Ancient History & Civilisation


The Victors

Spring belongs to Venus, goddess of gardens and love. In Capua, the famous roses bloom. Crowds thicken in the city’s perfume market, where exotic scents fill the air. Meanwhile, in 71 BC, 681 years since the founding of Rome, in the consulship of Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura and Cnaeus Aufidius Orestes, the machinery of the Roman state grinds on. On 1 April - the Kalends of April, to the Romans - a Capuan slave named Flaccus inspects a sack of coins. He is the property of the house of Novius, a prominent business family in Capua. The slave confirms the authenticity of the coins, seals the sack, inscribes his name on an ivory rod attached to it, and completes a tiny step in the vast process of sending the Roman people its taxes. Taxes are as timeless as the roses blooming.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Capua, the Roman people exact another payment. Down the road to Rome, as far as the eye can see, there stretches a line of slaves dying on crosses. It is the end of Spartacus’s revolt.

The crucified were Crassus’s last victims. They had done everything they could to avoid this fate. After surviving defeat in battle in Lucania, a still considerable number of rebels had fled rather than surrender. They had lost Spartacus and their other leaders but apparently they chose new ones. If pitched battle no longer lay within their means, they could still carry out guerrilla operations. The sources say that they went into the mountains - perhaps the Picentini Mountains that they knew so well. Crassus and his army followed them. The rebels divided into four groups, no doubt hoping that by scattering they would increase the odds of survival. Apparently, they failed; Crassus claimed to have captured them all.

Crassus took 6,000 rebels alive. He then marched them to Capua, a distance of about 75 miles, assuming that they were captured in the Picentini Mountains. Were any of the original seventy-four gladiators who raised the rebellion among them? If so, they would not have had long to contemplate the irony of their return to the city where they had first broken out of the house of Vatia. Crassus had in mind a punishment that the Roman world considered ‘terrible’, ‘infamous’, ‘utterly vile’ and ‘servile’. He planned to crucify all 6,000.

In the western world, crucifixion has a profound religious meaning because of the crucifixion of Jesus. In ancient times, crucifixion signified capital punishment; the cross was the equivalent of the gallows but far crueller. The Romans considered crucifixion the supreme penalty, reserved for rebellious foreigners, violent criminals, brigands and slaves. Verres had crucified an alleged agent of Spartacus, thereby unwittingly subjecting a Roman citizen to a punishment from which he was exempt. Spartacus had purposely crucified a Roman prisoner in the Battle of the Melìa Ridge. He wanted to warn his men about what they could expect from the Romans, and he was right.

The crucifixion of 6,000 people maybe the largest recorded mass crucifixion of the ancient world. Only Octavian Caesar, the future emperor Augustus, matched it in 36 BC when he captured and crucified 6,000 slave rowers from the fleet of his rival, Sextus Pompey. In both cases, the figure 6,000 is an approximation and, like most ancient statistics, it must be taken with a grain of salt. But ancient sources mention other mass crucifixions, among them: 800 men crucified in 86 BC, with their wives and children killed before their eyes, under Alexander Jannaeus, king of independent Judaea; 2,000 rebels from Tyre crucified along the Mediterranean shore by Alexander the Great in 332 BC; 2,000 rebels crucified in Judaea by the Roman official Quintilius Varus in 4 BC; 3,000 rebels crucified in Babylon by the Persian king Darius in 519 BC. Supposedly 500 people a day were crucified during the six-month Roman siege siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, a shockingly high total of 90,000 crucifixions - if true.

If crucifying 6,000 slaves was extreme, the action bears Crassus’s signature. The man built his career on the willingness to go the extra mile, from buying a legion to decimating a cohort to walling off the ‘toe’ of the Italian ‘boot’. Why not cap his victory with a spectacular, cruel and extravagant gesture of Roman justice?

We find crucifixions disgusting, but Romans probably tolerated them as a grim necessity. Nowadays many people reject the death penalty as cruel and unusual or criticize a tough interrogation technique like waterboarding as torture, while other people accept them. The purpose of crucifixion, in Roman eyes, was less revenge than deterrence. Most Romans considered the slave revolt as a crime inflicted on the people of Italy. They disregarded the injustice of slavery and noted only the devastation of the countryside. The sight of slaves in arms had aroused the Romans’ fear, anger and indignation. Now they wanted peace of mind promised by a sight burned for ever into the mind’s eye, a warning to Italy’s slaves never to repeat their rebellion.

In Capua, the freedman Publius Confuleius Sabbio might have walked outside the city walls to take in the sight. Sabbio had done so well in the cloak-weaving business that, in the early to middle first century BC, he was able to build a large townhouse decorated with elegant and ornate mosaics. He welcomed guests with his favourite greeting, Recte omnia velim sint nobis, ‘I would like all things to go well for us!’ The ex-slave would probably have faced the prisoners on the crosses with less kind words. He was a city-dweller; they were country folk; he had achieved success in the Roman order; they had threatened to destroy it. Although Sabbio too had once faced the threat of the cross, he may well have thought that Crassus had done the right thing.

