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Spartacus -- The Slave Revolt (71 BC)
(Great Battles of Hollywood Series)

By Jonathan Lim

This is quite possibly the most accurate of the Roman Epics. For example, the characters of Batiatus, Crassus and of course Spartacus himself are totally real. The events portrayed are reasonably accurate. Except of course that Gracchus had been dead some 20 years before the Revolt of Spartacus. And Batiatus was unlikely to have hob-nobbed with senators.

Anyway, the point is that the battle is real. Taking place around 73 BC between Brundisium and Rome, it was fought after Spartacus and his slave army had wiped out several Roman armies in glorious battle. Once his entire army had to escape from a mountain position by tying vines together to make ladders!

Unlike in the film, Spartacus' army was incredibly unruly. It says much about the man that he could defeat so many Roman armies with such a fractious force. Once, his German contingent was destroyed by a Roman force when it became separated due to looting. This battle, Spartacus' last, was fought because his men refused to hold back any longer. After being deserted by Cilician pirate allies, who vanished rather than provide ships to let the men escape from Italy, Spartacus was probably doomed. Crassus was coming, with a huge force. And Pompey was not far behind.

So much for history. Now we turn to Hollywood.

The Armies

THE ROMANS: The Romans are pretty much all legionaries, which is realistic for a Marian Roman army. Their maneuvers are depicted by Kubrick with incredible camerawork, showing us what it truly must have been like to face the Romans. The battle scene is, in essence, probably the most realistic of any Roman epic. Witness, if you please, the enormous rectangles of cohorts, their individuality lost in a mass. Watch them as, in perfect order, they snap their shields left and right.

Of course, the poor accuracy of the costuming is rather obvious to us now. But in those days people believed that the Romans used leather armour. This was because reliefs showed Republican Roman legions wearing smooth jerkins. They did not know, as we do, that the mail was often depicted with paint or plaster, now long gone.

On the up-side, this is the only film accurately to depict pila being thrown. Most films seem to show Romans using their spears as stabbing weapons (eg. Ben Hur).

I do not know where such figures may be bought. Use normal Marian Romans. Actually, I have an idea. The plastic Romans made by the old company Atlantic, and now distributed by Hat (I believe) are in the old style, with leather jerkins. Of course, finding 20mm Slave Revolters in plastic might be somewhat difficult.

Reserve army: Pompey and Lucullus are near the rear of the unwitting Slave army. This is accurate, and actually happened in real life. Only I am not sure about Lucullus. It is certainly true that Pompey's army, in real life, slew the remainder of the fleeing slaves after the battle. Pompey then tried to claim credit for putting down the slave revolt. There's Roman politics for you.

SLAVE REVOLT (Spartacus) -- This is a puzzle - not with respect to this film, but with respect to real life. How did the Revolt of Spartacus proceed so well against Roman legions, if they were truly nothing but riffraff? I think the film gets this point right; the slave revolters fought so well because they were desparate. Also their morale would have risen immeasureably with their early successes.

On the other hand, they certainly weren't disciplined, as I have said before. Try depicting them as Warband, but as seriously outnumbering the Legions.

Those Slave Revolters who were ex-gladiators (some 74 of them according to Plutarch) may be depicted as Blades. They would have trained more slaves in their methods of combat, which would certainly have been deadly. Plutarch mentions that some of the slaves (who numbered many tens of thousands) were trained as regular infantry - i.e. trained by the gladiators.

They would also have been very well armed. They captured gladiator equipment from a nearby school (and maybe recruited more gladiators too?) and also captured a great deal of Roman equipment. We are told that they rejected gladiator equipment as soon as they captured Roman arms; however, they would not all have captured equipment at once, and some would have been wearing arms guards and wielding tridents at this battle.

Spartacus and his commanders ride horses, and may be regarded as Cavalry in DBA. Spartacus did in fact ride a horse in battle. However, in this battle he killed his horse before combat, saying that it was unnecessary. If he won, he would capture more horses; if he lost, he was not about to desert his fellow-slaves.

Finally, the part that is most Hollywoodish in tone, and the most unrealistic - the fire-logs. Although we have no detailed records of what the battle was like - Plutarch gives a fairly brief description - I sincerely doubt if burning logs were used!

