he is decisive, agile and calm. He also has to be sure of complete loyalty and obedience on the part of his troops. Caesar had these very qualities, and he saved his army at the Battle of Ruspina (modern Monastir in Tunisia) in 46 BC. Finding himself surrounded, Caesar arranged his army in two lines, back to back, and had them each push the enemy back. That give him the breathing space to launch two coordinated charges, and he broke through to freedom.

In the Apennines in 72 BC Spartacus achieved even more, and by different tactics. Admittedly, the Thracian’s situation was less desperate than Caesar’s. Spartacus outnumbered the enemy: he had 30,000 men while each consular army had a maximum of about 10,000 men. Gellius’s army might, in fact, have been even smaller, due to losses suffered in the battle with Crixus. Unlike Caesar, Spartacus had time and space to attack each of his enemies in turn. Like Caesar, though, Spartacus could never have succeeded without commanding his men’s trust. We can only imagine what he might have said in a pre-battle speech to rally his troops. But the message was as clear as a bugle: attack!

The mere fact of the attack might have surprised the Romans; they might have expected to see the beleaguered enemy assume a defensive position. Spartacus went after Lentulus’s army first; one source claims that the rebels struck with a sudden rush. A cunning commander like Spartacus might have positioned part of his forces behind hills and then had them pour out to shock the enemy. He probably used his cavalry to good effect. A well-timed cavalry attack could break the enemy’s formation, particularly the light infantry, who wore little protection. The Romans typically counter-attacked against cavalry by means of arrows and slings, but they didn’t always do the job. A quick and sudden cavalry charge, for example, could prevent archers and slingers from inflicting much damage. If the legions held firm, they might have stopped a cavalry charge even so, by massing in a dense formation, almost a shield wall with room for thrusting with their pikes. Horses will not crash into a solid object or what looms like a solid object. The difficulty, however, was standing firm, because the sight of a cavalry charge was enough to terrify inexperienced troops. In a later battle the Romans appear to have taken additional precautions against Spartacus’s cavalry, which suggests bitter experience.

In any case, once he had softened up the enemy with such tactics, Spartacus probably sent in his infantry. They surely struck with all the fury that made Celts, Germans and Thracians famous. We might guess that individual cases of valour paid outsized dividends. Let just a few of the enemy break into the line, or allow a strong cavalryman to gallop by and sweep up an enemy soldier, or have an enemy soldier issue a successful challenge to single combat, and a wavering army might turn and run.

However the rebels attacked, the Romans’ response was to panic and flee, disgracing the tradition of the legions. The insurgents’ attack was no doubt terrifying, but a disciplined army would have held its ground. The Romans usually were disciplined: they had long experience fighting barbarians; they had often defeated much larger armies. But in 72 BC neither their training, their trust nor, apparently, their commander was enough to make the legionaries stand firm. One source says that Spartacus defeated Lentulus’s legates and captured all the army’s baggage. Another says that the Romans abandoned the field in great confusion. Another says that Spartacus ‘thoroughly destroyed’ Lentulus’s army. Then he turned on Gellius’s forces and defeated them too; no details survive.

The captured baggage offered Spartacus tools: mess tins, cooking pots, satchels, baskets, iron hooks, leather thongs, spades, shovels, saws, hatchets, axes, scythes and wheelbarrows. There were weapons too, both what could be taken from prisoners or stripped from the dead and what was carried as baggage: from extra arrows and spears to shield covers and neck guards. Cloaks and sandals were probably precious finds. But the greatest treasure was food, carried in wagons drawn by pack animals.

Under Gellius and Lentulus, Romans ran in disorder from the battlefield. Hannibal had crushed Rome’s soldiers at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC; in the Apennines in 72 BC Spartacus humiliated them. The Carthaginian killed tens of thousands of Romans. The Thracian caused far fewer casualties but he made his point. He now proceeded to hurt Rome’s pride further.

In a speech delivered fifteen years later, in 57 BC, Cicero still remembered Spartacus’s insult. Nothing, said Cicero, could have been ‘more polluted, deformed, perverted or disturbed’. What Spartacus did was to give gladiatorial games for slaves - a spectacle that Rome usually reserved for the free. Spartacus added a bitter twist by reversing roles: he made the slaves spectators and the Romans gladiators.

