A slave is a human being treated as property by another human being and forced to work for no wages (wives, who for ages also fit this description, were not considered slaves as they had accepted their condition voluntarily). Slaves have never been particularly happy about their status, but for most of human history, their lives didn’t differ very appreciably from those of free people doing similar work – they just had less money at the end of the day to drown their sorrows with.
Then the Romans came up with the brilliant idea of arming the miserably unhappy slaves and forcing them to fight one another to the death! Slaves used for this purpose were called gladiators. Early on it was discovered that it was way more exciting to watch men who knew what they were doing killing one another – so gladiators began to be trained in special schools, where they were taught to use all sorts of novel weapons. As with any sort of school, it’s generally more efficient to train a fair number of people at once – most gladiatorial schools trained 50 to 100 men at a time.
There are several reasons why this was pretty stupid, and, in 73 BC, a gladiator named Spartacus led about seventy of his colleagues in an effort to demonstrate to the citizens of Rome just what a monumental fail they’d engineered. He and his friends seized kitchen cutlery and fought their way out of the gladiatorial school at Capua where they were being trained to murder one another – pausing only to steal several carts loaded with gladiatorial weapons and armor, because, let’s face it, going into battle armed with a spoon is just embarrassing!
Spartacus and his band went from farm to farm liberating slaves, and eventually established a camp on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, where they could train the newly liberated servants to fight. It’s easy to underestimate the degree to which this uprising threatened Rome, until one considers the sheer numbers of people held as slaves in Italy: modern estimates range from thirty to forty percent of the Italian population at that time were slaves – that is, between two and three million, at least half of which were male, and most of those were of military age, as slaves tended to die young. Put another way, Spartacus could potentially command over a million seriously pissed-off men in their prime!
Another factor that should have been cause for concern was the fact that Rome had committed all of its legions to a pair of foreign wars, one in Spain, and the other in Turkey. Despite this the Romans didn’t see any particular reason to get all excited: sure the slaves had gladiatorial training, and had seized weapons and armor – but there were only a few hundred of them, at first, and they were just slaves! The Senate figured they would be no match for real soldiers, and dispatched the commander of the city garrison with a few cohorts of his, um, cohorts, who promptly marched to Vesuvius and established a camp underneath some very impressive cliffs.
Generally, when a Legion of real soldiers camps anyplace, they dig a ditch, build a palisade, and set guards, thereby insuring no-one can sneak up on them and do unpleasant things to them in their beds. Gaius Glaber, the commander of the garrison saw no point in going to all that effort, and was, therefore, suitably shocked when Spartacus and a bunch of his gladiators rappelled down the impressive cliffs and began to do seriously unpleasant things to the soldiers in their beds – or, really, wherever they happened to be at the time.
When most of them were dead, Spartacus had another couple of cohorts worth of military supplies and weapons which he used to kick the snot out of the next bunch of militia sent against them, thereby gaining even more arms and armor, for the huge new hoard of slaves who came running to join him.
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