Ancient History & Civilisation


The Thracian Lady

In 73 BC a Thracian woman announced a miracle. A prophetess, she preached the word of Dionysus, who took possession of her during ecstatic frenzies. The god, she said, had bestowed great power on a man. Like her, he was a Thracian who lived in Italy. He was her lover: Spartacus.

We know very little about the Thracian woman, not even her name. The surviving information, however, is tantalizing. She was Spartacus’s messenger, perhaps even his muse.

Although nothing is known of her appearance, we can imagine the kind of ecstatic ritual that might have led to her prophecy, because a great deal of information survives about the worship of Dionysus. Popular in many places in the Mediterranean, Dionysus was the national god of Thrace. Thracian women danced for Dionysus, and wore long, ankle-length robes, barefoot with their upper arms exposed. Thracian women tattooed their arms with such patterns as geometric stripes, chevrons, dots, circles and a fawn. A Bacchante (that is, worshipper of Dionysus) wore an ivy wreath in her hair. As she worshipped the god she typically held a thyrsus, a giant fennel staff topped with a pine cone. Beside her might have lain the tiny items that she used in her ritual: amber, seashells, knucklebone and glass. But the most striking object would have sat in her right hand: a snake. Its body would have been curled around her upper arm and through her armpit, while its head would have extended downwards towards the ground. Knowing that the snake was Dionysus’s main companion and symbol, she probably felt no fear.

Plutarch is our sole source of information about the Thracian lady. He lived 150 years after Spartacus but he based his work on the now largely missing contemporary account of Sallust. What Plutarch says might not satisfy sceptics, but other sources make it plausible.

We meet the Thracian lady in Capua but we can imagine the process that brought her there. Consider a scene on a tombstone of a slave dealer. Two women are walking, modestly dressed in ankle-length tunics, their heads covered by shawls. Two children walk beside them. Ahead of them walk eight men, chained to each other at the neck, their bare legs showing below knee-length tunics. Leading the march is a man in a full-length, hooded cloak. He is a guard or slave dealer; the eight men are being led off into slavery. The women and children may be family, following two of the men into bondage.

The scene took place some time in the Late Roman Republic or Early Empire. The place is Thrace; the slaves were Thracians, sold into slavery in exchange for wine. But they may remind us of Spartacus and his female companion on the road to slavery in Capua in 73 BC.

It may seem hard to believe that an enslaved gladiator was allowed to have a female companion. But gladiators could enjoy a stable family relationship, although as slaves they could not enter into a marriage that was valid in Roman law. Slave ‘consorts’ and children are well attested in ancient sources. Owners might even have liked a gladiator to have a wife, as an anchor in the rough world of the ludus.

Spartacus’s lady came from the same people as her man, although just which Thracian people that was is unclear. Plutarch says that Spartacus came from a nomadic people, by which he probably means a people whose wealth came from flocks that they pastured in the highlands in summer and in the lowlands in winter. That doesn’t make Spartacus a humble shepherd but simply the product of an economy based on herding.

In any case, ‘nomadic’ may possibly be a medieval copyist’s error; the ancient text might have referred not to nomads but to Maedi (singular, Maedus). The Maedi were a Thracian tribe who lived in the mountains of what is now south-western Bulgaria. Like Spartacus, they had a reputation for physical strength; like him, they fought alternately for and against Rome. Other Thracian peoples of this period provided hardy warriors, such as the Bessi and the Getae, and Spartacus and his lady may have belonged to one of those groups. Another possibility is the Odrysians, a people of south-eastern Thrace, located between the Aegean Sea and the Rhodope Mountains. They were Roman allies who fought against Mithridates.

How Spartacus’s consort came to Italy, how she met Spartacus, and whether or not she too was a slave - these things are all unclear. Nor is it certain that she was with Spartacus in Rome, although that seems likely. But we do know that she cohabited with Spartacus in Capua and fled the city with him. And there is reason to think that the Thracian woman spread Spartacus’s fame.

