Cambridge Ecce Romani Latin for the New Millennium Wheelock Disce Allen & Greenough None of the above

Third Servile War

73-71 BCE

Roman Republic v. Roman slaves/gladiators
Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius v. Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus

This war was the last of a series of unrelated and unsuccessful slave rebellions. It directly threatened Italy, whereas the previous two began in Sicily, and it gathered a distressingly large number of escaped (former) slaves to its cause. Originally a band of 78 or so gladiators escaped, but their numbers quickly swelled to some 120,000 thousand men, women, and children. They were led by the famous Spartacus.

Their goals are a bit uncertain. According to different sources, they wished to either flee to freedom in Cisalpine Gaul or capture the city of Rome itself. During Ancient Rome, the slaves were treated not as people but as property, and because of this, they were treated harshly and oppressively. This treatment fueled the rebellions.

In 73 BCE, at a gladiatorial school in Capua, some 200 gladiators plotted an escape. However, only 70 men managed to fight their way free. Crixus, Oenomaus, and Spartacus were chosen as their leaders. These gladiators, who had picked up their weapons as they fled the school, were able to fight off the initial forces sent after them. After this victory, they gathered more weapons from the fallen. Having gathered more forces, they retreated to Mount Vesuvius. They continued to raid through the central region of Italy, Campania.

Gaius Claudius Glaber, a Roman praetor, led a force of 3,000 men and besieged the slaves on Mount Vesuvius. The gladiators fled down the mountain on the opposite side and outflanked the army. Another praetor, Publius Varinius, was then sent against the forces. He too was defeated. As they gained more momentum, more and more slaves gathered to them. At some point, however, the leader Oenomaus was killed. During the winter of 73-72 BCE, they armed and trained these new recruits.

In the spring of 72 BCE, the escaped slaves began to move northwards towards Gaul. The Senate sent legions under Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus. Gellius killed about two-thirds of the rebels, including the leader Crixus. After this point, the Roman historian Appian reports that Spartacus wished to march on Rome, whereas the Greek historian reports that Spartacus began to make his way north towards Gaul.

Regardless, in 71 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus was given a praetorship and assigned six new legions as well as two consular legions, who had already battled with Spartacus and lost, to meet Spartacus. He treated his men harshly, and even revived the punishment of decimation, in which one out of every ten men were killed, to motivate his men to victory. Crassus’ victories drove Spartacus and his troops southward. Spartacus lost so many troops that he attempted to withdraw to Sicily, but was betrayed by the pirates, who were supposed to bring his men across to the island.

Despite Crassus’ success, the Senate sent reinforcements. The consul Marcus Terentius Varro Licinius Lucullus moved in from the south, and Pompey moved from the north. Crassus quickly moved to put an end to the war so that he could receive the glory for the end of the war. At the final battle, the Battle of Siler River, Spartacus’ forces were finally routed. Most of them were killed. The 6,000 or so, who were captured, were crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua. Pompey, in the end, never engaged with Spartacus and his companions. He did capture and kill the final 5,000 rebels, who were fleeing from Spartacus’ ailing efforts. Because of this event, Pompey claimed that he had ended the war and thus earned a great deal of credit.

The Third Servile War was crucial in further promoting the military careers of both Crassus and Pompey. They used their victories to further their political careers. In the year after the war, they were both elected to the consulship. The way in which Pompey moved in at the end of the war and claimed most of the credit only served to increase the growing tensions between Crassus and Pompey.


Monmouth College