The story of Spartacus has reached the point of popular culture, most recently realized in the Starz min-series Spartacus Blood and Sand. This series utilizes facts we know to be accurate and weaves them into a story designed to entertain. Here we will take a look what history tells us about the revolt (from Plutarch and others) and put it in the context of the Italian geography.
The slave revolt of 73 B.C. began when a group of gladiators (78 to be exact) broke out of the training camp of one Lentulus Badiates in Capua. Most of these men had been captured, held as slaves, and forced to fight for their lives in the arena. Few were Romans, the majority being Gauls, Germans, and Thracians. The gladiators escaped by breaking into the kitchen and stealing the cook's knives and spits, which they were able to use as weapons to overpower the guards.
Outside Capua they had to good luck to come upon wagons loaded with weapons meant for gladiators in another city so they were able to arm themselves. Spartacus was elected the chief of three captains. It's possible the other two were Crixus and Oenomaus.
After defeating the Romans who were pursuing them out of Capua, the rebels were able to substitute Roman weapons for their gladiator weapons, which they considered dishonorable. First attacked by the praetor Clodius on a mountain (Vesuvius?), Spartacus' men were able to escape to the other side, circle around, attack, and defeat the Roman force. After this battle, the rebel force grew stronger though the recruitment of sympathetic allies.
The log of attempts to defeat Spartacus and his men follows:
1. The praetor Publius Varinus sent his lieutenant Furius against the rebels with 2,000 men and they are defeated.
2. Cossinius was sent to give advice and counsel to Varinius but he and his men were intercepted while in camp and killed.
Spartacus decides to march his men to the Alps and allow them to go their separate ways – Gauls to the west to their homeland and Thracians to the east to Thrace. But there arose a disagreement on this because Crixus, the Gaul, did not want to return to his homeland and was content to stay in the Italian peninsula and play the brigand. In the fall of 73 B.C. the rebels move back to the south.
3. The consul Gellius attacks the German rebel faction and soundly defeats them.
4. At the same time Lentulus attacks the rebel force led by Spartacus and sees his officers defeated.
In the spring of 72 B.C. the rebels again moved north.
5. The praetor Cassius attacks Spartacus with 10,000 men and is defeated at Mutina(?).
Meanwhile, an angry Senate gives Crassus the job of defeating Spartacus.
6. Stationed at Picenum, Crassus sends his lieutenant Mummius with two legions to observe and not attack the rebels. Spartacus is able to draw Mummius into battle and the Romans are routed.
A furious Crassus proceeds to decimate his army while Spartacus retreats down through Lucania into the toe of Italy. The latter attempts to cross into Sicily with the aid of Cilician pirates but they deceive him and sail away. Spartacus settles his army near Rhegium.
After arriving at the Italian toe, Crassus orders that a wall be build across the isthmus to prevent a rebel escape. The resulting wall is 37 miles long!
More to read at Mike Anderson's Ancient History Blog: Spartacus and the Slave Revolt of 73-71 B.C.