Eight Days that Made Rome: The Spartacus Revolt


The Spartacus Revolt:

In 73 BC, Spartacus broke out of gladiator school and started the most terrifying slave revolt in Rome’s history. Visiting Pompeii, southern Italy and the British Museum, Bettany explores the importance and appalling reality of slavery in ancient Rome and how the revolt played a major role in shaping Rome’s political future. She also reveals that not all of Spartacus’s followers were slaves.



Bettany Hughes looks at the day in 73BC that Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator fighting for the entertainment of the Romans, broke out of gladiator school and started a slave revolt. The Republic’s rulers were so panicked by the protest that they offered unprecedented power to a single, ambitious individual – Crassus – who promised victory in what would prove a dark foreshadowing of Rome’s slide into dictatorship. Dramatisations featuring Joseph Millson, Adam Basil and Rhydian Jones bring the key moments to life.

Bettany Hughes makes a good case for seeing the revolt as key to the eventual collapse of the Republic; the Roman Senate was so scared by this threat to the Roman way of life (in which slavery was integral) that it virtually invited dictatorship: the hugely wealthy Crassus paid for his soldiers himself (although he was perfectly happy to kill one in ten of them – decimation – if they failed to follow orders).


Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who, along with the Gauls Crixus, Gannicus, Castus, and Oenomaus, was one of the escaped slave leaders in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and surviving historical accounts are sometimes contradictory and may not always be reliable. However, all sources agree that he was a former gladiator and an accomplished military leader.

This rebellion, interpreted by some as an example of oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning oligarchy, has provided inspiration for many political thinkers, and has been featured in literature, television, and film. Although this interpretation is not specifically contradicted by classical historians, no historical account mentions that the goal was to end slavery in the Republic.

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