When Spartacus was brought to Rome to be sold into slavery, a remarkable event is supposed to have taken place. Plutarch records the story but he does not vouch for its veracity. While the Thracian was sleeping, a snake wrapped itself around his face. Or so the tale goes, even though modern experts explain that this is impossible. Italy is home to a quite a few snake species but, according to scientists, none of them would wrap itself around a sleeping person’s face. Perhaps Spartacus woke up with a snake crawling close to or even on his face: unlikely but not impossible. The story could then have grown in the telling, either by Spartacus or others. Or maybe Spartacus said merely that he had dreamed the whole thing.

In any case, the Thracian woman interpreted the event as a miracle. Just as a snake had wrapped itself around Spartacus’s face, so would he be surrounded by ‘a great and fearful power’. The result would be - well, the manuscripts differ, with some saying Spartacus would have ‘a lucky end’ and others saying ‘an unlucky end’. The first version is attractive, considering the positive connotations of snakes in Thrace, not to mention the worthlessness of propaganda that predicted ruin.

The Thracian woman’s words carried the weight of prophecy. Thrace had a long tradition of prophetesses and oracles, and Thracians set great store by women’s religious authority. So did the ancient Germans, who believed that there was ‘something sacred and prophetic’ about women. But anyone can grasp the timeless stereotype of the woman who speaks for natural forces: the siren, the sibyl or the witch. Spartacus’s companion might have been ‘a woman to make your heart tremble’ as one seventeenth-century Englishman said of a woman who prophesied in public.

Seers played a proven role as troublemakers among slaves. They had incited one revolt in Sicily in 135 BC and led another in 104 BC. The Roman agricultural expert Columella, writing around AD 60, might have had such events in mind when he warned managers to keep prophets and witches off the estate.

We don’t know when the Thracian woman made her prophecy. Perhaps it only came later, when the revolt of the gladiators was under way. But if she predicted the future while Spartacus was still in Capua or even before, in Rome, then it might have been the spark that lit the rebellion. In the first century BC both rebels and Romans took seers very seriously.

For example, those bitter Roman political rivals, Marius and Sulla, shared a common devotion to seers. Marius brandished favourable predictions from various clairvoyants, and the most colourful of them was a Syrian prophetess named Martha. Supposedly, the woman first came to the attention of Marius’s wife when Martha correctly predicted the outcome of a gladiatorial match. Marius took Martha with his army on campaign.

Sulla did not let his rival outdo him. The most powerful man in Rome before his death in 79 BC, Sulla often reported his dreams as omens and he proudly advertised the words of a seer from Mesopotamia (today, Iraq) that Sulla was destined to be the greatest man in the world. Sulla claimed the title of Felix, ‘lucky’, because of the various gods who supported him.

But unlike Spartacus, neither Sulla nor Marius would have claimed Dionysus. In addition to being the god of wine and theatre, Dionysus had a long political pedigree, going back to Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. More recently, Dionysus had been the symbol of Greek kings (especially Cleopatra’s dynasty, the Ptolemies of Egypt), Thracian tribes, the poor and enslaved masses of southern Italy, and various rebels against Rome, from the leaders of the Sicilian slave revolts to mutinous southern Italian elites to Mithridates. A flexible figure, Dionysus stood for power, prosperity, patriotism, liberty and even rebirth, depending on who wielded the symbol.

By associating Spartacus with a snake and god-given power, the Thracian lady gave him a new identity. She blended old notes of religion, nationalism and class into a new song of rebellion. The snake made Spartacus a Thracian hero and linked him to Dionysus, who was known in his homeland as Zagreus or Sabazius.

Thracian culture glorified the image of a great heroic ancestor; Thracian art usually depicted the hero on horseback, often with a snake nearby. In Thrace, Dionysus worship was a fighting faith. For example, around 15 BC a Thracian revolt against Rome broke out; its leader, named Vologaesus, was a priest of Dionysus.

