Appian on Spartacus

Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165): one of the most underestimated of all Greek historians, author of a Roman History. The part on the Roman Civil Wars survives in its entirety while substantial parts of the remainder survive as well.

Spartacus was the leader of an army of runaway slaves that shook Italy in 73-71 BCE but was ultimately defeated by the Roman general Crassus. There are two important sources about this revolt: the story is told in the Life of Crassus by Plutarch of Chaeronea, and in the Civil Wars by Appian of Alexandria. Both authors lived in the second century CE, but used older accounts, such as the Histories of Sallust and Livy's History of Rome from the Foundation.

Here, we find the story by Appian (Civil Wars, 1.116-120). The translation was made by John Carter.


[1.116] In Italy, at this same time, Spartacus, a Thracian who had once fought against the Romans and after being taken prisoner and sold had become a gladiator in a troop which was kept to provide entertainments at Capua, persuaded about seventy of his fellows to risk their lives for freedom rather than for exhibition as a spectacle. With them, he overpowered their guards and escaped. Then he equipped himself and his companions with staves and daggers seized from travelers and took refuge on Mount Vesuvius, where he allowed many runaway domestic slaves and some free farm hands to join him.

With the gladiators Oenomaus and Crixus as his subordinates he plundered the nearby areas, and because he divided the spoils in equal shares his numbers quickly swelled. The first commander sent against him was Varinius Glaber,note and the second Publius Valerius;note instead of legionary forces they had anyone they could quickly conscript on the way, because the Romans did not yet class the affair as a war, but as a kind of raid akin to piracy, and they were defeated when they attacked him. Spartacus himself actually captured Varinius' horse from under him; so nearly was a Roman general taken prisoner by a gladiator.

After this, people flocked in still greater numbers to join Spartacus: his army now numbered 70,000 and he began to manufacture weapons and gather stores. The government in Rome now dispatched the consuls with two legions.


[1.117] Crixus, at the head of 3,000 men, was defeated and killed by one of them at Mount Garganus, with the loss of two-thirds of his force. Spartacus, who was eager to go through the Apennines to the Alpine regions, and then to Celtic lands from the Alps, was intercepted and prevented from escaping by the other consul, while his colleague conducted the pursuit. But Spartacus turned on each of them and defeated them separately.

In the aftermath they retreated in confusion, while Spartacus, first sacrificing 300 Roman prisoners to Crixus, made for Rome with 120,000 foot soldiers after burning the useless equipment and putting all the prisoners to death and slaughtering the draught animals to free himself of all encumbrances; and although a large number of deserters approached him he refused to accept any of them.

When the consuls made another stand in Picenum, there was a further great struggle and on that occasion also a great Roman defeat. Spartacus, however, changed his mind about marching on Rome because he was not yet a match for the defenders and his troops did not all have soldier's arms and equipment (no town had joined their cause, and they were all slaves, deserters and human flotsam).

He seized the mountains around Thurii, together with the town itself, and then prevented traders bringing in gold and silver, barred his own men from acquiring any, and bought exclusively iron and bronze at good prices without harming those who brought them. As a result they had plenty of raw material and were well equipped and made frequent raiding expeditions. They again confronted the Romans in battle, defeated them, and on that occasion too returned to camp laden with booty.

[1.118] The war had now lasted three years and was causing the Romans great concern, although at the beginning it had been laughed-at and regarded as trivial because it was against gladiators. When the appointment of other generals was proposed there was universal reluctance to stand, and no one put himself forward until Licinius Crassus, distinguished both for his family and his wealth, undertook to assume the post, and led six legions against Spartacus. To these he added the two consular legions when he reached the front.

He immediately punished the latter for their repeated defeats, making them draw lots for every tenth man to be put to death.note According to some, this was not what happened; instead, when he himself had suffered defeat after engaging the enemy with his whole force he had them all draw lots for the tenth place and put to death up to 4,000 men without being in the least deterred by their numbers. Whatever the truth, he established himself in the eyes of his men as more to be feared than a defeat at the hands of the enemy, and forthwith won a victory over 10,000 of Spartacus' men who were encamped separately somewhere. He killed two thirds of them and marched confidently against Spartacus himself.

After winning a brilliant victory, he pursued Spartacus as he fled towards the sea with the intention of sailing across to Sicily, overtook him, and walled him in with ditches, earthworks, and palisades.

[1.119] Spartacus then tried to force his way out and reach the Samnite country, but Crassus killed almost 6,000 of his opponents at the beginning of the day and nearly as many more at evening, at the cost of three dead and seven wounded from the Roman army; so effective had their punishment been in altering their will to win.

Spartacus, who was waiting for some cavalry that were on their way to him, no longer went into battle with his full force, but conducted many separate harassing operations against his besiegers; he made sudden and repeated sorties against them, set fire to bundles of wood which he had thrown into the ditches, and made their work difficult. He crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man's land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.

When the government at Rome heard of the siege and contemplated the dishonor they would incur from a protracted war with gladiators, they appointed Pompey, who had recently arrived from Hispania, to an additional command in the field, in the belief that the task of dealing with Spartacus was now substantial and difficult.

[1.120] As a result of this appointment Crassus pressed on urgently with every means of attacking Spartacus, to stop Pompey stealing his glory, while Spartacus, thinking to forestall Pompey, invited Crassus to negotiate.

When Crassus spurned the offer, Spartacus decided to make a desperate attempt, and with the cavalry which had by now arrived forced a way through the encircling fortifications with his whole army and retired towards Brundisium, with Crassus in pursuit. But when he discovered that Lucullus, who was on his way back from his victory over Mithridates,note was there, he despaired of everything and, at the head of a still large force, joined battle with Crassus. The fight was long, and bitterly contested, since so many tens of thousands of men had no other hope.

Spartacus himself was wounded by a spear-thrust in the thigh, but went down on one knee, held his shield in front of him, and fought off his attackers until he and a great number of his followers were encircled and fell. The rest of his army was already in disorder and was cut down in huge numbers; consequently their losses were not easy to estimate (though the Romans lost about 1,000 men), and Spartacus' body was never found.

Since there was still a very large number of fugitives from the battle in the mountains, Crassus proceeded against them. They formed themselves into four groups and kept up their resistance until there were only 6,000 survivors, who were taken prisoner and crucified all the way along the road from Rome to Capua.