Book Review - The Spartacus War follows a rebel with a cause

Citizens of ancient Rome didn’t mind slavery. As they saw it, there were Romans, and there was everyone else. In 70 B.C., slaves comprised 20 percent of the Roman population, and included Celts, Germans, and Thracians from modern-day Bulgaria. They also included a man named Spartacus.

A Thracian who fought in the Roman army, Spartacus was accepted in principle as a Roman but was exploited as a slave and gladiator. He revolted in the summer of 73 B.C. with 70 other slaves, using kitchen knives as weapons. Spartacus went on to assemble an army of 60,000 slaves that rebelled in the name of nationalism, revenge and faith. For two years, Spartacus ravaged the countryside, defeating nine Roman armies. The Republic had never been so vexed from within.

Barry Strauss, a military historian and professor of classics at Cornell University, chronicles Spartacus’ legendary slave revolt in his new book, The Spartacus War. Strauss recognizes the rebellion as one of the most successful insurgencies in world history, and finds some intriguing parallels between it and the United States’ War on Terror.

“It’s the story of an insurgency like ours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Strauss says. “The great power can’t fight him, because it’s bogged down in another war. The war is a test of the great power’s moral fiber. And a charismatic leader inspires men to fight using liberation theology like jihad. The similarities leap off the page.”

Spartacus’ run couldn’t last forever. Rebels began to crack under the strain of competing internal interests. Some wanted to sack Rome, a city even Hannibal, the infamous elephant-riding tactician from Carthage, couldn’t scratch. Spartacus wanted to go home, probably to join guerilla fighters in Thrace, according to Strauss. Eventually, the Roman senate sent a powerful general to crush the insurgency. As a warning to future rebels, 6,000 men were crucified along Italy’s main highway, the Appian Way.
The Spartacus-led insurgency significantly threatened Roman social and political order. Before Spartacus, Rome took comfort in assuming its slaves were too ethnically diverse to coalesce and mount a serious rebellion. After Spartacus, that assumption was abandoned, and gladiators were closely watched for the smallest signs of insubordination.

But something else nagged Romans long after Spartacus’ defeat. Not only did he unravel long-held assumptions about the character of slaves, but he also represented a failing of the state. Roman authors, Strauss says, later glorified Spartacus’ legacy.
“Enemies were usually portrayed as monsters,” Strauss explains. “Take Hannibal. He was called untrustworthy, obsessed and bloodthirsty. But Spartacus was called patriotic.”
In other words, it was fine to enslave a German, but not a Roman, and certainly not a man like Spartacus who exemplified Roman ideals. That Spartacus was able to destablize the social and political order while undermining basic Roman tenets was among the most interesting discoveries Strauss made during his three years writing the book.

“I was personally struck by the degree to which later Roman writers presented him as a good guy,” Strauss says. “They respected him and blamed themselves for the war.”

That’s unusual. Like George W. Bush, Rome rarely admitted error. But Spartacus was a natural and charismatic leader, not to mention a gladiator, the sports hero of the ancient world. He inspired his crew by appealing to its lust for revenge and sense of tribal pride, often invoking the cult of Dionysius, god of the oppressed in rural Italy.

Strauss says most Roman sources believed the revolt could have been prevented had Rome lived up to its own ideals and freed Spartacus. He should have been made an ally, Strauss says, not alienated and turned into an enemy. Spartacus posed a moral test, and Rome ultimately failed.

The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster. $26. 288 pp.