Count them as SCh (Scythed Chariots) and depict them as being held by slaves, one on each side, by metal poles stuck in each end. (Wouldn't that get a little hot??)

The logs depend on slope. They are not allowed to roll beyond the edge of the slope on which the slave army starts. That is why Spartacus waits until the Romans begin to advance before letting the logs roll.


                              (Roman Side)
(<---Pompey's army)....................................
                             (Slave side)

. = Good going.
H = Holls (gentle)

The terrain is mainly featureless, but with two slopes, one on which the Roman army sits, the other on which the Slave army sits. Both slopes are rather shallow, and create a sort of hollow in between.

Pompey's army is in the distance on the Roman's right flank. They come on after four bounds.

The Roman army at the start is formed in a vast echelon across the slope. The slave army is in a rabble, with the fire-logs at the front.

The Battle

Crassus opens the ball with his legionaries. Formed in a vast echelon stretching across the slope (presumably because they have just arrived from the right), they slowly change formation until they are parallel to the slave army.

Then they begin marching towards the slaves' slope. Formed up initially according to cohort, they send forward a thin detachment, which marches towards the slave army. The rest of the army is kept behind, ready to back up the forward troops.

Spartacus waits until this thin detachment (one element deep?) comes up the slope. There is no hurry in their movements. Suddenly, flames burst out across the front of the slave army. Then, rolling with terrible speed, the fire logs come pouring down the slope, each dragged by two slaves.

The thinly deployed detachment has no chance. Driven back, they are confused with the ranks behind them as they flee. Only then does Spartacus attack.

The slaves, mainly in captured equipment, charge towards the enemy. They are getting the upper hand (and the Romans mysteriously lose their formation) when their left flank begins to scatter.

It is the army of Pompey, which has just arrived. Spartacus, who thought Pompey and Lucullus were miles away, is stunned. His cavalry battle against the new arrivals, but are overwhelmed. Spartacus is defeated.

Results of the Battle

In the film, Crassus uses the slave revolt as a chance to get to become dictator of Rome. However, this is fiction. Gaius Gracchus lost power as a result of this battle (in the film) because he appears to have bargained on Spartacus getting away, and Crassus losing face.

In real life, things were rather different. Plutarch records that only a few of the slaves were found to have been wounded in the back. All the others died facing the Roman foe. Spartacus personally killed two centurions and nearly got to fight Crassus himself (why, oh why, didn't they put that in the film??!) before being cut down. Or so Plutarch says (in his Life of Crassus).

According to another tradition (Appian?) Spartacus' body was never found. It is pleasant to imagine, as Colleen McCullough does in her novel "Fortune's Favourites", that Spartacus was among those who got away, and he escaped to a quieter life, dreaming of the days when he nearly conquered Rome.

The surviving slaves were crucified as in the film, making a grisly line of crosses all the way to Rome along the great Appian Way. It was the last act of the great Slave Revolt.

What Was Spartacus LIke?

I think the film's portrayal of the character of Spartacus might be historical. Although we cynical moderns might say this is Hollywoodisation, we have two pieces of evidence for his selflessness and love of his fellow slaves.

Firstly, his attempt to escape from Italy with the help of Cilician pirates was not simply to get "home", as in the film. According to Plutarch, Spartacus wanted to sail to Sicily and start a slave revolt there. Clearly he took his job seriously, and wanted to free even more slaves than he already had.

Secondly, Plutarch's record of the battle includes two possibly accurate pieces of information about his manner. He slew his horse before battle, as I said before - a noble act, as escaping on horseback would have been easy and safe. He also acted with the greatest bravery, killing two centurions and fighting bravely until he was killed.

At the very least we can respect the man for being able to turn this potential rabble into an effective army. The fact that he destroyed so many Roman armies sent against him is proof of this. Plus, the fact that his slave-followers were prepared to fight to the death, as Plutarch writes, without fleeing, shows his ability to inspire. His force, not a mob but a real, effective army, seems to have been one of the most remarkable armies of all time. If only we had more records!

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Last Update: July 11, 2001

My thanks to Jonathan Lim for this scenario. Gamer feedback is welcome. Send comments to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.