The occasion was Crixus’s funeral games. The news of his comrade’s death and defeat had reached Spartacus, perhaps via a messenger, perhaps from the survivors of Crixus’s army. To have a pair of gladiators fight at the grave of a great man was an old Italian custom - barbaric to us but in ancient times a sign of honour and respect. Spartacus did not have merely one pair of gladiators fight: rather, he commemorated the fallen Celt by a spectacular ritual. Spartacus called up 300 (or 400, according to another source) Roman prisoners and had them fight to the death around a pyre - a symbol, at least, of Crixus, assuming that his corpse had not been recovered. This was a gladiatorial offering on the grand scale. It was all but human sacrifice: glorious to the memory of the dead, humiliating to the Romans who were about to die, and ennobling to the reputation of the host.

What a morale boost for the men! By attending a gladiatorial game, they declared their freedom. In Rome, funeral games were reserved for victorious generals and for praetors and consuls. By awarding this honour to Crixus, Spartacus asserted equality. He also laid claim, at least implicitly, to being Roman. He wielded Roman symbols as well as if he had been born in Rome itself.

As a gladiator Spartacus had been a man of the lowest social order. As an impresario, Spartacus reached a high status in Roman eyes. Thus, as a Roman writer says, Spartacus had in effect purged himself of all his prior infamy. Meanwhile, he gave Rome a black eye.

After defeating the consuls’ armies, Spartacus and his men continued northwards through the mountains. As they came down from the Apennines, they were greeted with the magnificent view of the broad plain of the Padus (modern Po) River. They crossed into the province of Cisalpine Gaul, ‘Gaul on this side of the Alps’, as the Romans called northernmost Italy. The province stretched to the Alps; in this era, most of its inhabitants were still not Roman citizens.

Their scouts might have told the rebels that trouble awaited them. About 10 miles north of the Apennines lay the city of Mutina (today’s Modena). One of about ten Roman and Latin colonies in the province, Mutina was the base of the governor, the proconsul Gaius Cassius Longinus. As provincial governor, Cassius had a standing garrison army to draw on, consisting of two legions (c. 10,000 men). It is plausible that he was assisted by the propraetor Cnaeus Manlius.

Cassius had been one of the two consuls the year before, 73 BC, and earlier had served as mint master and then praetor. It was a successful career, befitting his old and eminent family, but Cassius is best known for his son, also named Cassius, the famous murderer of Caesar. The son had a lean and hungry look, as Shakespeare later put it, and the father might have been equally keen. He was the only card that Rome had left to play between Spartacus and the Alps. Cassius threw down the gauntlet. ‘As Spartacus was pressing forward towards the Alps,’ says one writer, ‘Cassius . . . met him.’

Only the barest details of the battle survive. The insurgents crushed the Romans, inflicting many casualties, and Cassius barely escaped with his life. He never played a major role in public affairs again.

The road to the Alps was now open but Spartacus did not take it. Instead, he and his army turned back south. Spartacus’s strategy is a mystery. He supposedly aimed for the Alps and beat every army that stood in his way, only to turn around and head back to southern Italy. If he wanted to cross the Alps, why didn’t he do so? Many theories have been proposed, but the best explanation was already hinted at in the ancient sources. Spartacus’s own men probably vetoed him. In the past, they had never wanted to leave Italy; now success might have gone to their heads and aroused visions of Rome in flames. Perhaps Spartacus had held back the truth and told his men, as they marched north, that they were simply spreading the revolt and searching for loot in another part of Italy. Then, when they reached the plain of the Padus River and he tried to persuade them to cross the Alps, it was too late to change their minds.

The last straw might simply have been the sight of the Alps. As anyone who has ever looked up from the plain towards the rock wall of the Italian Alps knows, the mountains are overpowering. Most people in Spartacus’s army had probably never seen the Alps before. Many of them had never left southern or central Italy.

Other factors may have played a role. There is an outside chance that Spartacus received news from Thrace that gave him pause. The proconsul, Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus, had won great victories over the Thracians who had allied with Mithridates. It now looked more difficult than ever for Spartacus and his army to find safely in Thrace.

