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The Fisherman: Catching Spartacus

By Barry Strauss
4/18/2018 • MHQ Magazine

A Roman general sets his nets to catch Spartacus at Bruttium.

It was a winter morning in the mountains of southern Italy, in early 71 BC. Normally it was silent at this time of year, when even the herdsmen had left for lower ground. On this day, however, on a ridge about half a mile wide and half a mile high, two armies were poised to clash. In one, tens of thousands of rebels, led by Spartacus, stood in their ranks, weapons ready, and, we might imagine, hearts warmed by wine, ears impatient for the command to charge, mouths eager to let loose their roars. The Roman army was not surprised; its scouts had watched the enemy from a series of signal towers.

The Romans waited behind a defensive network of deep trenches lined with sharpened poles, wooden palisades, and, as an obstacle in the forefront, an embankment topped by a dry-stone wall at least 25 feet high. Their positions closed off three sides of the ridge, blocking even the mule paths by which the rebels might have outflanked them. The Romans had left only the southern approach open, forcing the attackers to charge at them from that direction. As they advanced, the rebels were funneled into a narrow space. Like a fisherman who drives big fish into his nets, Gen. Marcus Licinius Crassus had set his trap well.

Suddenly the Roman counterattack began, a torrent of arrows and acorn-shaped lead missiles, forged in nearby field furnaces by the methodical defenders.

The barrage blunted the rebels’ charge. Many of the attackers reached the fortifications and fought ferociously, but they could not break through. Eventually, Spartacus’s men had to run away or die.

It was a good day for the Romans and it had just begun. The rebels would attack again in the evening, and once again they would fail. Afterward the Romans claimed an immense body count, saying that 12,000 dead insurgents cost them only three dead and seven wounded. Uncertainty is frustrating to the historian but it is best to be clear: these figures and the very details of the engagement are speculative.

Indeed, our knowledge of these events is unusually tentative; the sources contradict each other even more than usual. Perhaps that is not surprising in the case of events that took place in the dead of winter, deep in the mountains of a remote corner of Italy. Still, what is not in doubt is that Spartacus, the mighty rebel who had set Rome in a tizzy with his audacious slave rebellion and frightening forays throughout the Italian peninsula, may have finally met his match.

The Spartacus revolt against Rome began in 73 BC in a gladiators’ barrack in southern Italy, near Naples. It grew quickly from 74 men to thousands. Spartacus, a Thracian (from what is now Bulgaria) had been an allied soldier in the Roman army. He had somehow fallen afoul of the law and had been unjustly enslaved and sentenced to life as a gladiator. Then he rebelled. Spartacus’s charismatic leadership and military skill sparked a major slave uprising throughout Italy, especially in the south.

Rome stood at a disadvantage. Its veteran legions were abroad fighting in Spain, the Balkans, and Anatolia (modern Turkey). With only inexperienced Roman troops to oppose him, Spartacus won victory after victory. At its height his army consisted of about 60,000 men, most of them rebelling slaves. Spartacus recognized, however, that they could not stay in Italy; Rome would eventually recall its best troops and defeat him. So he marched his army north in 72 BC. He tried to persuade the men to cross the Alps and leave Italy. His hope was probably to return to Thrace and join Rome’s enemies there.

His men balked, however. They preferred to stay in Italy and loot its rich territory. A coalition of various ethnic groups, the army enjoyed only a loose and fragile unity. Spartacus was forced to head back south. Meanwhile, Rome gave the command against Spartacus to Marcus Licinius Crassus, an experienced and canny general. Crassus raised a large new army and by employing strict and brutal discipline, made his men more afraid of him than they were of Spartacus.

As the hunters became the hunted, Spartacus’s men finally realized that leaving Italy was imperative. This time, they headed south, planning to cross the Strait of Messina from southwestern Italy to Sicily, where a large and rebellious slave population offered potential allies. Spartacus found pirates who said they were willing to ferry his men across; they even took a deposit. But they took the money and sailed, leaving Spartacus and his men unable to find another way to make the crossing in the face of bad weather and Roman shore defenses.

