Who can forget the stirring image of young Kirk Douglas, mounted on a stallion and waving his sword in defiance of Rome? No Roman gladiator is better known, or more revered, than Spartacus, the leader of ancient Rome’s largest slave revolt (the Third Servile Insurrection of 73 to 71 B.C.). He has been immortalized in ancient texts, popular novels and, of course, the Academy Award-winning film that bears his name.

Surprisingly little is known about the historical Spartacus, however. Although some ancient sources contend he was a deserter from the Roman army, most modern historians believe he was a prisoner of war from Thrace (present day Bulgaria). Ancient writers like the second-century A.D. Greek historian Appian may have invented Spartacus’s Roman military career as a way of accounting for his strategic brilliance.

Like many captured enemy soldiers, Spartacus was sold into slavery. He was then sent to learn the skills of a Roman gladiator at the training school of Lentulus Batiatus in Capua, in southwestern Italy. In 73 B.C. Spartacus and approximately 70 other slave-gladiators managed to escape from the school’s barracks and set up a small base camp on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. Rallying other runaway slaves to their cause, the gladiators were soon joined by thousands of escaped prisoners of war, convicts and rural peasants. In 72 B.C. the rebel band soundly defeated two small Roman forces sent out to subjugate them. A year later, they fought off several Roman legions and won control of much of Cisalpine Gaul.

Spartacus’s original goal was to lead his followers across the Alps to freedom, but his troops—eager to continue plundering the rich Italian countryside—urged him to remain in Roman territory. In 71 B.C. the slave army embarked on a disastrous march south, towards Rome, where they finally encountered the full wrath of Roman military might.

The Romans sent out a massive army, under the command of the rich and powerful ex-Praetor Marcus Licinius Crassus, to meet Spartacus’s forces. After suffering several crippling defeats, and trying unsuccessfully to flee to Sicily, Spartacus’s men were decisively crushed in the battle of Apulia (c. 71 A.D) in southern Italy. The bulk of the rebel army (including Spartacus himself) was slaughtered in the heat of combat, but 6,000 survivors were rounded up and crucified along the Appian way—a grisly warning against any future challenges to Rome’s authority.