And perhaps Spartacus too had caught what the Japanese would later call ‘victory disease’. Spartacus was ‘elated by his victories’, says one Roman writer, in what is perhaps just a plausible guess. Maybe he had acquired a foolish belief in his own invincibility. Possibly he too forgot the Roman habit of responding slowly but inexorably to those who attacked Rome. He might have allowed himself a luxury that no general can afford: hope.

It is such a surprising turn of events that some scholars conclude that Spartacus had never planned to cross the Alps in the first place. But ancient writers took this plan seriously and they were in a better position to know Spartacus’s motives. Admittedly, they might have engaged in a certain amount of guesswork, since it’s not clear if the Romans debriefed captured rebels well. But I prefer their guesses to ours.

And so, the rebels headed south again. They had a new goal, they said: Rome. ‘Terror,’ says one ancient writer, ‘spread through the city of Rome, just as it had in the time when Hannibal had threatened its gates.’ No doubt Romans were terrified, but we might wonder if they had good reason to be afraid. Could Spartacus really threaten a city that was too well fortified for even Hannibal to launch a serious attack? Ten years earlier, in 82 BC during the civil war between Marius and Sulla, an army that tried to take Rome fought all night long. It was obliterated by morning. How could Spartacus think of success?

For one thing, he travelled light. He had unnecessary supplies burned, slaughtered the pack animals, and killed all prisoners of war. This last act might also have been meant to terrify the enemy. For another thing, Spartacus had a sizeable army.

Spartacus began the campaign season with 30,000 men, enough to outnumber each of his various foes to date but not enough to attack Rome. Each victory boosted Spartacus’s reputation and so might have swollen his ranks. New recruits might have come from central and northern Italy, while the survivors of Crixus’s defeat might have made their way to Spartacus. He surely accepted most of them gladly.

According to ancient sources, after defeating Cassius, Spartacus turned away ‘many deserters who approached him’. Just who these ‘deserters’ were is an interesting question. The prospect that they were legionaries is intriguing but more likely they were slaves performing support duties for Roman troops. Turning them away was not only a gesture of contempt but perhaps also a cold psychological assessment of their unreliability and potential for espionage.

Spartacus could not have afforded to turn away good men because the Romans were about to attack him again. The two consuls, Gellius and Lentulus, had regrouped and joined forces. They now had an army of four legions or about 20,000 men, minus any losses already suffered and not replaced. If Spartacus enjoyed anything like the 3:1 advantage that he did against the first army he had faced that year, he would have commanded about 60,000 men by the time he faced the joint consular army in late 72 BC.

With all the ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ in the previous paragraphs, the conclusion is clear: we don’t know how many men Spartacus had. But an educated guess of 60,000 soldiers at the peak of the revolt in late 72 BC seems sensible and even conservative. In fact, 60,000 is the lowest estimate in the ancient sources for the size of Spartacus’s army at its height; other figures are 90,000, over 100,000 and 120,000. In addition to the soldiers there was an unknowable number of civilians: women, children and perhaps even old men.

The showdown between Spartacus and the joint consular army took place in Picenum, in north-central Italy. Once again, details are lacking. But the sources state that this was a pitched battle. Evidently his string of successes gave Spartacus the confidence to fight the Romans on their own terms. A vignette survives from either this or the earlier battle fought by the consul Lentulus; which one is uncertain. The report is as follows: ‘And at the same time Lentulus [left] an elevated position which he had defended with a double battle-line and at the cost of many of his men, when from out of the soldiers’ kit bags, officers’ cloaks began to catch the eye and selected cohorts began to be discernible.’

That seems to mean that Lentulus took up a defensive position on a hill, where he divided his troops into multiple lines. Caesar would do something similar in Gaul. Although they had to attack uphill, the enemy inflicted heavy casualties on Lentulus’s men. Apparently, Lentulus called for help, but he didn’t ride off until it became clear that the reinforcements were nearby. Or so this fragmentary sentence might be reconstructed.