To the downtrodden, Dionysus offered hope; to the Roman ruling class, he spelled trouble. They associated him with southern Italy and Sicily, where the god was especially popular, and where rebels had fought under the banner of Dionysus over the years. In southern Italy, Dionysus was linked to Orpheus, another mythological figure from Thrace. So-called Orphic writings were widespread, and they told a tale of the death and resurrection of Dionysus, a symbol of hope for the afterlife. As a Thracian and as Dionysus’s chosen, Spartacus might find ready supporters in southern Italy: another reason for Dionysus to have worried the Senate. Even the most peaceful and law-abiding worshippers of Dionysus bothered Rome’s strait-laced elite.

Worshippers of Dionysus met in small groups where they held their ceremonies and initiated newcomers. The Greeks called these rituals ‘orgies’, the Romans called them bacchanals; the reality was exuberant but no sexual free-for-all. Worshippers drank, danced, sang and shouted out promises of liberation, rebirth and immortality. Believers demonstrated their trust in the god by showing off their snake handling, by fastening their animal skins with snakes, by wreathing their heads with them or by letting them flicker their tongue over their faces without ever biting them.

In 186 BC the Roman Senate claimed that Italy’s widespread Dionysiac groups masked a conspiracy. In an atmosphere of fear and panic, the Senate launched a witch-hunt up and down the peninsula and drove Romans out of the cult. After 186 BC, only women, foreigners and slaves were permitted to worship the god.

Dionysus was left to the powerless of Italy and they embraced him. In 185-184 BC the slave shepherds of Apulia - the heel of the Italian ‘boot’ - revolted and the sources hint that they claimed Dionysus as their patron. Between 135 and 101 BC, two slave revolts in Sicily and one slave revolt in western Anatolia all invoked Dionysus. The god appeared again in the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies known as the Social War (91-88 BC): rebel coins showed Bacchus, the Roman name for Dionysus, as a symbol of liberation. As mentioned earlier, Dionysus was a symbol adopted by Mithridates. The rebel king called himself the ‘new Dionysus’, like the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy IV (ruled 221-205 BC), and he minted coins showing Dionysus and his grapes on one side and the cap worn by a freed slave on the other.

There may be an echo of the Thracian woman’s propaganda in the statement of a Roman poet that Spartacus ‘raged through every part of Italy with sword and fire, like a worshipper of Dionysus’. The writer, Claudian (c. AD 370-404), lived nearly 500 years after Spartacus, but he had an interest in Roman history, so his words may reflect a good source.

By invoking Dionysus, the Thracian woman stirred a chord among foreign-born gladiators and slaves as well as among Italians who remembered Mithridates’ support during the Social War. Her message was, in effect: ‘If you supported Mithridates’ revolt against Rome, then support Spartacus!’

As we have seen, we don’t know whether Spartacus himself supported Mithridates when he deserted the Roman army before 73 BC and became a latro, i.e. a bandit or a guerrilla. In any case, once he revolted against Rome in 73 BC, no doubt Spartacus was glad to make common cause with Mithridates’ supporters.

By the same token, there is no reason to think that Spartacus had ever served Rome with a whole heart. One historian has made a plausible guess about the details of Spartacus’s military service. In 83 BC the Roman general Sulla prepared to cross from Greece to Italy in order to wage civil war. He recruited infantry and cavalry from Greece and Macedonia to join the forces he already had. Spartacus might have been one of those soldiers.

At the time, some of the Maedi had recently been defeated by Sulla, after which they had accepted Rome as overlord. It would not have been surprising if they sent a contingent of soldiers to fulfil their responsibility. If Spartacus and his fellow Thracians fought for Rome they could hardly have been happy about it. Sulla had invaded Thrace in response to Thracian raids on Roman-controlled Macedonia, raids inspired by Mithridates’ revolt. In Thrace, Sulla treated the natives virtually as target practice for his army. Those who escaped with their lives probably lost their property, since Sulla’s men got rich from loot. This was the country that Spartacus served, deserted from, and finally revolted against.

