Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.22

Theresa Urbainczyk, Spartacus.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2004.  Pp. 144.  ISBN 1-85399-668-8.  £10.99.  

Reviewed by Joanna Paul, University of Bristol (
Word count: 1610 words

In his 2001 anthology of sources on the slave uprising of 73-71 BC, Brent D. Shaw declared that "it seems that the romantic myth of Spartacus has had its day".1 Yet within a couple of years, the film and television industry, eager to capitalise on the success of Gladiator, had once again turned to Spartacus. Howard Fast's novel, the source for the famous 1960 film, was again adapted, this time as a four-hour TV miniseries by the USA Network. This latest reception of the slave leader is briefly mentioned in Urbainczyk's generally excellent and concise account of Spartacus and the slave wars. Interest in one of the most famous figures of antiquity remains strong. This book provides an accessible and informative introduction which is ideally suited to the general public and students up to undergraduate level, whilst still containing some material to interest (and provoke) scholars. The emphasis is on the history of the rebellion, and, since Spartacus is himself such a shadowy figure, U.'s careful attention to the use of ancient sources and the interpretation of ancient historiography makes this a useful demonstration of the difficulties involved in recreating a historical event from limited evidence. With Kirk Douglas gracing the cover of the book, though, we are reminded of the importance of the reception of Spartacus as champion of the oppressed, and this too receives due attention.

In her introduction, U. sets out some of the reasons for Spartacus' ideological importance, explaining his appeal to the modern collective imagination as a revolutionary hero. Through a fleeting but interesting comparison to Che Guevara, U. acknowledges that, for many, the historical facts of Spartacus' life are less important than his legendary status; but the historical record is an important concern for U., and some of the major sources are introduced here. Chapter 1, 'The Outbreak of Revolt', begins a description of the historical dimension of the rebellion and sets the tone for the following chapters by economically weaving an account of the revolt itself with supporting descriptions of the historical, social and political background of Republican Rome. The descriptions of, for example, the landowning reforms or the life of the gladiator are brief, but certainly sufficient to ensure that even the reader with virtually no knowledge of ancient Rome will not feel lost here. This chapter also allows U. to engage with debates that still exercise historians of the period: namely, the question of the "ideological imperative" (32) behind the revolt. U. cites the work of Wiedemann and Bradley as evidence of the assumption that Spartacus and his followers had no higher aims, which might include a march on Rome, even a challenge to the very institution of slavery, beyond achieving freedom for themselves -- an assumption that U. is keen to question. She argues that the tactics of the slave army -- apparently actively recruiting followers, for example -- are suggestive of greater objectives: "Given the actions of the rebel army, it is clear that they were aiming for something more than suicide or flight" (35). This challenge to the dominant position is more tantalising than definitive, since the constraints of this book do not allow the extended and fully supported argument that would be needed to persuade critical readers of the validity of the assertion. Despite (or perhaps because of) U.'s reticence in elaborating on what the 'something more' might be, nevertheless, it is an interesting provocation, and a useful and succinct demonstration to less experienced readers of the ongoing and vital debates at the heart of ancient history.

The next few chapters continue the historical account. Chapter 2, 'Previous Revolts', backtracks to describe earlier slave revolts in both the Greek and Roman worlds. Given the brevity of the book as a whole, the relatively lengthy account of, for example, the 3rd century BCE rebellion on Chios stands out. Ultimately, though, this is a strength of the book, ensuring that it may serve as an effective introduction to the institution of slavery in general and not just the events of one rebellion. Chapter 3 then describes 'The First Victories', and Chapter 4 focuses on the involvement of Crassus and his eventual defeat of the uprising. In a short space, these accounts cover an admirable amount of material. The ancient sources (mainly Appian, Plutarch, Florus, and Cicero) are continually compared, and discrepancies (or, more often, lacunae) pointed out and explained through accessible descriptions of the nature of the material. The evidence is interpreted through simple but incisive argument, allowing key questions such as 'Why did Crassus succeed where others had failed?' to be effectively addressed. Throughout chapters 2 to 4, U. also returns to her challenge to the 'ideological imperative' argument laid down in Chapter 1. The apparently conservative aims of the earlier slave revolts, she says, have coloured our response to Spartacus' rebellion. Furthermore, the slave army's long journey up and down the Italian peninsula suggests that Spartacus may not have been simply trying to get out of Italy. Again, these points are provocative and require more discussion than the parameters of this study allow; but it is, perhaps, enough for now that they are at least raised. U. is certainly careful to acknowledge that any discussion of the aims of the slaves is necessarily speculative. After the account of Spartacus' rebellion, the historical picture is rounded off with a brief consideration of 'Slaves After Spartacus', in Chapter 5. U. introduces the important idea that what was often described as servile misbehaviour should actually be viewed as small-scale acts of resistance. Particularly useful in this chapter is U.'s observation of the extent to which historiography has shaped popular notions of the past, by committing to the historical record the events of the Spartacan rebellion, when other revolts were largely ignored.

