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Interview by Donald A. Yerxa


A conversation with historian Barry Strauss, author of a new book on Spartacus.

The military historian Barry Strauss has taught for many years at Cornell University, where he directs the Program on Freedom and Free Societies. Among his recent books are The Trojan War: A New History and The Battle of Salamis. (He's also written a memoir, Rowing Against the Current: Learning to Scull at Forty.) Don Yerxa talked with Strauss about his new book, The Spartacus War, published in March by Simon & Schuster.

Why did you want to write a book about Spartacus?

Although a lot of great scholarship has been devoted to the subject, I felt there was a need for a popular book that could bridge the gap between the movie and the technical studies. But also I think that Spartacus is very much a character for our times. I wouldn't go so far as to say he was a terrorist or a jihadist, but he was an insurgent with a religious dimension whose men terrorized the civilian population and created big problems for an imperial power, which had to learn to put down a revolt it was ill-equipped to handle.

Who was the "real" Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas' character in Kubrick's 1960 film?

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn't complete fiction. The truth is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he really did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it's even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie, though the real woman was quite different. But there are some significant differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent with today's Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite ...

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