Assuming that Spartacus was a young man of about 20 when Sulla recruited his soldiers in 83 BC, the gladiator would have been about 30 in 73 BC, when his revolt began. As an ex-Roman soldier who turned on Rome, Spartacus fitted a pattern. Over the years, some of Rome’s worst enemies had served in the auxilia. Take Jugurtha, charismatic King of Numidia (modern Algeria), whose armies humiliated the Romans for six years before the Romans finally captured him in 106 BC. Years earlier in 134 BC he commanded the Numidian cavalry in a Roman army fighting rebels in Spain - an education for him in Roman ways. Jugurtha put his lessons to good use during his war by bribing Roman politicians.

The worst turncoat was someone who lived after Spartacus, Arminius, also known as Hermann, a German tribal chieftain who not only served in a Roman allied unit but also won Roman citizenship and the rank of knight. That did not stop him from going home and giving Rome its worst defeat ever in Germany, the massacre of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. It was a turning point in history. Without that defeat, Rome might have conquered Germany, and a Romanized Germany would have changed the whole course of European history. Never has a country raised a hungrier wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Spartacus’s feelings towards Rome and its enemies are likely to have been complex. Pride, rage and shame are all part of what he may well have felt towards the Roman army. Solidarity, suspicion and opportunism all may have marked his attitude towards Rome’s enemies. These feelings were contradictory but Spartacus did not have to be consistent: as soon as the Thracian woman spoke, he had a god on his side.

By her prophecy, Spartacus’s lady gave her man a holy duty. As a servant of Dionysus, Spartacus would be a liberator. He would be no mere theorist of freedom; he would have ‘great and fearful power’. For a Thracian, power had a clear definition. A powerful man was a warrior, a hunter, a possessor of many horses, the father of many children, and a great drinker. In a word, he was a chief.

We don’t know the dynamic among the different ethnic groups in the house of Vatia. But judging by their later actions, we might guess that each nationality stuck together. Spartacus most likely began with his fellow Thracians. He had to convince them, first, to agree to overpower the guards and break out of the house of Vatia. To do that they would need weapons, but the weapons were kept under lock and key. So they would have to choose the right moment, either a time when they could steal the key or when the weapons were being distributed, say, on the eve of a match. They would fight - and how stirring to do so in the name of Dionysus Zagreus and Sabazius!

Celtic gladiators were probably a harder sell, since they were unmoved by Thrace’s national god. But they too had a score to settle with the Romans; they too could see just how rich in loot the land around them was. And they would have appreciated Spartacus’s authority, both human and divine.

They might have agreed to join Spartacus but it’s not likely that they agreed to take orders from him. The Celts were as sensitive about status as any people in the ancient world. At feasts, for example, Celtic men sat according to rank. When the meal was served, the bravest man got the ‘hero’s portion’ of meat. If someone challenged his right to it, then, according to Celtic legend, the two men had to fight to the death. So the Celts did not challenge Spartacus to a duel but they did choose two leaders of their own, Crixus and Oenomaus.

We know nothing about the two men. Since they were Celts, they were probably proven warriors, possibly from noble families, and likely to be able to guarantee a large number of followers. Some sources make them Spartacus’s equals, others say that he was commander-in-chief of the rebels. The distinction matters little, because in insurgencies formal command structures count less than informal sources of power: charisma, persuasiveness, supporters and a record of success.

Two hundred men decided to join Spartacus - no small achievement on his part. But most of them never managed to escape because the plot was betrayed. Who leaked the information - a free person or a slave - is not known. We can only guess how Vatia or his agent reacted. He may have locked the doors, had the most dangerous gladiators chained, and called in armed reinforcement. Fortunately for the rebels, some of them reacted quickly. They would have to fight their way out. The only weapons in the house were locked up, so they had to make do with what they could get.

