This is Sparta(cus)!

Romans soon discovered that one of the biggest problems of ruling an empire was the tricky business of governing it. The patricians fought for money and politics, but being at the top of the heap, they didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers. The plebes were still pretty happy about being one rung up the social ladder from slaves. The slaves on the other hand… well, let’s just say they’d have rather been anyone else.

Whenever a few too many slaves got to feeling their oats, they decided to try to make this wish a reality, and up would crop a rebellion. These never lasted long, on account of the Romans having all the weapons, but they made for very dramatic movies later on. The largest of these, and the only one to threaten the heartland of Italy, was the Third Servile War, also known as the War of Spartacus or the Gladiator War. (No, it did not star Russell Crowe. That was fictional. I mean, who in their right mind would choose him to leave an empire to?)

Anyway, 78 gladiators, including Spartacus, escaped and quickly turned into a band of 120,000 men, women, and children wandering around Italy. While this looked great from a recruitment standpoint, it was increasingly hard to hide 120,000 men, women, and children in a field in the middle of Italy. Especially considering that slaves were the backbone of the Roman economy. And if there is one thing the Romans won’t stand for, it’s losing money. Miraculously, the merry little band managed to defeat the first few groups sent after them, and armed themselves with the weapons of the fallen. Rome took a dim view of this, so they finally stopped sending small armies. Instead, they sent Crassus.

Marcus Licinius Crassus (remember him—he’ll be important next week) was a general under Sulla, and not a bad choice of commander with Pompey out smashing heads in the East. He gathered a large army before engaging with the rebels. Trapping them between three groups of legions, he ground the rebellion into the dust. It wasn’t pretty, but made Spartacus a very romantic figure. Everyone loves an underdog.

The defeat of the rebels launched Crassus’s career and popularity among the Roman populous. (The slaves were less enthusiastic.) Following Pompey’s lead, Crassus milked it for all it was worth and refused to disband his troops until he got a triumph in Rome. Fortunately, he learned from history and did not bring an elephant.