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Revolting Slaves & Spartacus, a legend from limited sources
on 30 October 2009
On page 166 the author asserts, "Spartacus was a failure against Rome but a success as a myth maker... Who, today, remembers Crassus? Pompey. Even Cicero is not that well remembered. Everyone has heard of Spartacus." Well yes they have but that's probably because of the Kurbick film (the one where Michael Douglas's dad played the eponymous hero). And we do remember a great deal of Roman history - Cicero has a following both factual and fictional.
Barry Strauss has written an account of the rebel slave rebellion but the problem is he has next to nothing to tell us that is not speculation. What happened between 73-71 BC is fragmented and often contradictory. Perhaps padding, Strauss presents much basic information on Ancient Rome. Often his comments are reductive to the point of being unhelpful. For example in describing the life of a gladiator, it was more complicated. As for Crassus, who dispatched Spartacus after a six-month campaign, he went on to suffer one of Romes' greatest military defeats. He was presented as a one-dimensional character.
Strauss wrote an excellent book - The Trojan War A New History - where he interpreted Homer (the Iliad and Odyssey) with the archaeological evidence and made clever deductions. He told a great story, good scholarship written with clarity. There is no significant written source or material evidence about Spartacus, the coalition of Thracians, Celts, Germans and the politics of holding a large revolt together. Drawing on bits of information, he speculates about the possible objectives of the rebels, details their flight North, then South, the near escape to Scilly. Their defeat by trained legionnaires, brutally disciplined and well equipped was inevitable. It was a bloody business, half a dozen Roman generals humiliated, skirmishes and battles. Who, when and where aside, the revolt was made far more dangerous given Rome's wars in the West (Spain) and East (Mithridates). Could Rome have imploded? No need to speculate, it did not.
I wonder if Strauss would have been better to take the "Troy formula" and apply it to an area where the written sources are better, perhaps Josephus and the Great Jewish Revolt or Caesar's Gallic War. Here is a substantive body of contemporary writings to review and interpret, apply his deductive expertise. This book is entry level Roman history. A lot of us read on holiday or on a plane, this is not a criticism rather a recommendation for this book if you want to enjoy a low intensity myth and legend history. If you know a little of Rome, this will encourage you to read further but if you know more, and it is not Strauss' fault, this is a frustrating book given the poverty of sources.