Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss

The legend made flesh
Spartacus. The very name is the stuff of legends. His slave rebellion against the Roman Empire in the first century BC has served as inspiration for countless dissenters and revolutionaries over the past two millennia. But who was he, really? In his 2009 book The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss attempts to shed some light on the age-old story of this gladiator, insurgent, and icon. Those familiar with the film and literary adaptations of this hero’s saga will find his true story every bit as fascinating and stirring as the fictional epics he inspired.

Unfortunately, not many ancient accounts of the Spartacus uprising still exist, and most of those that are extant are second- or third-hand accounts. Strauss knows these original sources inside and out, and summarizes the available historical record clearly and concisely. Where gaps appear in the scanty narrative, he fills them in with contextual information and educated speculation. For example, we know very little about Spartacus’s wife, except that she was a priestess of the god Dionysius. Strauss describes the religious rituals of the Dionysius cult at this period of time and details what the life of such a prophetess might have been like. We know Spartacus was a gladiator, so there’s plenty of information in the book about the daily lives of gladiators and those who owned them. Strauss situates the Spartacus rebellion within a broader history of slave uprisings and rebellions faced by ancient Rome. The political and military careers of all the Roman generals who attempted to quell the rebellion are also examined in detail. If any first-hand blow-by-blow accounts were ever written of the battles fought between the rebels led by Spartacus and the forces of Rome, they have not survived the ages, but Strauss knows an awful lot about ancient warfare and makes the reader feel like he’s right there on the ground amidst the fighting, spattered with blood, sweat, and gore. Some scholars may complain that there’s too much imaginative license taken in The Spartacus War, but for general readers with an avid interest in the ancient world this is a gripping and informative read.

The least interesting portions of Strauss’s study occur when he attempts to pin down the exact geographical location where an event took place. Unless you’re a scholar on the subject or intimately familiar with the regional topography, these passages are about as entertaining as reading an Italian road atlas. Beyond these occasional exceptions, however, the book is a smooth and lively read. It’s packed with information, but Strauss’s prose is always crisp, engaging, and accessible.

In closing this review, I must confess that one of my guilty pleasures is the Spartacus TV series from Starz. Like-minded fans will be surprised to find out how closely the makers of that program stuck to the actual history of the Spartacus rebellion. Of course, Strauss’s take on the subject is far less sensationalized, but no less sensational. This book is definitely a must-read for anyone who’s ever admired Western history’s most illustrious freedom fighter.

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