At first, Spartacus’ rebellion was not given much attention. However, the local militia/police could not handle it and were quickly defeated and their weapons taken away. The Capuan government pleaded to Senate, who eventually agreed to send Gaius Claudius Glaber, a Praetor (think half congressman half Major), to deal with the rebellion.
Initially, Glaber was successful as his army of local militia surrounded Spartacus on Mount Vesuvius. His plan was starve out Spartacus and his men. However, Spartacus showing off his martial prowess, used vines to rappel down the side of the mountain under darkness and completely wiped out the Roman force.
This news sent shock waves throughout Rome and the Senate realized they were not dealing with just a band of runaways. The Senate responded by dispatching full Armies to put down Spartacus. However, he was able to defeat ALL OF THEM with amazing success.
We cannot state how much we are underselling Spartacus here. Think about it:
Spartacus was able to defeat a full Roman Legion and make them retreat during battle. Eventually, Spartacus and his men were holding entire Roman cities hostage. To put in perspective: the notion of a Roman Army losing to Spartacus’s ragtag gang of runaways was like Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls loosing to a JV high school team – but it was happening over and over again. With each victory Sparatcus got more and more slaves and freedmen to flock to him. Historians but his armies at around 120,000 men.
The Senate realized that this problem was more serious than they could ever have imagined. Naturally, the senate’s preferred choice to deal with Spartacus was Pompey, however Pompey was currently engaged elsewhere and could not make it to Rome. Crassus, seeing this opportunity, volunteered to take on Spartacus. And to the surprise of Rome, Crassus said he would pay for the entire campaign himself: the troops, the equipment, everything. As far as the senate was concerned it was a no brainier.
Crassus was not pleased with current Legions that he took over, they had embarrassed Rome not only in defeat but for the simple fact they had retreated in battle. Crassus knew that his Legions were demoralized and most likely terrified of the now near mythical Spartacus. Believing that his men should fear him more than the enemy, he re-instituted a punishment from the time of Roman Kings: “Decimation”. Decimation was normally reserved for units that had lost their nerve in battle. The punishment is brutal yet simple. The disgraced unit is picked by the Armies top officer, then Ten percent (10%) of the men are selected randomly or by their comrades, and then their comrades beat them to death. This was supposed to be an all encompassing punishment. The men picked paid the price for cowardice, and the rest of the men had to deal with the trauma of beating their former comrade to death. Even by ancient standards this was considered a putrid and unnecessarily harsh event.
However, this did seem to have worked. In the coming campaign Crassus's Army was generally successful against Spartacus and never faltered or retreated. Obviously, there were setbacks, but overall Crassus armies were causing more damage than they were taking. Slowly but surely, he was forcing Spartacus into a corner.
Although, to the Senate, the war was taking longer than expected and when Pompey returned to Rome he was sent to assist Crassus. Crassus, not wanting to share any glory with Pompey, pressed harder on Spartacus and met him in open battle. Crassus’s Armies were successful and defeated the bulk of Spartacus forces but a large number of them escaped to the nearby hills. The remainder of the Spartacus’ Army were then caught by Pompey’s forces and slaughtered. The captured survivors were then crucified and left along the Appian way as a warning for all slaves who dare think of rebellion.
At the end of this bloody war, both Crassus and Pompey claimed the glory. Crassus had done the bulk of the work, while Pompey dealt the final killing blow. However, Crassus almost reached his moment of glory, but was snubbed when Senate gave credit to Pompey for defeating Spartacus…