Spartacus’s forces turned back north, headed into the mountains in the toe of the Italian boot, in the region called Bruttium in ancient times. The Romans, however, were waiting for them.

For Rome the domestic political stakes of the clash with Spartacus were almost as high as the military ones. Crassus had gambled everything on a defensive line in the mountains. The massive fortifications epitomized the man who had made his fortune in real estate. He would defeat Spartacus by outbuilding him. Some said that Crassus gave his men the construction job just to keep them busy during winter, the off-season for warfare. But Crassus cared too much about his command to fill it with make-work projects. He knew that the campaign in Bruttium would make or break him.

Crassus wanted to defeat Spartacus, but if he couldn’t, he had to control the way the story would be told to the Roman public. To do so he needed influential friends, and surely he obtained them. A man who could buy armies could also afford the rewards that would cement friendships. We might suspect the hand of his publicists, for example, in the assertion in the sources that the Romans had got their courage back thanks only to Crassus’s policy of decimation.

In spite of exaggerated casualty figures, a Roman victory that day is a reasonable assumption. The Romans had earned success. Crassus and his men had spent weeks if not a month or two preparing a killing field. They could have ended the rebellion that very day if they hadn’t been facing a general of the Thracian’s skill.

For Spartacus the story began on the day that he marched his men from the Strait of Messina toward the Aspromonte Mountains. He could not take the Via Annia near the Tyrrhenian coast; the Romans surely would have blocked it. Besides, Spartacus had to feed his army. To do that required going inland on raids and finding new supporters. This was herding country, known for its cows, sheep, and swine. It was terrain for hunting hare and boar. As the rebels traveled northeast from the strait over the highland plains of Aspromonte, they probably got some of what they wanted by charming slave herdsmen—and the rest they took, ravaging the countryside.

Archaeology may provide evidence of the damage they did. About 25 miles north of Cape Caenys, in an olive grove near the Tyrrhenian Sea, a treasure recently turned up. There, buried and protected by two large slabs of stone, lay a clay lamp and a group of silver objects: pitchers, cups, a ladle, a teaspoon, and a medallion with a bust of Medusa. A graffito may refer to the name of a wealthy Roman landowning family. The objects date to circa 100–75 BC and it is tempting to associate them with Spartacus. They were buried in an isolated spot in ancient times, far from the center of the nearest town. Perhaps a landowner buried them to keep them from the rebels, or a rebel might have buried them himself after looting them.

Having turned away from the coastal highway, Spartacus headed for another road located in the center of Bruttium, about equidistant from the Tyrrhenian and Ionian coasts. Migrants over the centuries had traveled down this road from what are now known as the Serre Mountains to the north, and with good reason. The road takes advantage of a remarkable landscape, a ridge high up on the crest of the Aspromonte Mountains. From a distance it looks like a tabletop in the clouds. As a traveler comes onto the plateau, he feels as if he has stepped onto an isthmus. Today called the Dossone della Melìa, that is, the Melìa Ridge, it lies between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level.

The city of Locris sat at the eastern end of the lateral road, on the Ionian Sea. A former Greek colony, Locris had long been firmly in the Roman orbit. At the western end of the lateral road the plain of Metauros (modern Gioia Tauro) stretched along the Tyrrhenian Sea. Exceptionally rich, the plain was known for its olives and grapevines. Crassus’s fortifications cut it off from Spartacus and his raiders.

Whoever controlled the Melìa Ridge controlled the crossroads of southernmost Italy. No wonder Crassus chose to make his stand here. The sources say that the nature of the terrain suggested to Crassus the plan to block off the peninsula. The Locrians might well have provided detailed intelligence about the terrain. The heart of Crassus’s fortifications stood on the Melìa Ridge near the modern Highway 111, which runs on an east-west line about 50 miles northeast of Regium (by modern roads). Here the Italian peninsula is only about 35 miles wide from sea to sea. Plutarch writes that Crassus built his wall across the peninsula for a length of 300 stades, that is, about 35 modern miles. That is an exaggeration; in fact, the main section of the Romans’ defensive works covered only half a mile. But Plutarch is right in implying that Crassus effectively blocked off the entire 35-mile width of the peninsula.