He had not done so on the cheap: crucifying 6,000 people was surely expensive. Perhaps Crassus advertised himself afterwards as the man who paid for all the lumber, nails, rope and leather for whips. He was the man who arranged for 6,000 posts to be transported to intervals along the road and affixed in the ground, and who had guards stand watch over the dying rebels for days, including night-time. He might have presented himself once again as a man whose huge wealth paid outsized dividends to the Roman people. Some of the owners of the 6,000 slaves might have seen matters differently, since every cross represented a lost investment. Slave owners might have been willing to accept the rebels back, as owners had done after the First Sicilian Slave War, in a time of labour shortage. They might have argued that a good whipping would make any rebel docile again before Crassus slammed that door shut.

Crassus had the rebels crucified along ‘the whole road to Rome from Capua’, as the ancient sources say. By doing so, he followed the protocols of Roman justice and advanced his political career. Roman jurists recommended crucifying notorious brigands at the scene of their crimes, which made Capua, the birthplace of Spartacus’s revolt, the logical place to erect the crosses. Roman authorities also favoured the most crowded roads for crucifixions, in order to impress the maximum number of people, so the road between Capua and Rome made sense. In politics, as in transportation, all roads led to Rome, so naturally Crassus erected his crosses on the way to the capital city.

It is usually assumed that the ‘road to Rome from Capua’, was the Appian Way. In fact, two roads connected Capua and Rome; the other road was the Via Latina. The Appian Way was more famous but the Via Latina probably had more local traffic. The Appian Way (132 miles) was 14 miles shorter than the Via Latina (146 miles) and took a day’s less travel: it took five or six days to reach Rome from Capua on the Appian Way compared to six or seven days on the Via Latina. Whichever road Crassus chose would have been crowded with crosses.

Roman crucifixion normally consisted of three elements: scourging, carrying of the cross by the condemned and lifting. We might imagine a lamentable parade of the condemned, marching slowly northwards towards Rome through a landscape of spring flowers, their flesh torn and beaten from the whip, their throats parched. They might have included women as well as men, since Roman justice did provide for the crucifixion of women. The Romans even crucified dogs, in an annual ritual, so perhaps children too ended up on Crassus’s crosses. The victims carried only the cross bar; the upright stake had already been fixed in the ground. When the condemned person reached the assigned stake, the executioners hoisted them into place via a ladder and poles.

All the condemned suffered cruelly, yet experiences on the cross varied. Depending on how the victim was hung, they might have suffocated within minutes or survived in agony for days. The sources make clear that the crucified could linger: they record cases of men talking from the cross, making legal contracts from the cross, and being cut down and spared after a bribe to the officer on guard. Some victims were displayed with special grotesqueness, to mock them, and some were crucified upside down.

Some of the condemned were tied to the cross by rope while others were nailed to it. Archaeologists have found the bones of one crucifixion victim in Israel, dated to the first century AD. Possibly named Yehohanan, his feet were nailed to the cross but his arms seem to have been tied to the crossbar by rope. The victim was 24 years old and stood 5 foot 5 inches tall, probably shorter than the average height of the northern European males who predominated among Spartacus’s rebels. Yehohanan’s right anklebone still has a nail and piece of wood attached to it.

Perhaps some of Spartacus’s followers remained defiant on the cross. The ancient sources record cases of crucified men who laughed, spat on spectators or even sang victory songs when nailed to the cross.

We can only hope that the slaves on the road to Rome died quickly instead of suffering prolonged pain. After they died, the authorities would not have hurried to cut them down. The longer their corpses remained hanging, rotting and stinking, the more they would deter future rebels. As lowly criminals, the slaves were probably crucified close to the ground; high-status prisoners were raised 3 feet above ground level. All corpses were food for vultures, but dogs too could pick at the lower ones. Eventually, somebody had the job of taking down the remnants and hauling them to the nearest garbage dump. It is unlikely that the slaves received a proper burial; perhaps someone eventually burned the heaps of rotting flesh to spare the citizens the lingering smell.

It had taken Crassus six months to defeat the rebels. Since he entered office no later than November 72 BC, the revolt was over by the end of April 71 BC. The crosses should have been in place by May. Perhaps celebrants of the Floralia, the Roman equivalent of May Day, wearing traditional flower wreaths in their hair, went out to stare at the condemned. Through fields of red poppies and opposite hillsides of yellow broom, in valleys and over passes, along waterways and beside aqueducts, past junctions and way stations, milestones and mausoleums, villas and vineyards, gateways and gardens, the line of crosses marched on and on. Chariots and chain gangs, flocks of sheep and herds of cows, school children skipping along and senators carried in litters, bandits sneaking through the night and bakers up before dawn, they all passed by and saw. If any gladiators happened to view the crosses on the way between Capua and Rome, they might have taken the lesson especially to heart.