The brief sentence speaks volumes about the conditions of ancient battle. Isolated on a hill, Lentulus had to rely on the naked eye to see the legion coming to his aid. The legion didn’t appear all at once but as a patchwork. First, the purple cloaks of the commanders appeared, then a few separate cohorts became visible. The phrase ‘out of the soldiers’ kit bags’ should mean that the reinforcements were marching near where Lentulus’s men had left their baggage.

The scene shows the insurgents at their best. They isolated an enemy unit. They executed the difficult manoeuvre of attacking uphill, a move in which their lighter armour increased their mobility. Although the rebels did not destroy Lentulus’s men before reinforcements arrived, they inflicted heavy losses. Presumably Lentulus expected the reinforcements to defeat the enemy, but that did not happen. Either the rebels on the hill remained strong enough to turn on the reinforcements and overpower them or Spartacus sent fresh troops against the reinforcements, which would speak well of his command and control of the battlefield.

The Romans lost the battle and, once again, they ran from the field. Spartacus had reason to be pleased. But he also had cause to re-evaluate the attack on Rome. As one ancient account says: ‘he changed his mind about going to Rome, because his forces were not appropriate for the operation nor was his whole army prepared as soldiers should be (since no city was fighting with him, but only slaves and deserters and the rabble).’

Rome’s stone walls were over 13 feet thick and in places over 30 feet high. The circuit of walls ran for nearly 7 miles and enclosed 1,000 acres. Spartacus had no siege engines nor experts to man them. He had few if any soldiers with experience of laying siege to a city or taking a city by assault.

Nor had Spartacus’s experience of battle in 72 BC been entirely encouraging. He had won every engagement, but his colleague Crixus’s army had been destroyed and Crixus was dead, The Romans, meanwhile, refused to accept defeat. No matter how hard Spartacus hit the Romans, they kept coming back. There was no reason to doubt but that they would return. It was far more prudent to prepare for the next battle than to open a new front that was unlikely to bring success. And so the army returned to southern Italy, probably to Thurii.

There the insurgents had yet another encounter with a Roman army, possibly under the propraetor Manlius. They defeated the Romans and reaped a rich load of booty. It was a happy end to their journey, yet the men had reason to wonder just what they had achieved.

They had made a punishing trip of about 1,200 miles, which could hardly have taken them less than four or five months, considering the marching rates of ancient armies and the time needed to stop, forage and fight. They had fought four battles, mourned their colleagues’ defeat in a fifth, and amassed loot. They had buried old comrades and attracted new ones.

They might glory in their status as the dominant army in Italy. It was an astonishing truth that most would have ascribed to the gods and perhaps, above all, to Dionysus. Yet the rebels were only as strong as their ability to beat Rome’s next army. That army was sure to come, even if vain rebels and pessimistic Romans both failed to see it in the distance.

By summer’s end, Italy had seen two big stories in 72 BC. One was Spartacus’s Long March and the other was Rome’s disgrace. A rabble in arms had defeated a regular army.

One of the few to have served with distinction was Cato - but he also served with disdain. At the year’s end, Cato’s commander offered him a military honour, such as a crown, a neck ornament, a golden armband or one of the other decorations handed out to Rome’s best legionaries. Cato, however, refused. Family pride might have balked at accepting honours amid military disgrace.

Cato’s great-grandfather, Cato the Censor, had once sneered at a commander who awarded his soldiers crowns just for digging ditches or sinking wells - prizes, the Censor said, that would have required at least the burning of an enemy’s camp back when Rome had standards. Cato’s uncle Drusus had once rejected honours himself, no doubt aware of the malicious remark that they would have dwarfed the man who wore them. Malice might have come Cato’s way too if he had received honours while his brother did not, and the sources make no mention of honours for Caepio.

Few Romans could have bemoaned the nation’s defeats more than Cato. Austere, public-spirited and uncompromising, he lived for virtue. Most Roman politicians, including his allies, eventually fell short of Cato’s lofty standards. Cicero, a friend who felt Cato’s sting, once wrote in exasperation that Cato thought he was living in Plato’s Republic instead of the sewer of Romulus. In 72 BC Cato had abundant reasons to be displeased.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!