Roman slave rebellions, their successes and failures. Why the third servile war moved Rome’s status from Republic to Empire.

Third Servile War

The Third Servile War, also called by Plutarch the Gladiator War and The War of Spartacus, was the last in a series of slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known collectively as the Servile Wars. The Third was the only one directly to threaten the Roman heartland of Italia. It was particularly alarming to Rome because its military seemed powerless to suppress it.The revolt began in 73 BC, with the escape of around 70 slave-gladiators from a gladiator school in Capua; they easily defeated the small Roman force sent to recapture them. Within two years, they had been joined by some 120,000 men, women and children; the able-bodied adults of this band were a surprisingly effective armed force that repeatedly showed they could withstand or defeat the Roman military, from the local Campanian patrols, to the Roman militia, and to trained Roman legions under consular command. The slaves wandered throughout Italia, raiding estates and towns with relative impunity, sometimes dividing their forces into separate but allied bands under the guidance of several leaders, including the famous gladiator-general Spartacus.

The Roman Senate grew increasingly alarmed at the slave-army’s depredations and continued military successes. Eventually Rome fielded an army of eight legions under the harsh but effective leadership of Marcus Licinius Crassus. The war ended in 71 BC when, after a long and bitter fighting retreat before the legions of Crassus, and the realization that the legions of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus were moving in to entrap them, the armies of Spartacus launched their full strength against Crassus’ legions and were utterly defeated. Of the survivors, some 6,000 were crucified along the Appian way.

Plutarch’s account of the revolt suggests that the slaves simply wished to escape to freedom, and leave Roman territory by way of Cisalpine Gaul. Appian and Florus describe the revolt as a civil war, in which the slaves intended to capture the city of Rome itself. The Third Servile war had significant and far-reaching effects on Rome’s broader history. Pompey and Crassus exploited their successes to further their political careers, using their public acclaim and the implied threat of their legions to sway the consular elections of 70 BC in their favor. Their subsequent actions as Consuls greatly furthered the subversion of Roman political institutions and contributed to the eventual transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

The defeat of Spartacus

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