Perhaps we should imagine Crassus at the head of a column of soldiers, riding between the crosses, heralded by trumpeters, headed for Rome on a macabre victory lap. It was his moment; surely he made the most of it. As long as the slaves hung on their crosses, they would bring Crassus the publicity he craved. His hunger might have gone deep.

In spite of his success, Crassus feared oblivion in the public eye. In half a year he had defeated Spartacus, a man who had held Rome at bay for one and a half years before that. Crassus had tried Rome’s patience, however, by walling off Spartacus rather than finding and destroying him in battle. He had, furthermore, required help from other generals, so Crassus could not claim sole credit for victory.

His rival Pompey had turned injury to insult. It had happened this way: in addition to the rebels whom Crassus followed into the mountains, a second group of survivors remained at large. They fled Lucania and went north, perhaps after concluding belatedly that Spartacus had been right, after all, about crossing the Alps. Considerations of timing as well as a hint in ancient sources suggest that these were Celtic and German refugees from the Battle of Cantenna. Five thousand people, they made it as far as Etruria (Tuscany) in central Italy when their luck ran out. They landed right in the path of Pompey and his victorious army, marching back from Spain. Showing no mercy to runaway slaves, Pompey wiped them out.

Pompey wrote a letter to the Senate announcing his success. According to one source, the letter said: ‘Crassus had defeated the runaway slaves in open battle but he, Pompey, had torn up the very roots of the war.’ A clever put-down, it touched a sore truth. Crassus had killed Spartacus but left insurgents at large. They could still make life miserable for free Italians, as would become painfully clear about a year later.

In his prosecution of Verres, Cicero refers to an incident in early 70 BC that he calls ‘the troubles at Tempsa’. Tempsa was a town in Bruttium known for its copper mines. Where there were mines there were slaves. The ‘troubles at Tempsa’, Cicero says, involved ‘the remnants of the Italian war of the fugitive slaves’.

Just what were those troubles? Cicero doesn’t say. They were bad enough to be reported to a meeting of the Roman Senate but not so bad that the senators sent an army to deal with them. According to Cicero, Gaius Verres should have handled the problem. He happened to be in the vicinity, on his way back to Rome after finally completing his extended term as governor of Sicily. A delegation from the town of Vibo Valentia, near Tempsa, led by an important local inhabitant named Manius.’ Marius, went to Verres and asked for his help. A ‘small band’ of rebels was at large, Marius told him. Surely the insurgents looked with eager eyes at the villas that dotted Vibo’s fertile territory. As a governor, Verres would have had a modest military escort, and Marius wanted them to restore order.

Cicero claims that Marius’s pleas fell on deaf ears; Verres preferred the company of his mistress on the seashore to helping the citizens of Vibo. Cicero may be telling the truth, but it may also be that things were more complicated: perhaps the rebels scattered before Verres could intervene. Or perhaps the ‘small band’ was really too large for Verres’s men. In any case, once the rebels had sacked the territories of Tempsa and Vibo, they melted into the hills. In Rome, the Senate shrugged.

The senators had other business at hand. War still raged against Mithridates, while pirates continued to terrorize the Mediterranean. At home, Cicero was prosecuting Verres - his term as governor of Sicily had ended on 31 December 71 BC - on charges of corruption. Cicero was brilliant and a former quaestor but he was young; Verres was defended by the greatest advocate of the day, Hortensius.

But the most diverting spectacle of domestic politics was the rivalry between Crassus and Pompey. By summer, both men had reached Rome with their armies. Normally, Roman generals were required to disband their armies once they entered the boundaries of Italy, but these two generals were exceptions because they each fought rebel slaves. Crassus commanded 35-40,000 troops; Pompey about 25-30,000. Neither man disbanded his army. They sat outside the city, waiting and wheeling and dealing.

Each man wanted to be elected consul for 70 BC, preferably at the expense of the other. Rome had two consuls each year; surely Pompey and Crassus would have preferred to share their year of office with a lesser figure. Neither could get his wish without the consent of Rome’s power brokers. Roman elections mobilized a mass electorate but they were heavily weighted in favour of the rich and powerful. No one could be elected without the support of a few, well-connected people. In the end, the generals agreed to a deal: when elections were held in July, Crassus and Pompey were each chosen as consul for the following year.

