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Mr. History,

Why did Spartacus revolt?

—Leah Placid

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Dear Leah,
Although popularized as a fight for freedom, Spartacus’ fundamental motives for starting and leading the Third Servile War remain uncertain. Born in Thrace in 109 BC, he had served as a mercenary and an auxiliary in the Roman army, allegedly deserting and becoming a brigand before being caught, enslaved and made a gladiator. After leading a revolt with his fellow gladiators, he freed every slave he could in order to build an army and proved to be a skillful tactician, defeating a number of Roman armies (aided by the fact that Rome’s best troops were either fighting a revolt in Iberia or engaged in the Third Mithraditic War). His army wandered up and down the Italian boot, plundering as it went. At one point he tried to make a deal with pirates to transport his men to Sicily, but they just took the money and left him in the lurch, at which point he headed north again. Plutarch suggested that he may have wanted to go north into Cisalpine Gaul and disperse the freed slaves to their homes or anywhere else they wanted to go; some alarmists thought he had plans to take and sack Rome itself, but that is unclear. Spartacus finally died fighting Marcus Licinius Crassus’ army, which lined the Appian Way with some 6,000 crucified survivors of his force. There is no evidence that Spartacus had any high anti-slavery principles to his agenda, though posterity has had a grand time attributing them to him ever since.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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