This concept is then explored further in Chapter 6, 'The Creation of a Hero', which provides a successful bridge between the account of the historical Spartacus and his later reception. U. expands on the question, raised in the introduction, of how the heroic Spartacus could possibly be derived from the largely negative view of many Roman historians by focussing on Plutarch's Spartacus, as depicted in the Life of Crassus. A detailed investigation of how Plutarch describes the rebellion, with some close reading of the text (e.g. the use of rhomên at Crassus 8), provides an extremely useful and convincing account of Plutarch's importance for later responses, which are then described in Chapter 7, 'Spartacus in the Modern Imagination'. This chapter concentrates on the three twentieth-century historical novels by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Arthur Koestler, and Howard Fast, which all present quite different visions of Spartacus, ranging from Christ-like Messiah figure to failed revolutionary tyrant. Though each account is brief, the equal attention paid to Gibbon and Koestler is welcome; since Fast's novel was the source material for the famous 1960 film -- 'The 'Thinking Man's Epic'' of Chapter 8 -- it often receives disproportionate attention. The description of Kirk Douglas' Spartacus here is thorough, covering all the bases by structuring its account around the roles of the key players -- scriptwriter, star, and director. It brings nothing new to the work already done by Wyke and others, but nevertheless is an effective introduction.2

It is the final section, 'Further Thoughts and Further Reading', that gives pause. Tacked on after the brief Notes section, it lacks integration with the main body of the text. Though this is fine for the further reading ideas -- all of which are useful and, to my mind, contain no major omissions -- it risks devaluing some of the 'further thoughts'. The brief references to, for example, the 2004 miniseries and the Khachaturian ballet music could easily and fruitfully have contributed to the larger picture of Spartacan receptions; as it stands, the final couple of chapters show perhaps undue emphasis on the 'canonical' novels and film. References to pre-20th century receptions are divorced still further, cropping up in the Introduction -- a fragmentation of the reception history of Spartacus which is indicative of the book's concentration on the historical record. This is perhaps understandable, but a key reason for Spartacus being chosen as an early candidate for this 'Ancients in Action' series must surely be because 'Spartacus' is more familiar to most people than the historical Spartacus, and a more coherent account of his reception might thus have been useful. In the final pages, U. reveals her own methodological and theoretical allegiances with the assertion that Shaw's book is particularly useful because it "has helped to clear away the accretions so that a new generation can again see the pristine Spartacus and take heart" (135). This idea that layers of reception can and should be cleared away is likely to cause indignation in many. Though this glimpse of U.'s theoretical standpoint may not be essential to the book's enterprise as a whole, I am troubled over the ease with which this point can be stated, and its potential to mislead those who are new to the field and who have much to gain from an understanding of the processes of reception.

This is not to say that the value of the book has been fundamentally undermined. Though it is more useful as an introduction to Spartacus and the historical record than as an introduction to his reception history, there is, of course, no shortage of accessible works on the latter for the interested general reader or student.3 And, in all fairness, the book should be commended for dealing with such topics at all, when many would still see them as marginal to the study of antiquity, and for handling the material, ancient and modern, with such clarity.


1.   Brent D. Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents (Boston 2001), 23.
2.   Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (London 1997); Alison Futrell, 'Seeing Red: Spartacus as Domestic Economist' in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, eds. Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire, Jr. (Baltimore 2001), 77-118.
3.   Wyke and Futrell both provide excellent introductions to all receptions of Spartacus, not just films. See also Lorna Hardwick, Reception Studies (Greece and Rome New Studies in the Classics No. 33) (Oxford 2003).

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