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The Spartacus War

by Barry Strauss

The Spartacus War

Hardcover, 264 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 |


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Book Summary

A portrait of the iconic gladiator by an esteemed historian and popular History Channel guest traces his rise from slavery in Thrace and the gladiatorial school rebellion in 73 BC to his leadership at the head of a rapidly growing army and its frequent clashes with the Roman military.

Read an excerpt of this book

Also by Barry Strauss

  • The Trojan War
  • Ten Caesars

NPR stories about The Spartacus War

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Spartacus War


The Praetors

In 73 b.c., six hundred and eighty-one years after the founding of the city of Rome, during the consulship of Lucullus (Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus) and Cassius (Gaius Cassius Longinus), the republic was fighting wars at both ends of the Mediterranean. In Spain, Pompey ground down the renegade Roman commander Sertorius by taking out his strongholds one by one. In Asia Minor, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the consul's brother, began an invasion of the homeland of King Mithridates, who had fought Rome on and off for fifteen years. In the Balkans, Gaius Scribonius Curio was the first Roman general, along with his legion, to see the Danube River. In Crete, Antony got ready to sail out against pirates attacking Roman shipping.

Given the big picture, the gladiators' revolt might have seemed minor. Capua had seen a slave revolt before, in 104 b.c., which had been crushed by barely the number of troops in a single legion — four thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry, for a total of 4,400 men — led by a praetor, a leading Roman public official. So the obvious policy in 73 was to send in the praetor.

In Rome, the Senate set public policy. Senators were all very wealthy men, and almost all members of a few elite families. They had automatically become senators, without election, after holding high public office, and they served for life. They were the oligarchy that ran Rome, except for those occasions when they were challenged by a general like Marius or Sulla. Once rare, those challenges had become more frequent. But in 73 b.c., the senators enjoyed a period of power.

The senators chose Caius Claudius Glaber to send against Spartacus. He was one of eight praetors that year, each of them at least thirty-nine years old, and each elected to an annual term. They were men of great expectations, since the praetors were the second highest-ranking of the annually elected public officials in Rome; only the two consuls stood higher. Who was Glaber? We hardly know. He never rose to the consulate and he had no known descendants. He was a plebeian with probably at most a distant link to the more famous members of the Claudius clan. His obscurity was another sign of how little attention Rome gave Spartacus.

Glaber led a force slightly smaller than the one sent against the rebels of 104 b.c.: three thousand men instead of 4,400 and, so far as we know, no cavalry. But the first revolt had been led by a Roman citizen who was a knight, no less, while the latest uprising was the work of barbarians and slaves. Apparently the Romans felt more confident in 73 than in 104.

The news from Capua was digested, analyzed, and classified. It was, to quote Caesar, "a tumultus of slaves." A tumultus was a sudden outbreak of violence requiring an emergency response. It was a serious matter but not organized war (bellum, in Latin).

As we know, Romans looked down on slaves. Their servile nature, said one contemporary, made slaves cruel, greedy, violent, and fanatical while denying them nobility or generosity of spirit. For slaves to behave courageously was against nature. For slaves to behave like free men was strictly for the Saturnalia, an annual celebration featuring role reversal — as a Roman officer once remarked in disgust when his men had to fight freed slaves. In revolt slaves were a nuisance but not a major problem. Or so the Romans told themselves, although the stubborn resistance of Sicily's slaves in two revolts (135-132 and 104-100 b.c.) should have taught them otherwise.

And then there were the gladiators and their leader. Doublethink runs like a red thread through Roman attitudes toward Spartacus. Fear and scorn, hatred and admiration, indifference and obsession — they were all there. For the Romans, gladiators were to be fed, trained, cheered, adored, ogled, bedded, buried, and even, occasionally, freed, but, never, never to be treated as equals.

As a slave and a Thracian barbarian, Spartacus was despicable to Romans. As a former allied soldier, he was pathetic. From their point of view, the Romans had offered Spartacus the hand of civilization by letting him into the auxiliary units of their army. Then, whether through bad behavior or bad luck, he ended up a slave. He had lost the chance that the army had given him (again, that is, from the Roman point of view). But in their mercy, as far as the Romans were concerned, they gave Spartacus another chance. They gave him the gladius — the sword.