They went to the kitchen. The kitchen was rarely a pleasant part of a Roman house. It was usually small, smoky due to poor ventilation, dirty thanks to its packed dirt floor, and called to do double duty as a latrine. From here the gladiators took cleavers and skewers. Roman cleavers were butcher’s big iron knives that could sever a hand. Skewers, also iron, could easily prove fatal if aimed at soft tissue like the neck and, with enough force, could even kill a man through his chest. The guards, it seems, were well armed and in no short supply: of the 200 conspirators, only 74 gladiators escaped, along with at least one woman, Spartacus’s Thracian companion.

Still, the guards seem to have had their hands full with the gladiators left behind, as the rebels were able to stop on the road not far from the ludus. They had come across some carts loaded with gladiatorial weapons heading for another city. The fugitives got rid of the drivers and helped themselves to the arms. These weren’t as battle worthy as the equipment of Roman legions but they were a major step up from kitchen utensils. Perhaps Spartacus now found a sica, the curved Thracian sword that had been denied to him in the arena. According to one ancient source, Spartacus wielded a sica in his battles.

The runaways were now free but freedom wasn’t enough. As one Roman writer put it: ‘Not satisfied with having made their escape, they also wished to avenge themselves.’ The rebels’ itinerary proves the truth of this analysis.

Capua sat at the crossroads. Highways ran south from the city to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) and north to the nearby temple of Diana Tifata and then up the Volturnus (modern Volturno) River valley. Italy’s most famous road, the Appian Way, went north from Capua to Rome and south into the Apennine Mountains at Beneventum (modern Benevento) and, 200 miles beyond, the Adriatic Sea at Brundisium (Brindisi). Finally, there was the Via Annia. This road ran south from Capua to Nola and Nuceria (Nocera), then past Salernum (Salerno) and into the mountains of Lucania (modern Basilicata) and Bruttium (modern Calabria), where it finally ended at Regium (modern Reggio di Calabria), 320 miles from Capua. The gladiators chose this road.

The selection says something about their goals. If their purpose had been escape, they would have taken a different road. For example, they might have headed north, on the overland route out of the peninsula. Or they might have gone into the Apennine Mountains to set up a camp of runaways - what in later days was called a community of maroons (from a Spanish word meaning ‘living on mountaintops’). We know of several maroon communities in Greek and Roman times.

They almost certainly would not have gone to Puteoli, about 20 miles south of Capua. That crowded port offered boats and freedom but it was filled with arms of the law. Besides, Thracians, Celts and Germans tended to be landlubbers and probably preferred to avoid the sea.

They likely walked along the Via Annia, keeping to the sand or gravel path at the edge in order to avoid the hard flagstones of the paved way. Dogs, wolves and bandits were common sights on Roman roads, but armed and runaway gladiators were something new. We can imagine many travellers turning and running when they saw Spartacus’s men. Those who held their ground lost their daggers and wooden clubs if not their lives.

Down the Campanian plain the gladiators went, through the neat, chequerboard pattern of subdivisions that the Romans imposed on the lands they ruled. They travelled past groves and shrines, inns and fountains, and some of Italy’s richest farms, many of them belonging to absentee owners, administered by bailiffs, and worked by slaves. They no doubt stopped here and there to grab meat off a tavern’s fire or to drink from a stream, keeping stones at the ready to fight off watchdogs. Maybe already at the dawn of the revolt they were shouting out to the field hands to join them, but few are likely to have answered the call. The seventy-four desperadoes probably looked more like bandits than freedom fighters. And they no doubt really were bandits to any rich person unlikely enough to come across their path. In any case, a slave needed some enticement before risking the long arm of the Roman law by joining a pack of rebels.

