Rome's Greatest Enemy Reconsidered

A lively new account of the rebellion led by Spartacus by Peter Stothard reminds reviewer Michael Korda of just how many parallels there are with our own time—and he salutes a book that brings history to life.

While politicians may be forgiven for failing to predict the future—who can, alas?—it is amazing that they defiantly ignore the past. The Rome that Peter Stothard brings so vividly to life is in some ways a familiar place: a vaulting, over-reaching, nouveau-riche imperial power, ruled by an increasingly corrupt and divided senate and by ruthless ambitious oligarchs who dominate business, finance, and military affairs while jockeying each other aside for supreme control of politics, where local governors compete with the central government for power and authority, a state sustaining warfare in the farthest corners of the known world, from Germany and England in the north to Egypt in the south, from Spain in the west to what was then the far east (and is now the middle east), and trying at one and the same time to support a hugely expensive military machine, keep taxes low for the rich, and invest in vast public works intended to keep the poorer Roman classes quiet and occupied. It will come as no surprise that Jerusalem and Palestine constituted as controversial a flashpoint in the Roman empire as they would for the United States nearly 21 centuries later—perhaps the world’s longest-lasting political hot spot—or that Romans complained the rich were getting fabulously richer, while ordinary folk were getting poorer and poorer. In short, the country that Stothard explores, both physically and in his mind, resembles to an alarming degree our own, and reminds us once again that all rising imperial powers share one thing in common—their eventual decline and fall as taxes at home fail to pay for expensive wars on foreign soil, and as greed, corruption, foreign trade, and the accumulation of vast riches by the few begin to sap the energy and enterprise of the majority of citizens.

This is one of those rare books in which there is something of unexpected interest on every page, and which makes the reader wish he or she could pack a small bag and accompany the author on his travels.

Having said that, it would be an error to pretend that Rome in 73 BC was the mirror image of the United States. For one thing, almost three-quarters of a century before the birth of Christ, the standards of universal cruelty still had nothing against which they could be measured. In every known culture, slavery, brutal physical labor, savage punishments and inequality were the rule. Citizens of Rome might boast that the claim of Civus romanus sum, set them apart from barbarians and slaves, and it was true up to a point, but Roman citizens lived in a society that accepted pain, cruelty, and torture as the norm, and in which there was no suggestion of equality at birth or mercy in the afterlife. Rousseau might claim, nearly 18 centuries later that, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” but the notion of a God who preferred the poor and humble to the rich and proud, or of turning the other cheek, or of an afterlife in which all of humankind would be treated equally was still waiting to be born at Bethlehem. In the Roman world, and in the worlds around it that Romans sought to subdue and control, the gods were merciless, frivolous, prone to set traps for humans and largely indifferent to the unprivileged bulk of human kind, who in any case did not expect their fate in the afterworld to be any better than it had been on earth. Under the circumstances, the virtues of stoic and epicurean philosophy were apparent, and in his consideration of Epicurus—a subtext to his story—Stothard makes the most of this, and makes it clear why cultivating an indifference to death and fear was such a valuable asset in pre-Christian society.

On the Spartacus Road. By Peter Stothard. 368 pages. Overlook. $26.95. ()

At the center of his book is the story of Spartacus, and the slave uprising he inspired and led, and which very nearly brought Rome to its knees. To the extent that anybody today remembers anything about this, it is largely in the form of the enormously successful motion picture, in which Kirk Douglas, then in his formidable prime, played Spartacus, the gladiator who rose to lead an army of more than 70,000 men against the full might of Rome. Stothard does not exactly ignore the film—threads of it run through his book—but his pursuit of the somewhat ghostly figure of Spartacus is in part a journey through Italy then and now, seeking wherever he can for clues and signs of the past along the Appian Way, along which Spartacus and the legions sent to destroy him moved up and down the length of the peninsula. But it is also a much more personal search for any insight into the past that will help him make sense of his own nearly fatal battle against cancer. It is, in short, something of a secular pilgrimage. He is that familiar literary figure, the reasonable and inquisitive English traveler, dealing with the inconveniences and oddities of a foreign land and in pursuit of a past which most people have long since confused with a Hollywood film epic, and which is even harder to find traces of than most things that old, since the Romans very deliberately set out to obliterate any memory of Spartacus and the great slave uprising, determined that it should never be repeated.

