BMCR 2013.06.23

Spartacus (first published 2011). Revealing antiquity, 19

, , Spartacus (first published 2011). Revealing antiquity, 19. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. xii, 177. ISBN 9780674057784. $19.95.


The cover of this book has a beautiful picture of Spartacus struck down in battle. On the reverse, there is a paragraph of praise by Brent Shaw which ends ‘Schiavone offers a careful reconstruction of what might have happened and a compelling analysis of a losing cause.’ The list of contents reveals that there are only three chapters: 1 The Fugitive; 2 The Commander; 3 The Loser.

There is more than a slight danger that before they reach the preface, some readers will have arrived at the conclusion that the interpretation offered here is the usual one that Spartacus and his army never presented a challenge to Roman authority and that the enterprise was always certain of defeat. However, if those readers did not bother to read any further, they would miss a new twist to an old story.

The preface to the American edition would have pleased Howard Fast, the American novelist whose book Spartacus inspired Kirk Douglas to make the celebrated film. In it, Schiavone introduces his protagonist saying, ‘In the tradition of the West, Spartacus is a figure of the collective memory much more than of academic history. A character rather than a person, and a typically American character at that.’ (vii) If that is indeed how Spartacus is viewed in the non-communist world, then Fast’s novel had a lot to do with this characterization.

It is certainly true that academics are much less interested in Spartacus than is the general public, and this book is clearly intended for a wider audience than mere scholars. There are no footnotes although precise references are in the notes at the back. It is easy to read and although it has nearly 200 pages, those pages are small and the font is large.

There is an introductory note entitled ‘Before Beginning….’ The first line of which is: ‘This book is not about the legend of Spartacus. It is a biographical tale, sticking closely to the historical facts.’(ix) It seems rather surprising then that the first sentence of the first chapter reads: ‘Everything was going well, just as they had hoped.’(1)

The account begins with the slaves’ dramatic descent down Vesuvius. In a volume aimed at the general reader, this vivid opening is understandable, but when it has been claimed that the narrative will stick closely to the historical facts, it seems rather strange to begin with some mind-reading. There is never any discussion about what a historical fact might be, nor any real examination of the source material, although the reader is informed in the introductory remarks that the ancient authors who wrote about the slave war were all from the Roman side (x).

There is a wealth of creative speculation in this volume, which is perhaps necessary when dealing with the topic, as the sources are so meagre; we even learn the temperature for those fugitives on Vesuvius in the first paragraph, ‘It was not cold’ (1). Later, in the description of the wintering of the slave army in Lucania the reader is reminded that Spartacus had a wife: ‘And it is likely that his woman was still with him – perhaps, in the winter, they might also have conceived a child.’ Recognising that this is perhaps an unusual detail to be thinking about, the author adds, ‘We know nothing about this, but ancient demographic patterns lend credence to the idea.’ (63).

Howard Fast would have been flattered, although it seems that Schiavone is more familiar with the film than with the novel that inspired it since he refers to it later, when he wonders what happened to Spartacus’ wife, ‘We know nothing more about her: was she killed? But she might also have managed to escape. Perhaps she had a child. We would like to leave her in this way – as in Kubrick’s movie – free and in the company of trusted brigands in the impenetrable forests between the Sila Plateau and the Aspromonte. After all, why not?’ (143) Why not indeed, except that the author had assured us at the beginning that he was going to stick to the facts.

Schiavone’s Spartacus is a very Roman one. Schiavone not only accepts the story that Spartacus had once been in the Roman army but also suggests that ‘It is possible Spartacus had a mentor; perhaps someone from among the Roman officers he would necessarily have known who spotted his qualities and offered guidance on a regular basis.’ (22) His theory is that Spartacus deserted to avoid fighting his own people, the Maidi, but soon was captured and taken to Rome, by which he must have been impressed. ‘Who can say how many times he had pictured it in his mind’s eye: its enormous size, extraordinary wealth, the magnificence of its seats of power – the Capitoline Hill, or the Curia. And now, despite his unhappy state, he would have been able to take in some images, smells and sounds….’ (26).

Refreshingly, the main argument of this book is not that Spartacus’ efforts were doomed to failure, which is quite a common one: see for instance Barry Strauss’ comment: ‘Spartacus had failed’ ( The Spartacus War, London 2009:165). Strauss’ Spartacus does not even have any large ambition: ‘Ultimately, one suspects, he would have been happy to carve out a small space free of Rome and retire as a king or lord in a corner of Thrace’ ( The Spartacus War, London 2009:166).

Spartacus’ aim was not to abolish slavery, we are told. Again we have the assumption that everyone in antiquity lacked imagination and could not conceive of a society without slaves, but Schiavone does allow Spartacus to have an equally big idea. This was to win over the Italian cities and the plebs and with them as allies, fight Roman power. ‘Spartacus tried to wedge his insurrectional strategy into what might effectively have proved to be a fault line in the system of Roman dominion: along the join between the simmering plebeian masses (the old populus of the republic), the disquiet of the Italic communities, and the institutional and political withering away of aristocratic rule – with the cracks of the slave system in the background.’ (118) Spartacus was a precursor to Catiline but underestimated the hostility to slaves among the free population (121).

And the reason for the great legend about Spartacus was that in the imperial period a huge proportion of Roman citizens, even knights and senators, had some blood from a freedman (149). These, presumably proud of their ancestry, built up the story of a hero, who in his bravery and success, though not his ultimate failure, was like a real Roman warrior (149).

According to Schiavone, the Greek writer Plutarch had got it wrong. Spartacus was not almost Greek; he was almost Roman. The legend cannot be killed, so the only answer is incorporation. For Italians, that might seem difficult since he was fighting Romans, but Garibaldi had also recognized the power of the image of Spartacus. Schiavone had assured us: ‘This book is not about the legend of Spartacus’ but somehow he has added to the legend himself.