The United States has a long and storied career as a nation of activists when compared to others on the world stage, but did you know that the word “activism” has only been used in a political sense for about the last century? Even in the 1960s, though, we usually referred to these types of actions and campaigns for equality as “social action” instead. But in the less literal sense of the word, activism around the world is something experienced by nearly every generation.
This is the first in a series on activism around the world, where we’ll explore every trace of activism from Ancient Rome to modern-day California. And where else to start but the story of the slave turned gladiator, Spartacus — and his rebellion to free the slaves? It would eventually be named the Third Servile War because of how far Spartacus’s reach extended.
That the revolt happened at all was a shock — not just because of what it meant to the Roman Empire, but because it was nearly a miracle. An escape from Lentulus Batiatus’s gladitorial training school in 73 BC had already been planned, but someone spilled news of the plot. That didn’t stop anyone. Dozens of men grabbed kitchen instruments to fight their way free.
Once outside, the gladiators accomplished two things in quick succession: they captured a store of weapons and armor to outfit themselves, and they chose leadership. Spartacus was one of these men (and would become the face of the rebellion from history’s point of view), but Crixus and Oenomaus were two others.
Historians believe the escaped gladiators had many early successes in no particular order: they pillaged the towns surrounding Capua to free and recruit more slaves, they defeated forces sent from Capua, and eventually fled to Mount Vesuvius — perhaps in hopes of finding a more defensive position.
The real shock occurred when Roman militia were sent after them under the command of Praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, who tried to starve the slaves from their perch on Vesuvius. But the slaves managed to climb down the other side of the mountain using vines, flank the militia, and slaughter the force of 3,000 men. Another expedition was subsequently sent and slaughtered.
Because of these Roman defeats, word of mouth spread — the seeds of activism — and the cause swelled to around 70,000 men and women, who trained until 72 BC. Accounts differ, but after Oenemaus was killed (historians don’t know how), Crixus and Spartacus may have had a falling out and split the army in two. This led to the eventual defeat of both armies. We know that Crixus was killed, but what happened to Spartacus is still a matter of debate.
Following the destruction of the slave armies, many thousands disappeared into the ether — either never to be heard from again, or to be slowly picked up by Roman authorities. Thousands of slaves were crucified along the Appian Way as a future warning. But it served more as a reminder.
Want to learn more about Spartacus? There are many historical references in texts from the time, but books dedicated to the Third Servile War are in abundance. If you might prefer a fictionalized and dramatized account, try Starz’s popular TV show that aired beginning in 2010: Spartacus.