As Spartacus proceeded northward, his scouts warned him of trouble ahead. The Thracian is said to have responded with scorn, no doubt skeptical that the Romans could stop him in what amounted to his natural habitat, the mountains. Many scholars seem to feel about the same way. They doubt that the Romans made their stand here. Great engineers though they were, not even the Romans could have found it easy to build a 35- mile-long walled trench— through the mountains, no less. Besides, if Crassus had cut off Spartacus about 50 miles northeast of Regium, he would have left the rebels in control of a large territory to the south, about a thousand square miles, roughly equivalent to the state of Rhode Island. One might well ask, left to rule such a kingdom, why would Spartacus need to leave?

Some historians turn Crassus’s plan into a modest project: no 35-mile-long set of fortifications, no willingness to give up a thousand square miles to the enemy. In their view, Crassus went toe to toe with Spartacus from the outset by marching ever southward, practically up to Spartacus’s camp on the strait. The Romans fortified the ravines in the steep hills above the Tyrrhenian coast to cut the rebels off, no more than a mile or two away. The result was a line of fortifications about a mile long. While his men negotiated with pirates and built rafts, Spartacus could see the Romans nearby.

But Spartacus is unlikely to have sat back and let Crassus corner him. In order to build his trap, Crassus would have had to work far from his enemy’s eyes, not under his nose. So, while Spartacus camped on the coast, Crassus’s men were dozens of miles away and 3,000 feet higher up in the hills.

Yes, an instant 35-mile-long defensive system strains credulity but only if we fail to take into account the lay of the land. In fact, most of the 35-mile width of the peninsula is impassable, so it required little fortification. The only places that could be easily traveled were the two coastal strips and the Melìa Ridge—the latter, only about a half-mile wide. Since the Romans occupied the coasts and since Spartacus took readily to the mountains, Crassus could reasonably expect to block him on the ridge. The thousand square miles behind Spartacus were no gift. The territory in question is poor, mountainous, and largely infertile, unlike Sicily and its abundance. Nor was it harvest season. The rebels would have found it difficult to live off this land for long. It is not surprising to read in the ancient sources that Spartacus’s men were beginning to run out of food, nor that one reason Crassus decided to build the fortifications was precisely to deprive the enemy of supplies.

Archaeological evidence tends to support this scenario, although it doesn’t prove it. On the Melìa Ridge there are a series of old trenches and walls, and in the hills nearby are the ruins of three lead-smelting furnaces whose internal walls are sprinkled with lead oxide. The Romans used furnaces to make sling bullets. Without scientific archaeological excavation, these sites cannot be securely dated. But they do fit the sources’ descriptions of a system of trenches—while also casting well-founded doubt on Plutarch’s claim that the Romans cut a trench from sea to sea. In addition, the ruins have been surveyed by a local historian in southern Italy—an amateur who knows the terrain better than the professionals. The opening paragraphs of this article follow his plausible if still unproven reconstruction.

The origin of place names is notoriously difficult to pin down, but even so, several places in and around the Melìa Ridge have evocative names. A section of the ridge is known as the Plains of Marco, leading down into Marco’s Ridge (Marcus Licinius Crassus?); to the west there is a town of Scrofario (Crassus’s lieutenant, Scrofa?); to the east are hamlets of Case Romano (Roman Houses) and Contrada Romano (Roman Neighborhood) and a place called Torre lo Schiavo (The Slave’s Tower).

