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The ancient Roman wall in Calabria, Italy, which has been found to be used to trap Spartacus. (Archaeological Institute of America)

SCIENCE & TECH: Archaeologists Find Roman Wall Built to Trap the Legendary Spartacus

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In a discovery sure to capture a good deal of public attention, a team of archaeologists have found the remains of a Roman wall built to trap the forces of Spartacus, the escaped former Roman gladiator who led the most celebrated and famous slave revolt in world history.

The discoverers of this fascinating and historically significant find were led by Dr. Paolo Visona, a classical archaeologist from the University of Kentucky in the United States.

The Roman wall was found in a mountainous area in south-central Calabria in southern Italy, where Spartacus and his rebellious forces fled in 71 BC in their efforts to escape to Sicily. Walls like this one were built on the orders of the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had been dispatched to lead the Roman legions assigned to capture or kill Spartacus and his army of freed slaves and former gladiators.

An Incredible Discovery Deep in an Italian Forest

The ancient Roman wall cuts through a section of the Dossone della Melia forest in the Calabria region in the southernmost part of the Italian mainland. Excavations have unearthed the remains of a stone wall and supporting earthwork that was approximately 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) long, and is still essentially intact. Nearby the archaeologists also found traces of a Roman defensive ditch known as a fossa, plus remnants of what appeared to have been a rampart or embankment system.

 “The wall has now been conclusively identified as part of the structures built by the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus to contain the slave revolt leader Spartacus and his forces,” the Archaeological Institute of America said in a statement announcing this discovery.

Only partially exposed and covered by moss, the remnants of the Roman fortifications were in a relatively out-of-the-way location, and could have easily remained hidden forever. But a group of local environmentalists stumbled across a section of the stone wall while hiking through the forest, and suspecting it was something ancient they alerted local cultural authorities.

Eventually archaeologists arrived to examine the stone structure in person. They used ground-penetrating radar and LiDAR aerial survey equipment to find out more about the partially buried wall’s structure, and they also extracted soil samplings and took magnetometer readings in an attempt to learn more about when the wall was built.

The ancient Roman wall in Calabria, Italy, which has been found to be used to trap Spartacus. (Archaeological Institute of America)

The Data Adds Up

With all the data they collected, Dr. Visona and his team were able to identify the structure as a Roman wall built by Crassus’ forces in 71 BC, as they were beginning to encircle Spartacus’ army and limit their options for escape. The time frame of the wall’s construction was exactly right, and the historical record makes it clear that Crassus had built structures like this as a part of his campaign to defeat Spartacus and put down the slave revolt.

Spartacus’ final defeat at the hands of Crassus and his legions took place farther to the north, near the modern-day site of the municipality of Senerchia along the banks of the River Sele. But before this final conflict and the death of Spartacus the rival armies engaged in many pitched battles, and it seems one of these battles took place in the rugged forest land of south-central Calabria.

The archaeologists who discovered the ancient wall know this, because their excavations unearthed a cache of artifacts that could only have come from a military conflict. These included many broken pieces of iron weapons, sword handles, sharp javelin points, one spearhead, several large, curved blades, and other unidentified iron debris that was in various states of disrepair.

Spartacus’ army apparently fought to break out of the trap Crassus had set, meeting their rivals at the wall and ultimately overcoming the legions and living to fight another day.

Detail of mosaic depicting gladiators, Villa Borghese. Spartacus is said to have attended gladiatorial training school. (Public Domain)

Detail of mosaic depicting gladiators, Villa Borghese. Spartacus is said to have attended gladiatorial training school. (Public Domain)

Who Was Spartacus, and Why Is He Still Remembered?

Born in Thrace, a region to the north of Greece and the west of Italy, Spartacus joined the Roman army on his own some years before the slave revolt for which he is most famous. For unknown reason he was expelled from the army and cast into servitude soon after, eventually being sent off to the city of Capua in Campania to be trained as a gladiator.

It isn’t known how long Spartacus fought in Roman gladiatorial games before he launched his rebellion. But historians know the revolt took place in 73 BC, as Spartacus organized and led a group of about 70 gladiators who broke out of captivity using improvised weapons.

Spartacus’ rebellion led to what was known as the Third Servile War, meaning it was the third slave revolt by Roman Republic captive laborers that had to be put down by force. But while the previous two uprisings were suppressed rather easily, Spartacus’s revolt was a different story altogether.

Eluding capture or defeat time after time, the Thracian was able to free and recruit enough slaves to build an army of approximately 70,000 men. Spartacus won all of his early battles with the forces of the Republic, and with the situation becoming increasingly urgent and worrisome the Romans called on the acclaimed military leader Marcus Licinius Crassus to organize a major campaign to suppress the revolt once and for all.

Crassus had been a highly successful general, and by this time he was the wealthiest man in all of Rome. Using his own money to organize his expeditionary force and fund his campaign, Crassus launched a large-scale and relentless pursuit of Spartacus that featured many intense battles and ultimately prevented Spartacus from spreading his rebellion to any adjacent territories.

Two years after the rebellion began, Crassus and his men finally trapped Spartacus in the region of Lucania on the right bank of the River Sele. In the final battle of the Third Servile War, Spartacus was killed along with the majority of his men, leaving just 6,000 survivors. To discourage further rebellions, Crassus ordered all 6,000 of these prisoners to be executed by crucifixion, and their bodies were put on display along the side of the roadway (the Appian Way) that connected Capua to Rome.

This slave revolt represented such a significant challenge to the authority and prestige of Rome that it ultimately provoked changes in political and military organization that led to the replacement of the Roman Republic with the Roman Empire. The story of the Thracian-born Spartacus’ incredibly successful rebellion, which took three years to suppress, has never been forgotten, and in modern times Spartacus and his feats have been immortalized in movies, TV shows, books and documentaries.

In Search of History’s Most Famous Rebel, and His Pursuer

Excavations at the newly discovered Roman wall will continue, and more interesting finds are expected. Given that a violent conflict occurred there 2,095 years ago, it is certainly possible that the bodies of men killed in the battle will be unearthed eventually.

If so, this won’t include the body of Spartacus, who met his demise later on. But finding the remains of Roman soldiers and the army of escaped slaves they were pursuing could tell archaeologists a lot more about how the conflict progressed, and about how the Roman legions under Crassus were ultimately able to gain the upper hand against the powerful forces organized by the legendary Spartacus, history’s most famous rebel.

Top image: Wall purported to be used to contain Spartacus in Calabria, Italy  Source: Archaeological Institute of America

By Nathan Falde





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