To the Romans, a gladiator was not just an athlete or even a warrior: he was holy. And he was sexy. Whenever they went to the games the Romans took a walk on the wild side. The beasts were supposed to growl back at them; it made a better show. But Spartacus did more than growl. Like many a pro athlete, Spartacus was feared for the same reason he was adored: he was dangerous. Yet once he left the arena, a gladiator seemed almost harmless, even if he had taken up arms in revolt.

If this seems hard to understand, think of Spartacus as an athlete who rejected the love of his fans. We can forgive an athlete who misbehaves but not one who snubs us. Once Spartacus and his seventy-three companions left their barracks, they were no longer gladiators but runaway gladiators. In Roman eyes, they had shrunk from a fight, hence they were moral lepers: cowardly, effeminate, and degenerate. They had sunk from the glory of the arena to the shame of banditry. Spartacus could have been the pride of Rome; instead, it seemed, he was back where he began, a barbarian. From the Roman point of view, his men were not soldiers but runaway slaves, fugitivi. No wonder the Senate had little fear of him — at first.

Two other things are likely to have kept the Romans from making a bigger push against Spartacus: ambition and greed. Glory was the oxygen of Roman politics but there was little to be won in a police action against criminals. A slave war, says one Roman, "had a humble and unworthy name." Plunder might have served as consolation, but that was out of the question. All Italians south of the Po Valley were Roman citizens. Roman soldiers couldn't plunder their own country.

Because they were responding to a tumultus (emergency), the Romans did not hold an ordinary levy of troops on the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) outside the city. Instead they probably instructed Glaber to do what Roman commanders often did in an emergency: to recruit troops on the road, as he marched south.

Glaber's troops were probably not the best that Rome had, not by a long shot. Those were already fighting in Spain and in the East, where there were plenty of spoils and laurels to be won and top generals to lead the men. Italy had not been stripped of its good soldiers: Sulla's veterans, for example, represented a source of experienced troops. Sullan veterans were to be found at Pompeii as well as at Abella, and outside Capua, among other places. But they were not likely to sign up to help some nobody slap a few slaves back into irons. Glaber had to take what he could get.

So Glaber's army was probably no more than a militia. And yet no Roman army on the march was easily forgotten. The flash of mail armor and bronze or iron helmets as a long line of soldiers went by captured the eye. The clatter of the supply carts and the lowing of the oxen that drew them filled the air. And then there were the individual soldiers.

A standard-bearer, surrounded by trumpeters, carried the legion's symbol, a silver eagle on a standard (that is, shaft). Every century (a unit of 100 men originally, but by the Late Republic a unit of eighty men) also had its own standard, a spear decorated with disks and wreaths, carried by a standard-bearer in colorful dress: his helmet was decorated with an animal skin.

Meanwhile, six men called lictors marched in front of the praetor. Lictors served as attendants to all Rome's high-ranking officials. They were strong men; each carried the fasces, a bundle of rods tied with ribbons and symbolizing the power to command. Outside the city limits of Rome, the fasces were wrapped around an ax, signifying the power of life and death.

And so they marched, the praetor and his men, following the rebels to Vesuvius. They made camp, probably at the foot of the mountain. Glaber decided not to attack the enemy, who was on the summit. This may seem overly cautious, but the terrain favored the defenders. Only one road led up the mountain and it was too rough and narrow to deploy a legion. It was no place to test his new army. Instead Glaber decided to seal in the enemy and starve him out. He posted guards on the road to prevent a breakout.

It was not an imaginative or a self-confident plan but it might have worked, as long as the Romans had kept their guard up. Instead they handed the initiative to Spartacus. He decided to attack the Roman camp. Like any commander, Spartacus drew on his experience to put together a plan of battle. Rich and complex, that experience would serve him well, both at Vesuvius and later.

As a Thracian, Spartacus had a heritage of making war. In particular, Thrace specialized in light infantry, horsemanship, trickery, and unconventional warfare. Homer considered the Thracians a nation of horsemen; Thucydides respected their daggers; Romans feared their polearm. Thrace had invented the peltast, the quick and mobile lightly armed infantryman who fought at close range with a knife or at a distance with a javelin. They excelled at attacking or defending hills, using hit-and-run tactics, setting ambushes, setting or dousing campfires, making opportunistic raids on heavy infantry formations, and forming up in defensive mass against cavalry. Feints, ruses, tricks, and stratagems were all chapters in the Thracian war manual. And plundering was a national habit.

