April 17, 2009


The Revolt That Ravaged An Empire: a review of THE SPARTACUS WAR by Barry Strauss (Tom Holland, April 5, 2009, Washington Post)

The few, fragmentary accounts of his life that do survive were composed by authors in whom the very thought of a slave rebellion inspired horror and contempt. From them we know the basic details of Spartacus's career: how he was brought from Thrace to fight in an arena in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius; how he and about 70 other gladiators, armed only with kitchen utensils, broke out of their barracks; how for two years, from 73 to 71 B.C., his growing band of runaway slaves ravaged Italy; how at one point he led more than 100,000 men. And yet, despite the terror he inspired, there was a quality to Spartacus that even the Romans seem sneakingly to have admired. Whether it was overpowering his guards or putting consuls to flight or killing his horse to deprive himself of any means of flight when he finally faced defeat, he lived "fortissime" -- as a man of exceptional courage.

The very features that so appealed to Hollywood, however, make Spartacus a potentially treacherous subject for any classicist. Historians, no matter how seduced by the drama of his revolt, are more circumscribed than their script-writing counterparts by the moth-eaten character of our sources. The balance between accessibility and scholarship, imagination and responsibility, is not always an easy one to strike. In his previous book on the Trojan war, Barry Strauss, a professor of classics at Cornell, seemed so desperate not to bore readers that he occasionally floated free of scholarly moorings. "The Spartacus War," however, has all the excitement of a thriller but none of the poetic license. Whether it is the remains of a trench system in the toe of Italy or an abandoned silver ladle or the mention of one of Spartacus's guides in "one line in a lost history book," Strauss makes every last scrap of information count. This is particularly the case when it comes to descriptions of fighting. The account of what it meant to be a gladiator, of the tactics required to be victorious and of the agony of defeat is particularly adrenaline-fueled. Spartacus's death -- not on a cross, as in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 movie, but charging the Roman general who led the campaign against him -- comes as a worthy climax to an epic that never once relaxes its tension.

As to the broader question of what Spartacus was fighting for, whether a principled love of freedom or a bandit's love of plunder, Strauss hedges his bets. The goals of the rebellion, he concludes, were both noble and coarsely pragmatic: "honor, prowess, vengeance, loot, and even the favor of the gods." If so, then one of the reasons why Spartacus endured so long in the memories of the Romans must surely have been that he reminded them of themselves.

-REVIEW: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the First Century BC: A superb chronicle of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. (John Wilson, 3/23/2009, Books & Culture)
It is conventional, when writing about novels or movies, to avoid giving away too many details of the plot, lest the special pleasure of surprise that comes with a first reading or viewing be lost. History is typically a different affair, but in some cases—The Spartacus War is one—the same considerations apply. Since I'm writing in part simply to urge you to read this book, I don't want to spoil the pleasure you'll take in following the narrative the first time through. From the outset, yes, you'll have a pretty good idea what the final outcome will be, but that plays out as a sense of tragic inevitability to be held in tension with the unfolding particulars, the twists and turns of contingency. Once you have finished that first reading, I expect that many of you will do as I did: start over at the beginning and read through again with the whole arc of the narrative in your head, pausing here and there to consider scenes you raced through the first time.

What will particularly strike you? We have a sense, built from countless impressions since childhood, of a certain implacability to life in the Roman world, whether—as here—in the waning days of the Republic or in the imperial era. So this isn't new, but it is still striking, and it's epitomized in the fate of the gladiators: men who are enslaved in order to provide entertainment for others, to wound and kill or be wounded and killed. Rebelling against this fate, Spartacus magnificently embodied a human impulse that can't be limited to any one place and time. [...]

Christian readers may be struck by the contrast between the charismatic figure of Spartacus the holy warrior and the charismatic rabbi, Jesus. Think too of those New Testament passages about slaves obeying their masters. And yet in America we honor the memory of the revolutionaries who rebelled against Great Britain (in circumstances far less burdensome than slaves had to contend with) and we revere as our greatest president the man who led the nation in a bloody war that was in part fought over the issue of slavery.

Here and at many other points, The Spartacus War pushes us to wrestle with moral complexity. It's a great triumph that Strauss does this in a book the style of which owes as much to the "democratic prose" of the hard-boiled detective novel (as Ross Macdonald put it) and its heirs as to any school of history-writing. The sentences in The Spartacus War are lean. The narrative moves fast. Strauss neither condescends to his readers nor panders to them with the desperation of many pop historians. He writes history for adults. The result—Macdonald would approve—is profoundly democratic.

The Spartacus War follows a rebel with a cause (JOHN STOEHR, 3/24/09, Creative Loafing)
The Spartacus-led insurgency significantly threatened Roman social and political order. Before Spartacus, Rome took comfort in assuming its slaves were too ethnically diverse to coalesce and mount a serious rebellion. After Spartacus, that assumption was abandoned, and gladiators were closely watched for the smallest signs of insubordination.

But something else nagged Romans long after Spartacus’ defeat. Not only did he unravel long-held assumptions about the character of slaves, but he also represented a failing of the state. Roman authors, Strauss says, later glorified Spartacus' legacy.

“Enemies were usually portrayed as monsters,” Strauss explains. “Take Hannibal. He was called untrustworthy, obsessed and bloodthirsty. But Spartacus was called patriotic.”

In other words, it was fine to enslave a German, but not a Roman, and certainly not a man like Spartacus who exemplified Roman ideals. That Spartacus was able to destablize the social and political order while undermining basic Roman tenets was among the most interesting discoveries Strauss made during his three years writing the book.

“I was personally struck by the degree to which later Roman writers presented him as a good guy,” Strauss says. “They respected him and blamed themselves for the war.”

The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss (The Sunday Times review by Mary Beard)
When Ronald Reagan addressed the British parliament in 1982, he used Spartacus, the Roman rebel slave, as a symbol of the fight against tyranny and totalitarianism. For Reagan, Spartacus stood for the struggle of western democracy against Soviet oppression and — a rather more unlikely comparison — the struggle of British freedom against Argentine control of the Falkland Islands (he was, to be fair, speaking just a few days after the battle of Goose Green).

This admiration for the runaway gladiator who, in his bid for freedom, managed to score a series of victories over the Roman legions before succumbing to their vastly superior firepower, is about the only thing Reagan ever shared with Karl Marx.

Especially delicious is that the novel and screenplay of the Kubrick version had been written by communists who'd, typically, failed to understand their own narrative. The amiable dunce understood it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2009 7:16 AM
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