Historic Generals #2: Spartacus

I have decided to continue in a similar vein as Hannibal and the next “general” under the microscope is another enemy of Rome. Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator-turned-rebel leader was not necessarily the greatest general of all time, but he certainly had ability and there is a certain mythical or legendary association with him. Thanks to the classic movie, and the recent (and may I add excellent) television series, Spartacus has become a cult icon as a hero who fought against the overwhelming power of an oppressor, and he has become a symbolic figure throughout history with various individuals and movements, including Karl Marx, using him as an example to live up to. So let’s see if the gladiator-turned-general is really as good as the legend.Spartacus_statue_by_Denis_Foyatier(The statue of Spartacus by Denis Foyatier in the Louvre)

Battle Tactics
Spartacus certainly understood the strengths of his army and was a competent tactician. He recognised that, at the beginning of his rebellion, his army was too small to face a Roman force in open battle. Using the terrain and the superior ability of the gladiators, they survived in the countryside around Capua until they were driven to seek refuge on Mount Vesuvius by a militia force, which proceeded to lay siege to the mountain. They escaped by scaling down the bare cliffs using vines and launching a surprise attack on the unprotected rear of the camp. They similarly ambushed a second expedition sent against them, before their numbers started to grow rapidly. However they were soon stopped by two full legions under Marcus Crassus, and a marching battle ensued as they tried to move south to avoid Crassus’ force.  After several setbacks, Spartacus managed to force his way through Crassus’ forces, only to be caught trying to flee into the mountains (possibly the Picentini Mountains). Faced with little choice, Spartacus threw his full force into battle and was heavily defeated. Tactically, Spartacus’ early efforts were impressive, but as the campaign went on and he came up against sterner tests, Spartacus’ tactics became simpler, attempting to use the sheer weight of numbers at his disposal. Whereas he started with a small force of highly trained gladiators, he soon had thousands of slaves joining his cause, and while this did make his force more dangerous, the slaves were not as highly trained as the legions they now faced in open battle.
3/5

Campaign Tactics
Spartacus’ campaign does not seem to have much direction in the start, and allowing himself to be trapped on Vesuvius, while showing him to be aware of the surrounding terrain, does not suggest the most competent commander. However, after rescuing the situation and defeating two Roman forces, Spartacus moves his forces north; it is widely thought that he was trying to cross the Alps and make a big to escape from Rome’s power. However, Crassus outmanoeuvred him and while the attempted encirclement failed, Spartacus was forced to flee south in a series of running battles that eventually led him to be trapped in Southern Italy. After plans to sail to Sicily with the aid of some pirates fell through, Spartacus fought his way out of Crassus’ encirclement and headed for the safety of the nearby mountains. Spartacus appears to be a reactionary leader, who is very competent at adapting his plan to the safest course. However, the campaign is a disaster and the vast majority of rebels were killed, either in battle with Crassus or caught by Pompey feeling the battle, or crucified. A failed campaign with so many setbacks cannot score a high mark.
2/5

Fighting Ability
As a gladiator, Spartacus was one of the highest trained swordsmen of the age. Before his time as a gladiator, Spartacus was a warrior. He was either a warrior in his native Thrace who fought against Rome and was captured, or served in the Roman auxiliary and was captured and sentenced to slavery after deserting. While the details are unclear, both show that Spartacus had a military past before he became a gladiator. The training he would have gone through in the ludus would have sharpened his skills and made him a highly trained professional killer. His ability with a sword would have been greater than the average Roman soldier he faced, and the skills of Spartacus and his fellow gladiators was what secured the rebels their early successes. You wouldn’t find many better individual fighters – Full marks.
5/5

Intelligence, Personality and Charisma
Spartacus clearly was an intelligent and determined individual. To endure years of slavery and fighting followed by leading a rebel force in the heart of hostile territory, the man must have been both physically and mentally strong. We can assume he led from the front and placed himself at the crucial positions of the battles, where the fight was going to be won or lost. We can also assume that he was an inspirational figure, and his presence would have had a profound effect on those following him, At start of the final battle, as he prepared to throw his full force against Crassus, Spartacus killed his horse to show he would not be fleeing and claimed if they were victorious he could have his pick of the Roman horses. He was driven, but level-headed and sensible; when he found his force in an unfavourable position, he manoeuvred them to the safest course of action. Unfortunately these are all assumptions as we do not have much information available in terms of the actual Spartacus. With no specifics, I can’t really give Spartacus a massive score.
3/5

Success Rate
Judgement time: Spartacus, another enemy of Rome who would go on to be a bogeyman figure as well as a symbol of hope and resistance, is actually a little disappointing really. The early victories over two small expeditions showed promise, but when you compare these to the running battle with Crassus and the series of setback that preceded the rebellion’s final defeat, the score evens out somewhat. However the (almost) complete annihilation of the rebels by Crassus (and Pompey), where the greater number of his followers either falling in battle or being captured and crucified, tips the scales. Crassus is considered by many to be a rather uninspiring and, in some cases, lousy general, so to be outmanoeuvred by such a man does not necessarily demonstrate the highest ability. So outmanoeuvred by Crassus, and then completely out-gunned by the legions at Crassus’ disposal, Spartacus does not have a very good success rate.
2/5

With a score propped up by his fighting prowess, Spartacus manages to score 15/25. He doesn’t seem to live up to his legend, but the actual chances of a successful campaign were very slight. Spartacus and his rebels faced unimaginable odds and sadly failed, but the statement made by them taking such a stand is one that has carried through history. Maybe that makes up for the low score.