Spartacus was born and raised with the Thracian way of war but as an adult he added an additional string to his bow: Roman military doctrine. He combined Thracian speed and stealth with Roman organization and discipline. Single combat and swordsmanship did double duty for him, since Romans as well as Thracians valued these practices. Gladiatorial training may have added some new tricks to his sword handling.

At Vesuvius, Spartacus put all his military wisdom to use. Because of the dramatic changes to Vesuvius in the several eruptions since 73 b.c., we cannot reconstruct the topography in detail. But the overall picture is clear.

Nowadays, "Vesuvius" actually consists of two peaks: an active crater, called the Grand Cone, and a second peak, Monte Somma, which lies across a saddle to the north. Before a.d. 79 it seems likely that the Grand Cone and Monte Somma were joined and that there was only one peak. They shared a dormant crater at the top, about a mile in diameter; its northern and eastern rims are probably today the interior walls of Monte Somma, facing the Grand Cone.

Many scholars believe that Spartacus and his men camped in this crater. The surviving interior walls of Monte Somma are steep, forbidding, pockmarked, and precipitous. They are topped by a jagged series of crests. The highest point today is 3,700 feet. The walls are covered with broom, beech, locust trees, and lichen. In Spartacus's day they were covered with wild vines.

Nowadays often considered a nuisance plant, the wild grapevine, Vitis vinifera sylvestris, is the hero of the story. Unlike Spartacus, it was native to Italy, where it was a familiar sight. Spartacus's rural recruits "were used to weaving branches into baskets that they used for their farm work." This is nothing unusual for the Italian countryside; in fact until a generation or two ago, Italian country folk regularly wove baskets and containers in a similar way. We might also speculate that the sight of lava "ropes" — ropelike lava formations — on the wall of Monte Somma's extinct crater suggested the idea of using vine ropes on the mountainside. In any case, Spartacus's rural followers cut off the usable vines and entwined them into long and robust ropes. Wild vines tend to be longer than cultivated vines, which eased the rebels' task. Some other form of local vegetation with thinner branches probably served to bind the vines.

We don't know what time of day the following action took place, but dusk would have served well. The rebels let the ropes down a part of the mountain that the Romans had left unguarded because it was so steep and rocky. The soil here was crumbly and unstable. We should not think of the rebels using the vines for rappelling down the mountain. Vesuvius's slope is not vertical, and vines are not supple or strong enough to be coiled around someone's body. Rather, the vine ropes probably served as handholds and guide rails. One by one, the rebels climbed down — all except one last man. It was his job to stay and throw down the weapons that they had taken from their camp. The terrain was too uneven to carry weapons safely on the descent. Finally, having tossed all the arms down, the last man came down as well. Or so the sources say, but it seems more likely that a group passed the arms from man to man at the end.

We might guess that it was now nighttime. Since Thracians specialized in night attacks, Spartacus might have wanted to deploy this advantage. The fugitives had carried out their escape under the eyes of the careless Romans. Now they attacked.

Roman troops on campaign always constructed a defended camp to serve as a secure base both for attack and defense. Every camp was built on a standard pattern, usually a square, divided by streets, tent lines, and horse lines, and surrounded by a ditch and rampart. As a Roman army completed its march, a good campsite was chosen, surveyors carefully laid out the skeleton of the place, and then the men did the rest. The soldiers slept in leather tents, eight men to a tent. The commander's tent, known as the praetorium, served both as his living quarters and the army's headquarters. With three thousand men as well as animals, Glaber's camp probably covered about ten acres.

Because the Romans prided themselves on attacking the enemy, the camp's defenses were usually light. The ditch was normally only about three feet wide and deep, the rampart a low mound of earth topped with wooden stakes. Pickets were stationed outside the ramparts to warn of attack and to slow down the enemy. Of course, a dangerous and sly enemy required stronger defenses. But Glaber took Spartacus too lightly. The Romans, says one ancient source, "did not yet consider this a war but rather some raid, like an attack by bandits." Glaber seems to have ordered no special security.