They would take office on 1 January 70 BC. With political success assured, the two generals might have each disbanded his army, save for one remaining item of business: the victory parade. Every Roman general aspired to the supreme honour of celebrating a triumph. A triumph was a spectacular victory march through the city of Rome with his army, culminating in a sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill and a feast. The general who celebrated a triumph was called triumphator.

Two other victorious generals had returned to Italy in 71 BC and they too each wanted a triumph. They were Marcus Lucullus, who had been summoned home to fight Spartacus after winning victories in Thrace, and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, proconsul and Pompey’s colleague in Spain.

Every triumph was different. Few details of the triumphs of 71 BC survive, but on a plausible (but by no means certain) reconstruction, a triumph proceeded as follows.

All Rome turned out on the day of a triumph. The triumphator began the morning outside the city with an assembly of his troops. He addressed them and distributed honours to a few and cash gifts to everyone. Then the triumphal parade began, entering Rome through the special porta triumphalis, ‘triumphal gate’, which was otherwise closed. It headed towards the Capitol via a long and very visible route. The Senate and the magistrates led the way, followed by trumpeters. Then came floats, displaying paintings of sieges and battles and heaps of spoils, with gold and silver prominent. Next came the white bulls or oxen headed for the slaughter, accompanied by priests. Freed Roman prisoners of war came next, dressed as the triumphator’s freedmen. Prominent captives marched in chains, usually headed for execution.

Then, preceded by his lictors, came the victorious general. Dressed in a special toga decorated with designs in gold thread, the triumphator rode in a four-horse chariot. He carried a sceptre and wore a wreath of Delphic laurel. A slave stood beside him and reminded him that he was mortal. His grown sons rode on horseback behind him, followed by his officers and the cavalry, all on horseback. Finally came the infantry, marching proudly, singing a combination of hymns and bawdy songs about their commander. Caesar’s men, for instance, mocked their chief as ‘the bald adulterer’.

The climax of the day came on the Capitoline Hill. There, after the execution of the enemy leaders, the triumphator attended the sacrifice to Jupiter. He gave the god a portion of the spoils as well as his laurel wreath. Afterwards he appeared as the guest of honour at a banquet on the Capitoline. Throughout the city the people feasted at public expense. Finally, the pipes and flutes accompanied the triumphator home at night.

To celebrate a triumph, a commander had to receive the permission of the Senate and a vote of the people. He also had to fulfil certain requirements. He had to have won a victory in a foreign war over a declared enemy. He had to have killed at least 5,000 of the enemy and brought the war to a conclusion - one of many reasons for inflated body counts in ancient texts. He had to have held public office and fought in the theatre officially assigned him. As a final matter of dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s, he had to have carried out the proper religious ceremonies before fighting.

His victory over Spanish rebels allowed Pompey to request - and receive - a triumph. So did Pompey’s co-commander in Spain, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, and likewise Marcus Lucullus. Crassus, however, did not qualify for a triumph, in spite of his official commission and his victories, because his enemies were slaves. It was beneath the dignity of the Roman people to celebrate a triumph over a servile foe. Crassus had to settle for an ovatio instead.

An ovation was a stripped-down version of a triumph. Like a triumph, it featured a victory parade through the city, leading up to the Capitol and culminating in a sacrifice to Jupiter. There was money for the soldiers and feasts for the people. But the general did not ride on a chariot like the triumphator; he either walked or, in Crassus’s day, rode a horse. He did not wear the triumphator’s gold threads but the standard purple-bordered toga of a magistrate. He had no sceptre. Trumpets were banned; the victor had to settle for flutes. Finally, he wore a myrtle wreath instead of laurel.

As minor as this last detail seems to us, apparently it meant a great deal to the Romans. Crassus swallowed his pride when it came to accepting an ovatio instead of a triumph, but a myrtle wreath was too much. He asked the Senate for a special decree, a private bill as it were. The Senate complied, allowing Crassus to wear a laurel wreath at his ovatio.

Marcus Lucullus’s triumph probably took place first, well before the end of the year. Metellus Pius, Crassus and Pompey followed in late December, apparently within the space of a few days. Scholars reconstruct the order of events thus: Metellus Pius came first because of his rank as a former consul, then Crassus the ex-praetor, and finally Pompey, who, in spite of his military prowess, was a mere Roman knight.

Within the space of about a week, some 100,000 men marched through the city and accepted the cheers of a public grateful that peace had been restored in the heart of the empire and in one province, if not everywhere. These were very lavish affairs to judge from a surviving detail of Metellus Pius’s triumph, that he served 5,000 thrushes for the public feasting. The cost for these birds alone was 60,000 sesterces, which was roughly equivalent to the annual pay of about 100 legionaries.

By the time of Pompey’s triumph, Rome had crowned four brows with laurel wreaths in one year. It was the last day of December 71 BC. The Spartacus War was officially history. The legend had already begun.

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