He does not attempt, thank God, to invent a plausible Spartacus, since we know nothing much about him except that he was a Thracian gladiator. Instead, Stothard (a contributor to The Daily Beast) sensibly (and meticulously) recreates the reality of Italy as it was then, and against which we can begin to perceive what kind of a man Spartacus might have been, and how he came to be formed. Thus, first and foremost, he describes for the reader what being a gladiator meant, the famous gladiatorial schools, the weapons and tactics the gladiators used, and the importance of gladiators in Roman society. Gladiatorial combat was, to begin with something between “show business” and “the opium of the people,” as Karl Marx would later describe religion, a valuable way of keeping the minds of the mass of the people off their own misery and political impotence at the hands of the elite. Gladiators—the successful ones, at any rate—were the Roman equivalent of rock stars and sports heroes, although unlike such modern figures they invariably died young and violently. The crowd came to see blood and slaughter—nobody at the time, neither the Romans nor their enemies, would have thought this wrong or evil or debased, the notion that “God is love,” had yet to be suggested, and the only difference between a Roman crowd and one of our own day watching extreme mock violence at the movies, is that the blood and gore then were real, not the work of make-up men and technicians. The Romans paid to see animals killed, or be set against each other, and most of all to see men (and sometimes women) fight to the death. Their lust for blood sports, human sacrifice, cruelty on a grand and even spectacular scale was not sublimated or satisfied by artful substitutes crafted in a movie studio, but gratified in real life on the sand of the arena.

More important still, the gladiators were slaves. As Stothard points out, slavery was the Roman equivalent of mechanical energy and power in our culture. Our civilization is built on gas, oil, coal, and the power they generate; that of Rome was built on the power of the human body, kept at work by brutal discipline and constraint. Just as we go to war to secure oil, the Romans went to war to secure slaves in vast numbers for the task of building Rome and expanding its power over the known world. The slaves were everywhere: they nursed and taught the children of the Romans, they wrote the letters and did the accounting for wealthy Roman businessmen, they mined silver in Spain (the harshest of punishments for slaves), they cooked, wove and sewed, they farmed and harvested, they provided manpower for the galleys by means of which Rome came to dominate the seas, they were the servants of the rich, they existed at every level of Roman society. In contrast to slavery in the Old South, the slaves of Rome did not necessarily look different from their owners or from the Roman citizenry, and it was therefore easier (and more acceptable) to reward them eventually by making them freedmen (especially the Greeks, who were well educated and esteemed), but as in the Old South slaves not only constituted the labor force of a whole society, but also a large part of its wealth.

When the gladiators rose against their miserable fate—which was to kill for entertainment until they were killed—the savagery which they inflicted on Roman towns and farms and the rapid increase in their numbers as slaves fled to join them quickly made them a formidable force. The fact that Spartacus and his closest associates were gladiators helped them to develop strategies to overcome the legions sent to destroy them, until dissension in the leadership (it is possible that Spartacus was deficient in this respect) and the sheer weight of numbers thrown against them finally led to their defeat after a two-year campaign the length of Italy, a defeat followed in the best Roman tradition by crucifying 6,000 slaves along both sides of the Appian Way from Capua to Rome.

All this took place at a time when Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar vied for power, only a few years before Rome was transformed from a republic into an empire, and Stothard brings the whole period, and the social, political and literary realities of it to life with brilliance and a common sense approach to what we know, and almost as important, what we simply do not know about Rome. Who would have thought that anybody could have made the weaving of cloth as interesting and important a subject?

This is one of those rare books in which there is something of unexpected interest on every page, and which makes the reader wish he or she could pack a small bag and accompany the author on his travels. He is a very likeable companion, and his book, despite its slightly unpromising title, and a strange reluctance to put captions on his pictures so one is constantly wondering what exactly we’re looking at, is the surprising good read of this hot summer for me.

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New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.