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The Spartacus War
The Spartacus War
Barry Strauss
Simon & Schuster, 2009
288 pp., $26.00

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Reviewed by John Wilson


Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the First Century BC

A superb chronicle of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus.

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If you had asked me not long ago what I thought of Spartacus the gladiator, who led a slave rebellion against Rome between 73 and 71 BC, my only recourse would have been to summon hazy memories of the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film, starring Kirk Douglas, which I saw not on the big screen but on TV some while after the movie's release. Thanks to Barry Strauss, I now know a good deal more about this enigmatic figure, the rebellion he led, and Rome's response. Along the way I got glimpses of the Roman world in the first century before Christ, at once familiar and utterly strange, and something like a walking tour of Roman Italy. The Spartacus War tells a story that is both compelling in its own right and rich with implications for our present moment (not least with regard to insurgency and counterinsurgency strategy). Just as important, the book is exemplary in the way it tells this story—the construction of the narrative, the crafting of the sentences, the implicit contract between the author and his readers.

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.

And yet, as Strauss shows, it has been all too easy for many interpreters of the Spartacus story to obscure altogether the historical context of the rebellion in their eagerness to make a point—hence Spartacus the proto-Marxist revolutionary. Never mind that he never attempted to recruit urban slaves, that to impose Marxist priorities on the rebellion is to do violence to history.

Indeed, Strauss tell us—and he is painstaking in distinguishing what we can reasonably affirm from what we might conjecture, with some fragmentary evidence, and yet again from sheer speculation—there is good reason to believe that Spartacus was seen by many of those who followed him not merely as an uncommonly strong and intelligent leader but as a "servant of Dionysus," a holy warrior, blessed by the god. Worship of Dionysus flourished in parts of Roman Italy, and the wife or mistress of Spartacus—who was Thracian, as he was, from the region of modern-day Bulgaria—was a priestess and prophetess in the cult of Dionysus, the national deity of her native Thrace.

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.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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