One ancient source says the fugitives came from an unexpected direction; another, that they surrounded the camp; another, that they came from a hidden exit in a crevice. It is not clear that they outnumbered the Romans but they did have the advantage of surprise: the ancients all agree that the Romans were shocked — and well they should have been. Spartacus's men probably picked off the sentries and then fell on the men in their tents. Without time to get into formation, the Romans had no choice but to fight a series of melees, if they fought at all. The gladiators were big, agile, and fast enough probably to have cut to pieces any man who stood up to them.

Thracians, Germans, and Celts were all tall compared to Romans. Celts were known for their rapid and terrifying charges, accompanied by battle cries and songs. The Thracians' war cry had a special name in Greek, the titanismos. The Germans' battle cry was a "confused roar" caused by putting their shields to their mouths; if the Germans with Spartacus didn't have shields, they might have used animal skins instead.

Some of the Celts might have worn their hair long or had thick mustaches in the manner of Gallic nobles; some might have spiked their hair by washing it in chalky water, and then combed it up to make them look taller. It is possible that a few went into battle naked, except for a sword belt and torque, as a traditional Celtic sign of ferocity. Any women at the battle were prominently cheering their men on, as was the custom of Celtic, German, and Thracian women. Greek and Roman writers registered this practice with shock, and archaeology confirms it. In an immense mass grave of Gallic warriors in northern France, erected as a trophy of a battle in 260 b.c., one-third of the bones belonged to women: most of them, like the men, had fallen in the prime of life.

One thing seems likely: few of the insurgents went into battle without first drinking wine. This was standard procedure for both Celts and Thracians, and, for that matter, for most soldiers in the ancient world. The Romans faced attackers whose courage had been boosted by the fruit of Rome's best grapes.

Another likelihood is that all of them prayed before beginning their charge. Each no doubt called on his native gods but they all might have shared a prayer to the god who guided the star of the man who had started it all: Dionysus, the god of Spartacus.

The sources all agree that the Roman soldiers fled. Triumphant and perhaps even shocked at the ease of victory, Spartacus's forces took Glaber's camp. They promptly plundered it. No doubt they found food, clothing, weapons, and possibly letters from the Senate.

No casualty figures survive from the engagement. Some men surely were killed or wounded, most of them Roman. The rebels stripped the arms and armor from the dead. Experienced soldiers knew that they had to move quickly before rigor mortis made it difficult to undress a corpse. The gladiators probably suffered fewer casualties, but one of them might have been their third leader, Oenomaus, the Celt. We know that he fell in an early battle.

Part of Spartacus's success can be chalked up to Roman incompetence, but only part. Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus were shrewd soldiers. Rather than attack the enemy head-on they went after his weak point. They came up with an ingenious plan that maximized their minimal resources. They executed the plan with daring and efficiency. Rugged mountainous terrain did not concern them; Thracians would have felt at home in that kind of country.

Spartacus and perhaps others had the advantage of knowing the enemy. True, when he had fought for Rome, Spartacus was an auxiliary, and auxiliaries did not receive Roman training. They used their own style of fighting, and they tended to have native commanders. But they benefited from Rome's impressive logistical and support system. Anyone with his eyes open would have seen just how well organized and disciplined the legions were in battle. Auxiliaries had ample opportunity to learn from the Romans. Nor are they likely to have underestimated the enemy.

Perhaps the most impressive things about Spartacus and his men were their cohesion and leadership. The rebels barely knew each other but they cooperated beautifully. Only the gladiators were in fighting trim, even if some of the runaway country folk were former soldiers, which is likely. As slaves or farmworkers the runaways were tough, and as oppressed people they had incentive to fight, but it takes more than that to win a battle. To take just one example, amateurs used their swords to slash rather than to make the more effective move, the thrust. New soldiers had to learn many such skills (and this happened to be a technique that gladiators could teach well). They also had to fight as a team. Leadership had molded the rebels into a victorious force. The three commanders surely deserve credit; the Thracian woman and her prophecies might also have played a role.

Glaber is never heard from again, at least not in our sources. Spartacus and the gladiators, on the contrary, might have now become household names around Vesuvius. They attracted many new recruits, in particular shepherds and cowherds from the surrounding area. They were "fast-moving brawlers" and the rebels armed them with weapons captured from Glaber's camp. At a guess, the new recruits included a number of Celts, who had a reputation as good herdsmen. They probably also included a large number of women, since Roman experts advised supplying herdsmen in the bush with women to cook for them and meet their sexual needs. Spartacus used herdsmen to serve as scouts and light-armed troops and — who knows? — some of those soldiers might have been women.