In a way, the gladiators did set up a maroon community, but it was a temporary one, because they picked a place where they could not stay long. They chose Vesuvius. Today Vesuvius calls to mind the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79. But in 73 BC the volcano had not erupted for centuries. It was an area of fertile, volcanic soil over which towered Vesuvius, the cherry on top of a rich cake.

The runaways would find plenty to eat. Vesuvius’s woods were thick with game. The plain and the lower slopes of the mountain were filled with working farms: large slave-run estates that the Romans called ‘rustic villas’. There was food and drink for the taking: olives, figs and many other fruit or nut trees flourished, but the main product was the grape, either eaten fresh or made into some of Italy’s most famous wine, the Vesuvinum - exported as far away as India. Ironically, Dionysus, Spartacus’s patron and the god of wine, loomed large in the rites of local farm owners. His image appeared in the decoration of their dining rooms, household shrines, wine cellars and even wine jugs. As for the thousands of slaves who did the real work, with a little coaxing, they might have been ready to follow Dionysus’s chosen men into freedom.

If Spartacus was already planning on going to Vesuvius when he was still in the house of Vatia, he must have had good intelligence. Vesuvius is about 20 miles south of Capua as the crow flies, a day’s journey; it is not visible from the city. Perhaps Spartacus had seen the mountain in an earlier year, either fighting for Sulla in 83 BC or while raiding as a bandit - assuming he really did do either of those two things. Or maybe he had merely heard about Vesuvius and its attractions second-hand, possibly from other slaves. Not only was Vesuvius a gateway to wealth but a fortress as well. For Thracians it had the added advantage of being sacred, since they worshipped the gods on mountaintops.

Standing alone and over 4,000 feet high, Vesuvius made a dramatic pirate’s nest. The mountain offers views northwards of the Campanian plain towards Capua and southwards of the valley of the Sarnus (modern Sarno) River and the rugged Lactarii (modern Lattari) Mountains (on today’s Amalfi peninsula). The Apennine Mountains rise in the east and the Mediterranean Sea lies to the west. Cities such as Naples, Nola, Nuceria, Herculaneum and Pompeii were all in reach. Whoever occupied the mountain would be able to see any attackers coming. Meanwhile, even on a sunny day on the plain, the peak of Vesuvius can be cloud-covered, protecting the defenders with a thick mist.

After the heat and noise of Capua, the cool and peace of the mountain might have been welcome. Even in summer, Vesuvian nights can be chilly. The rebels would have to build fires and steal extra clothes.

It was probably not long after coming to Vesuvius that the gladiators faced a group of armed men from Capua, outfitted with proper weapons and armour. If Capua was like the city of Rome at the time, its police force would have been tiny. So the army sent against the gladiators might well have included men hired by Vatia, perhaps veteran Roman soldiers. The gladiators were unimpressed. They drove off the Capuans and seized their weapons. One ancient writer says the rebels were glad to throw away their gladiatorial weapons because they considered them ‘dishonourable and barbaric’. Perhaps, but they might have been equally glad to add spears and breastplates to their stockpile, both of which were absent from a gladiator’s armoury.

It was probably just a small engagement but it might have been a turning point in the young revolt. We might speculate that news of the gladiators’ victory echoed down the mountain, the sign that some were waiting for: the gladiators had the power to achieve something worth risking one’s life for. In any case, it was around this time that local people began to join them.

The sources tell us that while they were camped on Vesuvius, Spartacus and his men accepted new recruits: ‘many runaway slaves and certain free men from the fields’. One source claims that 10,000 fugitives joined the gladiators on Vesuvius, but running away was risky and the mountain was hard to climb, so ‘several thousand’ is a safer estimate. Some of the slaves were probably Thracians or Celts, like the rebel gladiators, but they also included Germans.

