Slavery was widely practiced in the ancient world, though documentation of it is uncommon. Sparse records show that slave revolts were frequent. The ancient Spartans and other Greeks had slaves; in Sparta the conquered people of Messenia were tied to the land as agricultural slaves, called helots.

The helots outnumbered the Spartans and fought for freedom but were kept under control for centuries by the militaristic, disciplined government. Other stories of Greek slaves include that of Drimakos, who led a band of escaped slaves on the island of Chios.

They lived by robbery, so Drimakos negotiated a treaty with local landowners. The slaves agreed not to steal too much in exchange for being left alone, and Drimakos promised only to accept new runaways into his group if they could prove mistreatment at the hands of their masters.

Roman historian Livy tells of revolts south of Rome, involving men recently enslaved after the Second Punic War. Their plot to escape was revealed, and 500 slaves were arrested and executed. Within 12 years a revolt in Etruria and one in Apulia led to the execution of 7,000 slaves.

Diodorus Siculus reported two major slave wars in Sicily. The first lasted at least five years and ended in 132 b.c.e. The second slave war occurred in 104–100 b.c.e. In both, Syrian slaves rallied around a leader with mystical powers and joined forces with a second slave rebellion.

During the first war the slaves, some 200,000 strong, took over several cities until betrayal from within their ranks led to their downfall. A new law that freed some 800 slaves prompted the second war. Landowners complained, the manumissions ceased, and slaves revolted. A second group, led by Athenion, joined this slave army.

Rome’s Senate sent an army of 17,000 to defeat them. The Romans killed 20,000 slaves but won no firm victory until its general dueled with Athenion and killed him. A thousand slaves were dispatched to Rome to become gladiators, but all of the men killed each other when they learned of their destination.

Historians Plutarch, Sallust, Appian, Florus, and others reported the most famous slave revolt in 73–71 b.c.e.—that of Spartacus, a gladiator in Capua, who may have once been a Roman soldier. Gladiators were slaves or enemies who had committed an offense deserving of special punishment; as a gladiator, Spartacus would have been trained to fight to the death.

Spartacus and at least 50 other gladiators staged an escape from their combat school using kitchen knives as weapons. They hid near Mount Vesuvius and elected three leaders: Spartacus, Crixus, and Oenomaus—the latter two from Gaul. They defeated the initial force sent from Capua to recapture them and were soon joined by other rebel slaves.

Italy’s estimated population of 6 million included 2 million slaves, and revolt was taken seriously. Approximately 3,000 soldiers marched to the Vesuvius area but were tricked and defeated by the slaves. Another army engaged the slaves several times but was constantly outwitted by them.

Spartacus’s force grew: By some estimates it numbered 70,000 and included slaves from Gaul, Thrace, and the German tribes. The Senate was humiliated and afraid and dispatched consuls Publicola and Lentulus with nearly 9,000 men. Publicola defeated a force led by Crixus, but Spartacus beat both armies and marched his troops north to the Alps where they met and defeated the army of Cisalpine Gaul, led by the Roman governor.

While many of the details of Spartacus’s revolt are confusing, a true mystery evolved at this point: Spartacus, so close to escape and freedom, turned his army around and headed south again.

After months of enduring raids up and down the Italian peninsula, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the most powerful man in Rome, gathered legions of men and began a hunt for the slaves and their leaders. When one of his legates led two legions into an unwise attack, Crassus had one of every 10 of the soldiers clubbed to death by his fellows, a practice called decimation.

After a failed attempt to cross the sea to Sicily, Spartacus drove further south. Crassus began to build a wall across southern Italy, trapping the slaves. They would not be trapped, however, and crossed the trench that was dug, even though thousands of them died.

Still in the south, the slaves won a victory against one part of Crassus’s army but were finally defeated. Crassus lost only 1,000 men, but the battle field was littered with more rebel corpses than the Romans could count, and Spartacus was among the dead.

Five thousand slaves escaped but were cut down by the army of Pompey, Crassus’s rival, and Crassus pursued other rebels into the mountains. About 6,000 survivors were rounded up and crucified along the Appian Way, the road leading from Capua to Rome.

More revolts are recorded in the Roman Empire after Spartacus’s time, including a rebellion of gladiators during Nero’s reign. As late as the third century c.e. a gang of 600 slaves led by Bulla eluded capture for two years. None of these reached the proportion of Spartacus’s army, though, and none endured through millennia, as Spartacus’s story has, to inspire and serve as a symbol of resistance to oppression.