We might imagine that the rebels' base was now the Romans' former camp. There they could have lived in tents, a step up from the open air of the mountain. Glaber's praetorium was now Spartacus's headquarters, perhaps shared with Crixus. It was probably a busy place.

Basic food and supplies dictated continued raids around Vesuvius. But to keep on winning against the Romans, the rebels would have to forge weapons; they would have to train and drill; they needed to learn how to trust and communicate with each other. That was hard work — plunder and vengeance were easier and more fun. Spartacus and Crixus had to strike a balance between what their men wanted and what they needed.

Meanwhile, the news of Glaber's defeat arrived in Rome. The Senate appointed another praetor to replace him: Publius Varinius. He recruited troops on the road as he marched south. Around the same time or shortly afterward the Senate chose yet another praetor to advise and assist Varinius, Lucius Cossinius — unfortunately, he is only a name to us. Cossinius too, it seems, was told to raise an army on the march.

It was now autumn 73 b.c. The fugitives first encountered Varinius indirectly, via his legate Lucius Furius, at the head of two thousand men. A legate was a high-ranking officer, a member of the Senate, who was authorized to command in his superior's absence. A certain Furius had served as praetor in a corruption case in 75 b.c., and they may be the same man. If so, Furius was a better judge than general, because he was attacked by the rebels and they trounced him.

We don't know where the engagement took place, but most likely it was in Campania, like all the other fighting in this period between the Romans and the rebels. Like Glaber, Furius was probably surprised or ambushed by Spartacus's men. They had neither the training nor the equipment to face the Romans in regular battles.

The defeat of Furius was a bad omen for Varinius, but there was worse to come. Spartacus's scouts were closely watching the movements of Varinius's colleague Cossinius. It was now that the Thracian caught Cossinius bathing in a villa near Pompeii — the incident described earlier. Cossinius's humiliation, defeat, and death all followed fast. For the third time in a few months, a force of gladiators and fugitives had defeated an army led by a Roman senator.

But that was not all. Spartacus and his men managed to capture — or at least to raid — two more Roman camps: first, the camp of another of Varinius's subordinates, Gaius Toranius, and then the camp of Varinius himself. Unfortunately, none of the details of these events survive. But the result is clear: a blow to the morale of even the most seasoned soldiers. Varinius's men were overwhelmed.

Some of them were sick "because of the unhealthiness of the autumn." Some had run away after their recent defeats and had refused to return to the colors, despite a stern order to do so. As for the rest, as a Roman author reports, "the height of their disgrace is that they were shirking their duty."

Varinius decided to send a report to the Senate. It was both a way of asking for reinforcements and a way of covering himself if later he was blamed for failure. He gave this sensitive mission to Toranius, who could provide an eyewitness account. Presumably Varinius trusted Toranius either as a loyal friend or as a shrewd subordinate who knew that it would be dangerous to point a finger at his chief. Toranius served as Varinius's quaestor, a financial official with various civil and military responsibilities. The quaestorship was the lowest rung on the "ladder of honors." There were twenty quaestors, each elected to an annual term, and all granted entrance to the Senate afterward. They had to be at least thirty years old and they all came from wealthy families.

While Toranius was away, Varinius did not stand idle. Four thousand troops were willing to follow him to a position near the enemy, if not actually into battle. These troops probably represented the remnant of the various armies of Glaber, Furius, and Cossinius, as well as Varinius's own men. Varinius led his men and pitched camp near the enemy; he had the Romans fortify the camp with a wall, trench, and extensive earthworks. Gone was Glaber's overconfidence.

Meanwhile, the insurgents had their own problems. By this point, they probably numbered more than ten thousand people: some women and children but most of them men. They had more men than weapons. But the rebels were nothing if not inventive. Because they had no iron for spearheads, they hardened the wooden tips of their spears in the fire to make them look like iron — and to ensure that they could open severe wounds. Food was a bigger problem. The fugitives were running out of supplies, and foraging raids were no longer safe with the enemy close by.