Perhaps the most intriguing place name was given to the heart of the Melìa Ridge, today covered by a huge forest of ferns with scattered groups of beech trees: Tonnara, that is, “tuna trap.” The slopes to the west of Tonnara are called Chiusa (Enclosure) or Chiusa Grande (Great Enclosure). The word tonnara refers to the traditional Mediterranean practice of catching tuna by blocking their migration route with complex systems of fixed nets. Ancient fishermen regularly practiced tuna trap fishing off the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily. Tonnara would make an appropriate name for the place where the insurgents were trapped on their trek northward.

Spartacus had failed to break out and he had taken casualties, but he had no reason to despair. Far from being trapped, he might have reasoned that he now had Crassus locked in an encounter that could destroy either one. Help, he knew, was on the way. His cavalry had not reached him yet; no doubt they were still scouring the countryside for food and supporters. Once they arrived, the horses might provide the punch to allow him to break through. Meanwhile, if Spartacus could not survive indefinitely on the Melìa Ridge, neither could Crassus.

Spartacus’s main problem was logistical; he needed to feed his army. He would find little food on the ridge. In the summer it was good grazing ground for cattle, and the humidity made it rich in mushrooms. It was winter, however, so the army depended on raids down in the valleys. Crassus’s main problem was political. Rome wanted him to crush the enemy, but Crassus preferred strangulation, and that took time.

And Spartacus distracted, exasperated, and delayed the enemy. As the sources say, Spartacus “annoyed the men in the defensive works in many ways from place to place; he constantly fell upon them unawares and threw bundles of wood into the trenches that he had set on fire, which gave the Romans nasty and difficult work” as they hustled to put out the fires. It was effective psychological warfare while Spartacus waited for his cavalry, but the struggle in the mountains took a toll on his own men. It was the crowning misery of months of trouble.

Back in the summer, when they had defeated two consuls and the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, the insurgents could never have guessed that it would come to this. Even a few weeks earlier, although things were difficult, at least they faced the possibility of escaping to Sicily. Now they were fighting for their lives in the chilly clouds of Italy’s forgotten mountains. Conditions were miserable, food was in short supply, perhaps some men were deserting. The Thracian decided to shock them out of their funk.

“He crucified a Roman prisoner in the space between the two armies,” the sources report, “thereby showing to his own men the sight of what they could expect if they did not win the victory.” There was nothing subtle about this gesture, but it was no exaggeration. The Romans did not plan to issue pardons. They regularly crucified runaway slaves. Besides, it was an age of massacres. The Parthian king Mithridates II massacred tens of thousands of Italian traders and tax collectors in Anatolia in 88 BC, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla brutally executed his wealthy enemies in Rome, as well as thousands of prisoners of war, in the years 82–81 BC.

Apparently Spartacus made his point. His men showed no further signs of weakness, at least none that the Romans could see. If we believe one source, the Romans blinked next, but not on the Melìa Ridge. If anything, the sight of a Roman prisoner on the cross might have stiffened their will. Rather, it was back in Rome, in the Forum, where the Roman people let their frustration spill over. Disappointed by the developing stalemate, they voted to recall Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) from Spain where he was reestablishing order after quashing the revolt led by Quintus Sertorius.

Pompey had won the war against Sertorius’s forces in late 73 and early 72 BC. He never managed to defeat Sertorius in the field, but inflicted enough damage to cause a mutiny. Rivals emerged among the rebels and made contacts with the Romans, who encouraged their plans to assassinate their leader. Betrayed by his allies, Sertorius was murdered at a banquet in his own tent in the summer or autumn of 73 BC. The chief turncoat, Marcus Perpenna, tried to continue the war against Rome, but sometime in the winter or spring of 72 BC, Pompey defeated and then executed him. The rebellion in Spain was over.

The recall of Pompey was a popular act, voted in the Roman assembly. The Senate was no doubt less enthusiastic, because it meant that Pompey could march into Italy with his army intact, instead of dissolving it at the border, as commanders usually were required to do. Pompey had once marched with the brutal dictator Sulla, which gave a sinister tinge to Pompey’s advance. Spartacus clearly must have worried the senators more.