The slaves worked on the estates that ringed Vesuvius. They were a hardy lot. Ploughmen were ideally strong and tall; vineyard workers were supposed to be broad, powerfully built and intelligent. Boys and even young girls looked after farm animals, but only the strongest young men were fit to be herdsmen. Leading cattle, sheep and goats up mountainsides was difficult work, requiring strength, stamina, agility and speed. Gauls were considered to be especially good herdsmen, particularly with horses, donkeys and oxen.

Pasturage would have been a waste of the rich soil around Vesuvius: this was farm country. Ranches tended to be located further south. In Campania, large estates or plantations predominated, typically worked by hundreds of slaves. These were the famous Roman latifundia or ‘wide fields’, to use a term invented in the empire. By day the slaves worked in gangs of, ideally, ten labourers or fewer. At night they were kept in barracks, often in chains. In fact, they sometimes worked in chains as well: in vineyards, for example, because viticulture required intelligent slaves - and brains could lead to trouble.

A privileged group of slave stewards managed the plantation. The key person was the vilicus or bailiff. Since most owners were absentee landlords, the vilicus really ran the estate. His purview ran from settling disputes to leading prayers. He took care of the finances, organized the workforce and oversaw its smooth operation. The vilica, a female official, was also essential: not only was she chief housekeeper on the estate but a teacher and truant officer. She was handy enough to lead the senior slaves in making their own clothes. For all their power, the vilicus and vilica were slaves, and so capable of revolting - and of freeing ordinary slaves from their chains. One of the leaders of the Second Sicilian Slave Revolt (104-100 BC), for example, was a runaway vilicus. Tough and hard-working, farm slaves made good rebels, vilici fine leaders and organizers, and vilicae excellent quartermasters.

So much for slaves; what of the ‘certain free men from the fields’ who joined the rebels? As recruits to Spartacus’s cause, free men brought the perspective of Italian subsistence farmers. By the Late Republic (133-131 BC), the small farmers of Italy had been driven off the best land; in their place came latifundia and ranches. It was the great scandal of the Republic that Rome’s greedy elite so mistreated the farmer-soldiers who had won the Roman Empire. But the smallholders didn’t all disappear or move to the city. They stayed in the countryside, where they scraped by through farming marginal and inaccessible land. Around Pompeii, for example, there were many small farms here and there among the manors.

In order to put more food on the table, some small farmers joined the Roman legions. They became the shock troops of the civil wars between Marius and Sulla, and, later, Caesar and Pompey, Antony and Octavian. Some won new land in reward. Sulla, for instance, gave about 100,000 veteran soldiers land in Italy, much of it simply taken from his enemies, the former supporters of Marius, who were evicted. Some of those Marians fled to Spain, to join the rebel Sertorius, but most stayed in Italy. Some worked as tenant-farmers or day labourers for the new owners. Others turned to that classic activity of the Italian countryside - they became bandits, a word that is Italian in origin. So did some of Sulla’s veterans who failed on their new farms because of bad harvests, hostile neighbours or hard-driving creditors.

But few small farmers did anything so dramatic; most survived by doing seasonal and occasional labour for the well-to-do villa owners. They were the Roman equivalent of today’s migrant workers. The Roman elite needed them and frowned on them. They are essential for harvesting grapes and cutting hay, says the Roman writer Varro; but you have to watch them carefully, says the statesman Cato the Elder, or they will steal your firewood.

Although poor, the small farmers were free men and native Italians; some of them no doubt looked down on slaves. But if they were desperate, angry or adventurous enough, they joined Spartacus. And, in all probability, many were indeed desperate. Slave or free, it would have taken a hardy soul to climb Vesuvius and trust a band of professional killers. Surely most of the newcomers were young and probably most were men, but there is no reason to doubt that there were some women too.

