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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 unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent.

So what went wrong? We don't precisely know, though the sources allow us to make several suggestions. I think the most likely explanation is that Spartacus, while on campaign with the Romans, campaigned against other Thracians. Spartacus was taken prisoner, and as often happens to prisoners of war, he was sold back to the Romans as a slave. Now he might have expected that the Romans would intervene to ransom him. And he certainly had every right to expect the Romans not to buy him as a slave themselves. So if that is in fact what happened, Spartacus had a justified sense of outrage at how he had been mistreated.

The other huge difference between the movie and what actually happened is more subtle. The movie depicts Spartacus as someone who was against slavery philosophically and who wanted to create a world in which slavery wouldn't exist. But we simply can't say that was true of the real Spartacus. We have very little evidence that there were people in antiquity who were opposed to slavery outright. There is very little evidence of an ancient abolitionist movement and no evidence that abolition was Spartacus' motive. In fact, the closest we come to understanding his motive from the sources, which are sadly lacking, is that he wanted to take the army he raised out of Italy back to his native land of Thrace.

How was Spartacus able to forge a military force that defeated several Roman legions and remained a threat for over two years?

Spartacus started out with some military experience. He fought with the Romans and perhaps for Thrace as well. He was also, I would guess, a natural. He seems to have been well versed in what you needed to do to organize an army and use that army against the Romans. Some of that came from experience, some from natural ability. The most complete contemporary Roman source we have for him, the historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus (or simply Sallust), says that Spartacus was outstanding not only for his strength but also for his intelligence. He was a very smart man. The core of his rebel army had some experience in combat as trained gladiators, and it is reasonable to suppose that some of the other men who joined the revolt had military experience as well. Spartacus was a leader of very considerable skill. He knew what he was facing with the Romans. He understood the topography. Thracians were particularly good at unconventional warfare—ambushes, raids, night attacks, trickery, and the like—which served Spartacus very well in the difficult campaign against Rome.

You've already noted that Spartacus was no abolitionist, yet in the public imagination he remains a heroic revolutionary. How do you interpret him and his movement?

He did liberate slaves, even though I'm skeptical that was his ultimate goal. And it is hard not to be inspired by that. His name survives in part because the Romans never forgot him. He lived on as a figure of terror in Roman literature for centuries. His revolt occurred in the 1st century BC, but hundreds of years later even Saint Augustine was still talking about Spartacus and what he did. So this was a revolt with a very long afterlife.

But there are two things that are really striking about this story. First, we don't have any testimony from Spartacus or his side. All the evidence we have is left to us by the Romans. Oddly enough, Roman writers praised Spartacus. They had very kind things to say about him. One contemporary source, Varro, notes that Spartacus was forced to be a gladiator even though he was innocent. Sallust tells us that Spartacus was intelligent, noble, prudent, and wise—and that he even attempted to prevent his men from committing an atrocity against civilians. Sallust also tells us that Spartacus was a patriot mindful of the needs of his homeland. It was pretty unusual for the Romans to use such laudatory terms about an enemy, particularly a slave and a barbarian. The same Sallust says that most of the men who followed Spartacus were human scum, barbarians. To what extent this suited Sallust's own ideological purposes, or to what extent this was the real Spartacus, is unclear. Nonetheless, there is a very strong ancient tradition that Spartacus was a hero.

It's not surprising that someone like Voltaire could say that Spartacus was a great hero, or someone like Marx could assert that he was the greatest hero of the ancient world. Spartacus figured in European liberalism in the 18th century, European nationalism in the 19th century, and then socialism and communism in the 20th century. He was used by Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg, and the so called Spartacists in Germany in 1919. An American communist, Howard Fast, wrote the best-selling novel Spartacus in 1951. The Hollywood movie is less radical than the novel; nonetheless, it lauds Spartacus from the Left. And Spartacus was a great popular figure in the Soviet Union and in the Soviet-dominated lands. Aram Khachaturian wrote a ballet about Spartacus in the 1950s that won the Lenin prize. There were Spartacus sports clubs founded all over Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. Even though communism is by and large gone, these sports clubs still remain.

Spartacus was a proletarian hero for Marx and communism, a secular ideology. Yet your book reveals religious themes in his revolt. Others have seen Christian themes in Spartacus' story. How can you reconcile these different points of view?

The real irony is that Spartacus was not a secular figure. His Thracian girlfriend or wife—it's not clear which—was a worshipper of the god Dionysus, best known to us as the god of wine. But Dionysus wore many masks in the ancient world. He was a god of liberation for slaves, and he also happened to be the national god of Thrace. Spartacus' Thracian lady underwent trances in which she had visions that Spartacus had been called by Dionysus to do fierce and wonderful deeds. We get a few other hints in the sources that some of Spartacus' followers claimed he was a favorite of the gods.

In addition, many people have seen Christian themes in the story. The idea of a movement led by a young man and opposed by Rome recalls the gospel story. In both cases, of course, the story culminates in a cross, or a series of crosses. Many people have been struck by the fact that Spartacus' revolt ended with terrible mass crucifixions along the road from Rome and Capua, probably the Appian Way. In the movie, by the way, Spartacus is shown as dying on a cross. That is untrue. Spartacus himself was not crucified; he died in battle. His body was trampled on and never found. And yet the association remains. There is an Old Testament spin on this as well. Spartacus came from a nation of shepherds, and his army consisted in large part of slave shepherds. He was the leader of a band of shepherds who wanted to get out of the land of bondage and into the promised land. That is vaguely reminiscent of the Exodus story.

You have written a number of books in recent years that have been well-received beyond the academy. What is your sense of the appetite for history among general readers?

That appetite is real. The public wants stories about the past on its own terms. There is a real service academic historians can fulfill by combining accuracy and depth of knowledge with a popular touch, allowing people who are not professional historians access to what researchers are discovering. I find that readers are very receptive to that.

What are you working on next?

I've started a study of ancient generalship. I'm looking in particular at the "big three" in ancient warfare: Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. I'm examining the things they shared in terms of their successes and failures and what we can learn from them today.

Donald A. Yerxa is senior editor of Historically Speaking, co-director of The Historical Society, and professor of history emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College.

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