The solution was another clever stratagem. In the second watch of the night — between about 9 p.m. and midnight — they all left camp in silence. Only a trumpeter remained behind. Meanwhile, to trick the enemy, they propped up corpses on stakes in front of the gates. They even put clothes on them and weapons in their hands, to make them look like guards. At the same time, they left campfires burning.

The trick worked so well that it was only in the light of day that Varinius suspected something. He noticed the silence. Not only was the usual clanging and banging of a busy camp missing, so were the rebels' special touches: they had been throwing stones at the Romans and taunting them with insults. Taunting the enemy, by the way, was a typical Celtic tactic on the eve of battle. Varinius sent a cavalry unit to a nearby hill to see if they could find the enemy. They were far away, but Varinius wasn't taking any chances. He withdrew in a defensive formation, in order to allow time to replenish his forces with new recruits. Apparently, he went to the city of Cumae, an old Greek city on the coast about twenty-five miles northwest of Vesuvius.

Whether Varinius got his reinforcements is not known. He did manage to boost morale, but only seemingly so: Varinius did not recognize the difference between bluster and self-confidence. Although his men now talked tough, they were still raw and defeated soldiers. After a few days, Varinius decided to throw caution to the winds and to accept his men's demands for a second chance: he led them against the enemy's camp, which his scouts had located. They marched quickly. As they approached the rebels, silence replaced the Roman soldiers' boasting.

They would have had to march quickly to catch the fugitives, who were constantly on the move. "They roved throughout all of Campania," as one Roman said. They went on raids in the southern Campanian plain, ranging north, east, and south of Vesuvius, over the rich farm country lying between the Apennines and the mountains of the Amalfi Peninsula. They devastated the territories of Nola and Nuceria. Whether the rebels moved as a single force or in separate units is unclear. Nor is the order of events known, but here is one plausible reconstruction:

Nola sits on the plain north of Monte Somma, in rich farm country. Lying as it does in the shadow of the mountain, Nola was directly in the rebels' path. They had special reason to hate it because of Nola's connection to Sulla. Ironically, Nola had fought hard against Rome in the Social War and later against Sulla. But after his victory, Sulla acquired a villa at Nola and no doubt seized land there for his friends.

Spartacus's men probably held Sulla's men in special contempt. The Sullans had a reputation for high living. Meanwhile, the men whose lands they had taken were forced into poverty — just the thing to make them join the rebels. The rebels might have enjoyed manhandling Nola.

Then the rebels turned on Nuceria, a city southeast of Vesuvius, on the road from Nola to Salerno. Nuceria was located high in the hills above the valley of the Sarno River. It was a prosperous community of farmers and traders. In 104 b.c. thirty slaves in Nuceria rose in rebellion but they were quickly foiled and punished. In 73, Nuceria's slaves had the chance to join Spartacus's men as they plundered their masters' lands.

From Vesuvius to Nuceria, the rebels had gone from strength to strength. Yet like the Romans, they too faced an autumn of discontent. In fact, the rebels staggered with success. Spartacus's men now had unrealistic expectations; the attempt to talk sense into them nearly broke the army in two. They were, says a Roman source, no longer willing to obey him.

What had happened is this: Crixus was in favor of attacking Varinius, while Spartacus wanted to avoid battle. That was a tactical difference, but a deeper, strategic disagreement divided them. Crixus wanted to widen the war in Italy. He wanted more loot, more revenge and, no doubt, more power. Spartacus did not think that the rebels were winning. In fact, in his opinion, the men were now in mortal danger. Their movements were aimless and ad hoc. Sooner or later the Romans would cut them off and wipe them out. To be safe, they needed to leave as quickly as possible.

And go where? Crixus might have asked. Spartacus wanted to take the army north to the Alps, where they would split up and head back to their respective homelands, be they in Thrace or the Celtic lands. Parts of Thrace and most of Gaul were still free. Gladiators, runaway slaves, and free Italians could all live there beyond the long arm of Rome.

It was an inspiring plan, and one that a follower of Dionysus might have relished: the Greeks, at any rate, believed that the god had traveled through the high and rugged Hindu Kush mountains (located between today's Afghanistan and Pakistan). Some even said Dionysus had been born there. Surely, the god would lead his follower Spartacus over the Alps.

