Return to Gladiators


"...possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune..."

Plutarch, Life of Crassus (VIII.2)

A Thracian by birth who had been sold as a slave to a gladiatorial school in Capua, Spartacus was one of seventy-eight men who escaped and took refuge in the caldera of Mt. Vesuvius. By 72 BC, as other fugitive slaves and freedmen joined, they grew to an army of seventy thousand. Defeating the legions sent against them, Spartacus and his men fought their way to Cisapline Gaul, from where they intended to disperse to their homelands. But then, inexplicitly, they marched south again for more plunder. The Senate, which had dismissed the threat as no more than the brigandage of gladiators and slaves, appointed Crassus to put down what was regarded as an insurrection that now had lasted for three years.

First, those deemed to have been cowardly in an earlier battle were ordered to be decimated, and one of every ten soldiers chosen by lot was put to death by his comrades. Plutarch writes that "disgrace also attaches to this manner of death, and many horrible and repulsive features attend the punishment, which the whole army witnesses" (X.3). But it did have the salutary effect, as Appian remarks, of demonstrating to the army that Crassus was to be feared more than the enemy (I.116-120).

The Senate also had summoned Pompey's legions from Spain and those of Lucullus from his victory over Mithridates in the east, and Crassus was anxious to conclude the war before they arrived. Spartacus and his followers ravaged Lucania in the south and would have made their way to Sicily had they not been abandoned by pirates who had promised them passage. Almost trapped on the toe of Italy behind a line of circumvallation, they finally were defeated as they made their way to Brundisium, where Lucullus just had landed. Another five thousand fugitives were chanced upon and killed by Pompey, who wrote the Senate, claiming that, although Crassus had conquered in battle, he himself had ended the war (Plutarch, Life of Pompey, XXI.2). Pompey was awarded a triumph (in large part for his victory over Sertorius in Spain), while Crassus was decreed an ovation. Appian relates that six thousand prisoners were crucified along the Via Appia, all the way from Capua to Rome. The Third Servile War, as it was known, had required ten legions to suppress. The next year, Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls of Rome.

The body of Spartacus never was found.

Decimation or fustuarium is described by Polybius.

"This is inflicted as follows: The tribune takes a cudgel and just touches the condemned man with it, after which all in the camp beat or stone him, in most cases dispatching him in the camp itself. But even those who manage to escape are not saved thereby: impossible! for they are not allowed to return to their homes, and none of the family would dare to receive such a man in his house. So that those who have once fallen into this misfortune are utterly ruined....

If the same thing happens to large bodies, and if entire maniples desert their posts when exceedingly hard pressed, the officers refrain from inflicting the bastinado or the death penalty at all, but find a solution of the difficulty that is both salutary and terror-striking. The tribune assembles the legion, and brings up those guilty of leaving the ranks, reproaches them sharply, and finally chooses by lot sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of the offenders, so adjusting the number thus chosen that they form as near as possible the tenth part of those guilty of cowardice. Those on whom the lot falls are bastinadoed [to beat with a stick or whipped] mercilessly in the manner above described; the rest receive rations of barley instead of wheat and are ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot. As therefore the danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affects all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall; and as the public disgrace of receiving barley rations falls on all alike, this practice is that best calculated both the inspire fear and to correct the mischief."

The Histories (VI.37.2-4, 38.1-3)

In the Annals, Tacitus relates that, following ancient custom, slaves from an entire household were to be executed if one of their number committed a murder. When the city prefect was killed by one of his own slaves, four hundred others were sentenced to death. Even those who were innocent of the crime should be condemned, one senator argued, for "it is only by terror you can hold in such a motley rabble. But, it will be said, the innocent will perish. Well, even in a beaten army when every tenth man is felled by the club, the lot falls also on the brave. There is some injustice in every great precedent, which, though injurious to individuals, has its compensation in the public advantage" (XIV.44). The populace protested the injustice but the sentence still was carried out, soldiers lining the route to execution.

Whether beaten to death by one's comrades or the innocent executed to punish the guilty, the combat of gladiators or the public execution of criminals and prisoners, all such individual deaths were perceived to be for the common good of the Roman state.

The difference between a triumph and an ovation is explained by Plutarch in his Life of Marcellus (XXII.2-3). In the ovation (ovatio), "the general does not mount upon a four-horse chariot, nor wear a wreath of laurel, nor have trumpets sounding about him; but he goes afoot with shoes on, accompanied by the sound of exceeding many flutes, and wearing a wreath of myrtle, so that his appearance is unwarlike and friendly rather than terrifying." For him, "who had had no need of war, but had brought everything to a good issue by means of conference, persuasion, and argument, the law awarded the privilege of conducting, like a paean of thanksgiving, this unwarlike and festal procession."

Dionysius (V.47.3) elaborates on the two processions: "...the general who triumphs in the manner called the ovation enters the city on foot, followed by the army, and not in a chariot like the other; and, in the next place, because he does not don the embroidered robe decorated with gold, with which the other is adorned, nor does he have the golden crown, but is clad in a white toga bordered with purple, the native dress of the consuls and praetors, and wears a crown of laurel [myrtle]; he is also inferior to the other in not holding a sceptre, but everything else is the same."

An ovation, then, was granted when victory had been achieved with little bloodshed (at least five thousand of the enemy had to be slain to justify a triumph), hostilities had not been proclaimed or completely terminated, or the enemy had been an unworthy foe.

This section of the Appian Way lies just beyond the Circus of Maxentius.

References: Plutarch: Parallel Lives (1916) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Appian: Roman History (1912) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); Polybius: The Histories (1922-) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1950) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library). The illustration is from Empires Ascendant: Time Frame 400 BC-AD 200 (1987) by the Editors of Time-Life Books.

Return to Top of Page