If a few free farmers joined Spartacus, even fewer elites would have backed an army of runaway slaves. Yet, perhaps a small number did. Wealthy but diehard Italian nationalists, still bitter over defeat in the Social War, were not about to join a slave-led army but perhaps they turned a blind eye rather than playing an active role in resisting him. And then, there were opportunists. Every society has people who say that money has no smell, as a Roman wit later put it. They saw no shame in doing business with runaway slaves and ex-gladiators if it could make them rich. The merchants who later traded with Spartacus’s army might fit this category and also one Publius Gavius, a southern Italian who, although a Roman citizen, was convicted of spying for Spartacus in Sicily.

One possible index of Italian attitudes comes from the Mithridatic Wars. In 64 BC, during the last stage of his struggle against Rome, Mithridates tried to incite an invasion of Italy by Celtic peoples of the Balkans. Not only did he promise assistance; he assured Celtic leaders that they would find willing partners on the Italian peninsula. Most of Rome’s so-called allies in Italy, he told them, had really supported Spartacus, in spite of his degraded social status. But big talk is a politician’s stock-in-trade, so Mithridates’ claim deserves little credence. The Celts declined his invitation to invade Italy, in any case.

One group was conspicuously absent from the list of Spartacus’s recruits: city-dwellers, whether slave or free. This seems odd because cities like Pompeii and Nola were nearby. True, city walls made it hard for urban slaves to leave, but that isn’t the whole story. Urban slaves were a privileged group who generally enjoyed an easier life than rural slaves; some of them had a reputation for being soft and lazy. Urban slaves were isolated from their rural counterparts, and perhaps even frightened of the rough, tough country folk. We might wonder how many of them would have survived in the Italian outback. In short, they may not have wanted to join Spartacus. If so, it was a sign of things to come. Spartacus’s revolt would remain overwhelmingly a revolt of the countryside.

But that was not yet clear on Vesuvius, where the rebels’ numbers were growing and their character was changing. They were becoming an army. Their weapons were makeshift, their uniforms were homespun, and their experience was often minimal. But they trained, drilled and practised fighting together. No ancient source tells us this, but without such groundwork they could never have displayed the military virtues that they did in the coming months.

We might wonder if they trained as much as needed, since temptation loomed. The ex-gladiators, former farm workers, runaway slaves, Thracians, Celts, Italians and miscellaneous others now devoted themselves to an alluring pursuit: crime. With runaway farm slaves and workers as their guides, they raided the rich villas of Vesuvius. They found food and drink, both solid fare and delicacies such as ostrich eggs and vintage wine. There were more luxury goods than one man could carry: silver and gold, ivory and amber, glazed terracottas and coloured glass, earrings and bracelets, medallions and plates, silver table legs shaped like lion’s paws and cameos of kings.

Writing fifty years later, the poet Horace marks a special occasion by telling his slave boy to bring the oldest vintage of wine. And then he adds, with a wink, ‘If roving Spartacus has spared a single jar.’

Whatever the fugitives took they shared equally: Spartacus insisted on that. Whether justice or prudence motivated him is unclear. But more followers climbed the mountain.

What a change! Good old Vesuvius had given Campania every reason to love it. Consider a fresco at Pompeii: it shows Mount Vesuvius, green and fertile, and beside it Bacchus, the god of wine, covered with grapes. A large snake is depicted below. Then came Spartacus. The rebels from Capua had appropriated the gladiator, the vine and Vesuvius: the very symbols of Roman rule in Campania.

What was Rome going to do about this revolt? Rome had to do something in the face of such a symbol of rebellion, if only because of the clout of the area’s wealthy residents. The rebels spread terror, what the Romans called terror servilis, the fear of slaves; the gentry surely demanded action. Spartacus might have guessed as much but, if he did, he didn’t let it stop him. Perhaps it was now that one of the rebels - maybe Spartacus himself - made the brave statement reported by one ancient writer: ‘If they come against us in force, it is better to die by iron than starvation.’

They would not have to wait long. Maybe as they waited, at night, around a fire under the stars, the Thracian lady heartened them with visions of the power that heaven had given to Spartacus.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!