No one, however, could have rued the recall of Pompey more than Crassus. He had wanted the war against Spartacus to build his own career, not Pompey’s. Now he would have to share the credit for victory. Thus Plutarch’s claim that Crassus himself wrote to the Senate and asked that Pompey be recalled sounds preposterous, but it might just be true. Perhaps Crassus’s agents in Rome had sniffed the change in the political winds. Perhaps they recognized the inevitability of the people’s vote, and perhaps they advised Crassus to write to the Senate and thereby seem to be the master of events.

Crassus’s letter is supposed to have asked for the recall of another general, Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus. Marcus Lucullus, governor of Macedonia in 72 BC, had just led a successful campaign against the Bessi, a tough Thracian people once described as “worse than snow.” By asking for two generals to help him, Crassus downgraded Pompey’s importance.

It was a Machiavellian plan, but Spartacus’s next move was even more so. Apparently he got wind that Pompey was coming. It is not difficult to imagine Roman soldiers, lining the walls, hurling taunts at the enemy: Pompey was coming and they had better watch out. Pompey had a reputation: his nickname, earned in the Sullan era, was “the teenage butcher.”

If Spartacus saw Pompey as a threat, he also recognized an opportunity. Pompey gave Crassus and Spartacus a common enemy. They both wanted to keep him out of the war, which would explain Spartacus’s next move: he offered Crassus a peace treaty. In particular, he offered something very Roman, which was to ask Rome to accept him into its fides. Fides is an important Latin word with a rich set of meanings. It means “faith” or “trust” and, in this case, “protection.” By accepting someone into its fides, Rome accepted a set of mutual obligations. We might call it an alliance but the Romans would not have done so, since there was no legal contract between the two parties. Instead moral ties bound them. The Romans considered the object of their fides to be a client, not an ally; they considered themselves to be his patron.

The ties of fides could prove binding indeed. The Second Punic War (218–201 worst war in Rome’s history, began because Hannibal attacked the Spanish city of Saguntum, which had no alliance with Rome, merely a relationship of fides. However seriously Rome took BC), for instance, the a fides relationship, the man who negotiated it, often a general, regarded it with even more importance. If Crassus had accepted Spartacus’s offer, he would have become the Thracian’s patron.

Doing so would have been repugnant. Rome regarded a request for fides as a formal act of surrender, but even so, it conferred a “most beautiful dignity” on the client. By accepting the Thracian into his fides, Crassus would have conceded not only Spartacus’s dignity but also Spartacus’s right to settle his men somewhere in safety. That would never do. To grant such honor to runaway slaves and gladiators was out of the question. Rome wanted Spartacus’s head, not his handshake. Crassus disdainfully ignored the offer.

Yet, what magnificent gall on Spartacus’s part the proposal was! Far from conceding defeat, he asserted his right to respect. If nothing else, this tactic might have been a great morale booster for his men. If he was stuck in Crassus’s trap, Spartacus did not acknowledge it. In fact, he was about to demonstrate his ability to escape, because his cavalry had finally arrived, giving him new hope. It was now some time in February.

Spartacus waited for a storm. He chose a night of snow and wind. An old hand like him would have guessed that in these conditions, the Roman garrison would be “below strength and at that time off its guard,” as one ancient source says. The sources disagree as to just how he made the attack. One writer says that he used the cavalry to spearhead the charge through the ill-maintained defenses. Another says that he filled in a small part of the trenches with earth and branches for his army to cross. A third writer says Spartacus filled in part of the trenches but with the corpses of prisoners and the carcasses of cattle.

The sources disagree as well about the level of Spartacus’s success. One writer says that he managed to extricate only one-third of his army before the Romans closed the gap again. Another insists that Spartacus got his entire army through. An ingenious scholar has tried to square the circle by saying that once Spartacus got part of his army through, Crassus had to abandon the fortifications or else he would have been caught between two threats; hence, the other two-thirds of the army was able to escape as well. In any case, the sources cite huge numbers of rebel slaves at large in the next phase of the war; they also mention Crassus’s fear that Spartacus might now march on Rome. This suggests that, one way or another, Spartacus got most of his men out of Crassus’s net.