It was, others no doubt replied, an impossible dream. But what was the alternative? The Alps were not easy to cross but they were not impassable, either. Hannibal had proven that. The Roman legions, however, were another matter. Spartacus knew the Roman army well, and he doubted the rebels' ability to defeat the Romans in a regular battle. If the rebels could not defeat a second-rate force like Varinius's, what would happen when the armies in Spain and the East came home, and the rebels had to fight veteran legions?

Spartacus understood the difference between guerrilla and conventional warfare. Guerrillas cannot defeat a conventional army by military means; they can only frustrate it. As long as the conventional army retains its will to fight, it will win in the end. And it was impossible to imagine the Romans losing their will in Italy. Eventually, the Romans would wipe out the rebels.

Spartacus was right but he was outvoted. He had only a small number of supporters, "a few farseeing people, men of liberal minds and nobility," as one Roman writer puts it. Crixus had behind him the majority of his fellow Celts as well as the majority of the Germans. Many of the Celts and Germans had been born in Italy, being the children of prisoners of war from 102 and 101 b.c. "Going home" might not have meant as much to them as it did to Spartacus. "Home" was Italy.

But a Roman writer gives Crixus's supporters lesser motives:

Some of them stupidly put their trust in the masses of new recruits flooding in and in their own fierce spirit, others were disgracefully heedless of their fatherland, and most of them had a naturally slavish temperament that longed for nothing except booty and bloodshed.

These comments are bigoted but they are not entirely inaccurate. From Thrace to Gaul, barbarian warfare put a premium on the acquisition of loot. It brought only limited wealth, since much of the booty was consecrated to the gods, but cattle, gold, and women were the coin of the realm, and Italy teemed with all three.

And military logic favored some of Crixus's points. After all, a reasonable person might have argued that if the rebels turned north now, they would have Varinius on their tail, and eventually he would force a battle. A reasonable person might also have pointed out the difficulty of crossing the Alps in autumn. The rebels would have to sit in northern Italy and fight off the Romans until the following spring, when they could go over the mountains again. Northern Italy was neither as rich nor as warm as the south. Why not build a base under the southern sun? After all, the Roman armies in Spain and Asia Minor were not likely to come back to Italy soon.

From the operational point of view, Spartacus was probably wrong. It was safer to defeat Varinius before heading north. But strategically, Spartacus was right. The rebels had to leave Italy, if not today or the next day then soon. And eventually they had to cross the Alps. Spartacus was unable to win his case, but he did a signal service to his people even so: he held the army together.

Spartacus and his supporters might have quit. They might have worked their way quietly northward, avoiding Roman roads, and headed for the Alps. Or they might have used their loot to buy or bribe their way onto a boat heading east. But Spartacus was an armed prophet and did not want to be a general without an army. Dionysus's chosen one was not about to slink off.

The quarrel was settled by a compromise. As Crixus wanted, the fugitives would continue plundering and they would fight Varinius. But as Spartacus wanted, they would not fight him yet. Instead they would prepare carefully for the coming battle. It was inevitable, Spartacus said, that Varinius would rebuild his army. In preparation, the rebels needed to increase the number and quality of their troops. They needed elite recruits; the closest thing to that, Spartacus suggested, was to find shepherds. In order to find them, the rebel army would have to head into more open country, someplace more suited to grazing. In other words, they would have to go south into Italy's pasturelands.

Spartacus knew what he was doing. Roman herdsmen were slaves, tough, hardy, and independent. They were fighters, as they had to be in order to survive in the wild, where wolves and bandits were routine and bears were not unknown. Slave shepherds had made up the core of the great Sicilian Slave Wars. Herders had sustained the Lusitanian (Portuguese) rebel Viriathus in his eight years of guerrilla war against the Roman conquerors (147-139 b.c.) The current Roman rebel in Spain, Sertorius, drew many of his supporters from shepherds as well.

Spartacus knew one other thing, too: the margin of error. The Romans could afford bad generals and defeated armies. In fact, Roman history was littered with failure, from the Allia to the Caudine Forks to Cannae. The Romans could lose many battles as long as they won the last battle. And Rome's ironclad political system and profound population resources gave it the will and the manpower to go the distance.

The rebels had no room for mistakes. Spartacus knew that his men were good but also that they had been lucky. Roman incompetence allowed them the luxury of going on raids instead of drilling soldiers, of arguing with each other instead of fighting the enemy.

Rome could throw away praetors. The rebels needed a leader. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Strauss