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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE GLADIATORS' REVOLT

[337] SIX years after the death of Sulla, while Pompey was in Spain, putting down an insurrection, the gladiators revolted.

The gladiators were first heard of in 264 B.C., when their shows were given only at funerals. Usually they were criminals or prisoners of war, who, in any case, were condemned to death. To give them arms and make them fight until one or other was killed in the arena of some great building, for the amusement of a crowd of spectators, was cruel, but not so cruel as what was done in later years.

For the shows of the gladiators came to please the people so well that they forsook for them theatres and other places of amusement. And then rich citizens who wished to win the favour of the people began to keep bands of gladiators and train them as in a school.

Each citizen who kept one of these schools vied with one another to find the most powerful and muscular barbarians, for the stronger and better trained the gladiator the more exciting and pleasing to the people was the show. So the unfortunate men who were forced now to slaughter one another for the amusement of the people were no longer criminals already condemned to death.

In one of these large schools at Capua there was a great number of Gauls and Thracians. Two hundred of these men resolved to escape, but their plot was discovered, and only about eighty succeeded in getting away. They first [338] rushed into a cookshop and frightened the owner, until he let them take his knives as weapons, so only that they would depart. Then, seizing a wagon-load of arms, they made Spartacus, a Thracian, their leader, and encamped on a spur of Mount Vesuvius.

Other gladiators and slaves soon joined the camp, and Rome, in fear of what these trained barbarians might do, sent out two armies against them.

But Spartacus was a skilful general, and the Romans were defeated, while the army of the gladiators still increased each day.

Again the Romans sent troops against these rebels, and one of their leaders was slain. But Spartacus speedily avenged his comrade's death, defeating the Roman army, and forcing three hundred prisoners to fight as gladiators at the funeral of the barbarian whom they had slain. This is the one cruel deed of which we are told Spartacus was guilty.

After this the rebels moved across Italy unmolested. Spartacus wished to cross the Alps and go back to his native land, but his followers for the most part wished to stay in Italy to fight and plunder.

During the winter of 72 B.C. Spartacus led his troops near to the town of Thurii. Here his followers busied themselves forging weapons for the great adventures they meant to achieve in spring.

But before spring came, Crassus, the richest man in Rome, determined to subdue the rebels. He himself trained and disciplined the soldiers Spartacus had beaten, until they were fit to face the foe.

The rebels were now driven to the Bruttian peninsula, in the extreme south of Italy, and here Spartacus shut himself up with his followers in the town of Rhegium. Yet he managed to send messengers to the pirates, who at that time roamed the seas, and often sailed along the coast of Italy. With heavy bribes he tried to persuade them to take his army in their vessels to Sicily.

[339] The pirates accepted the money, but proved faithless, and sailed away from the coast without taking the gladiators on board.

Crassus thought that Spartacus could not now escape. He dug trenches and built fortifications across the narrow neck of land that shut off the Bruttian peninsula from the rest of Italy. But in spite of all that Crassus could do, the rebel leader, with a third part of his army, succeeded in crossing the trenches and climbing the fortifications, and so escaping from the trap in which the Roman had hoped to capture him.

Then Crassus, finding that his prey had escaped, had a moment of panic, lest the gladiators should march on Rome, and he asked the Senate to recall Pompey from Spain, that he might be ready to help should his fears be realised.

Soon after this, however, Crassus won a great victory over the rebels, killing, it is said, twelve thousand. Out of this great number only two had wounds in their back.

Spartacus was still undaunted. He had withdrawn to the mountains, but dashed down unexpectedly upon the Roman forces, and in his turn defeated them.

His followers were so proud of this victory that they longed to face the foe again, and bade their captain lead them once more to battle.

Spartacus believed it would be wiser to keep to the hills and woods, yet he yielded to the wishes of his followers. But as he advanced towards Crassus at the head of his troops, he found that another army, under Lucullus, had cut him off from the sea.

Victory or death was now before the rebels. Spartacus killed his horse as a sign that he would scorn to fly.

Then, leading a desperate charge, he attempted to cut his way through the Roman soldiers. But his followers proved less brave than was their wont, and deserted him. In this desperate plight he was struck by a javelin.

[340] Even then his courage did not fail. Though the pain of his wound forced him to his knees, he still went on fighting, until at length he fell and was covered by the slain.

Thousands of his followers fled to the mountains. But Pompey, who was on his way home from Spain, followed the fugitives, and killed them in great numbers. He boasted indeed, that although Crassus had beaten the gladiators in battle, it was he who had brought the rebellion to an end.

Six thousand slaves were captured and put to a cruel death, being crucified along the Appian Way.

Spartacus, the barbarian, had been more merciful than the Romans showed themselves to be. For in his camp were thousands of prisoners, none of whom had been unkindly treated.


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