Crassus had gambled and failed. Spartacus had paid a price in blood but he had broken free. It was a tremendous victory for the slaves and a bitter defeat for the Romans. There was nothing for the Romans now but to abandon the defenses they had worked so hard to build and to return to the pursuit. Once again, Spartacus had forced a campaign of maneuver and mobility, at which he excelled.

Breaking through fixed defenses is often difficult, particularly against defenders as good at building fortifications as the Romans were. Spartacus, therefore, had reason for pride after his breakout, but not for false hope. With Crassus behind him and Pompey expected to appear, the rebels continued to face poor strategic prospects. Now, as always, Spartacus had only one reasonable goal: leaving Italy.

But how? They had refused to cross the Alps and the sea had betrayed them. Spartacus might think of finding new and trustworthy pirates somewhere. He might even contemplate persuading the army to march back north and give the Alpine passes another try. But not now; surely his battered people needed rest. That reasoning, at any rate, might explain the statement in the sources that his goal now was Samnium.

Samnium is a region of the south central Apennines, lying north and northeast of Capua. It was famously rugged and antiRoman. Sulla’s army had destroyed Samnium’s elite military manpower at the Battle of the Colline Gate in 82 BC, so Samnium could offer Spartacus little support from its free population. With the help of local slaves, however, the rebels might have carved out a retreat in Samnium’s remote hills.

Perhaps they had already found assistance there in their march north in spring 72 BC. Spartacus’s knowledge of Samnium might even have dated back to his days in the gladiatorial school at the House of Vatia in Capua. So Spartacus led his army northward through Bruttium and back into Lucania, heading for Samnium.

But it was not to be. The rebel army broke up again. As one source says, “they began to disagree among themselves.” As before, the split had an ethnic component. A large contingent of Celts and Germans decided to go off on their own. Their leaders were named Castus and Cannicus (or Gannicus). The sources put the group at well over 30,000 men but the figures are, at best, educated guesses.

It is not clear if all the Celts and Germans in the rebellion joined them, nor do we know if any other nationalities chose the splinter group.

In any case, we needn’t conclude that the split was just a matter of tribal politics. A reasonable person could argue that Spartacus had failed and needed to be replaced; his Sicilian strategy, it could be said, had wasted valuable time and lives. If he had saved the army on the Melìa Ridge, he had also brought it there in the first place. According to the sources, before he learned about the breakup, Crassus was afraid that Spartacus was leading his men toward Rome again. This may be just what Castus and Cannicus wanted to do. Dreaming of storming the enemy’s citadel, perhaps they scorned the idea of retreating to Samnium.

So, for the second time, the rebel army broke in two. Crassus surely took heart.

Spartacus’s divided army stood little chance against Crassus, and the end came swiftly. Not that the rebel army was out of fight. Spartacus still managed to defeat a Roman contingent in the hills of southern Italy and wounded one of Crassus’s lieutenants. The breakaway group of Celts and Germans, however, fell into a Roman trap and suffered large losses. The survivors fled back to Spartacus.

Spartacus hoped to march his army to the port of Brundisium (modern Brindisi) on Italy’s southeastern coast on the Adriatic Sea. There they might have been able to buy or fight their way onto ships to safety. But when word came that another Roman army had landed at Brundisium, Spartacus turned back.

There was little choice now but to fight a pitched battle against Crassus. It probably took place not far from the modern city of Salerno. There the Romans won a decisive victory that destroyed the rebel army.

Contrary to legend, Spartacus was not crucified. Although Crassus hung 6,000 rebel survivors from crosses along a Roman highway, Spartacus was saved that indignity. He died fighting on the battlefield and his body was never found.


This article is excerpted from The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss © 2009. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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