Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Spartacus War revisited and speculative history

During my week off, I finally read The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss that I mentioned a couple of months ago. Several books I've read lately raises the question of what makes a successful history when little trustworthy material is available on the subject. Persistent use of qualifiers like “perhaps”, “he might have seen”, and “possibly” strains the narrative when the reader constantly has to take a leap of faith. When the myth surrounding the historical event or person surpasses the historical record, separating the two becomes harder in the reader’s mind. A few quick impressions on what makes Strauss’ “speculative” history compelling and fun to read, at least to me:

Strauss provides the historical context within which the Spartacus revolt occurred. Finding the right balance of what to include can be difficult, as well as how best to present the information. While Strauss could have taken more space to frame ancient Rome, his approach limits his discussion to only what was relevant. While he could have included additional facts that would have put Spartacus’ life and times into context without making the book feel padded, I think he strikes a good balance on inclusion to give the reader most of what is needed to understand events. At some point you reach diminishing returns when piling fact upon fact (or speculation upon speculation), and fortunately that point is not reached here. In addition, Strauss’ knowledge and descriptions of Italian geography play an important role in understanding how and why the events unfolded as they did.

The references surrounding Spartacus are limited, and it seems most of them are mentioned and often quoted (although I would have loved an appendix with just the ancient source material). What I enjoyed was not just quotes from ancient sources but discussion on the circumstances of their composition and what biases were involved. Cicero’s published speeches on Roman governor Gaius Verres should be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe a truckload). Knowing that bias is an important consideration to understand Spartacus’ attempted crossing to Sicily. I’m sure it is tempting to present information as definitive, just as a reader probably wants to know exactly what happened, but I appreciate knowing the level of uncertainty. Legends arising out of the subject also make it harder to cut through to what really happened. Knowing that Spartacus’ body was never found after his final battle does not ruin the legend/myth/movie, and I think it adds pathos to his outcome.

While looking at near-term influences, I wish Strauss had spent a little more time with Spartacus’ legacy as well as why he resonates two thousand years after his war and death (even when the message/story is co-opted and distorted). Fortunately he provides an extensive section on sources (grouped by general topics), which lists great places to follow up on anything that strikes the reader’s interest.

Update: While I'm wrestling with back pain, enjoy this interview with author Barry Strauss:
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.

Update: Notes on Barry Strauss' lecture titled Spartacus: The Man, the Myth, the Legacy.

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