The “Historical” Spartacus
by Aaron Irvin, Historical Consultant, Spartacus: Blood and Sand
The basic facts are these: between 73 and June of 71 BC, what began as a group of about 70-80 escaped gladiator slaves grew into a massive army that ravaged the Italian countryside. In two years, this group of rebel slaves and freemen defeated a total of six Roman armies, three Praetors, two Consuls, and finally the Gallic legion under a Roman governor. In the end, it took the combined force of almost 12 Roman legions under three Roman commanders to bring an end to the rebellion. The “leader” of this rebellion, a Thracian gladiator, has come down through the millennia as a legend, a symbol of revolution for the oppressed and the triumph of the ultimate underdog.
Roman sources record this Thracian gladiator’s name as “Spartacus”, and it is on this point alone that our primary sources can be said to be in agreement. Plutarch states that the Thracian was from a nomadic tribe, possibly the Maedi, and had been brought to Rome with his wife, a priestess of Dionysus, and sold into slavery. Appian, on the other hand, states that while he had once served with Roman soldiers, he had become a prisoner and sold as a gladiator; it is Appian who writes the enigmatic phrase “his body was never found”, warning his readers that Spartacus may yet live to strike again. Florus presents the Thracian as a mercenary who had deserted from the Roman military and become a bandit, and then captured and sold as a gladiator. With Plutarch writing in the 1st century AD, almost 150 years after the rebellion, and Appian and Florus in the early to mid 2nd century AD, one might be struck by the fact that as more time passes, our Roman authors seem to become more and more informed on the background of this famous slave.