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These Fragments have I shored against my Ruin,
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This review is from: On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey through Ancient Italy (Hardcover)People picking up this book for the first time are likely to have a little difficulty in pin-pointing exactly what sort of book it is.
Everyone, of course, knows Spartacus, if only as the man with the chiselled jaw of Kirk Douglas, whom Hollywood would have us accept as the full blooded-jock who championed liberty, justice and the American way against British, homoerotic fascism represented by Lord Olivier - a sanitised version of the Roman plutocrat and political fixer, M.Licinius Crassus.
But this book is rather different.
In 1995, an unknown academic from central Europe published in German a book translated into English in 1999, in which the author applied middle european lterary techniques of spatial and temporal dislocation, to, of all things, a mid-winter yomp, complete with backpack, down the two-toned coast of East Anglia. The text was interspersed with poorly printed black-and-white photographs which had to be studied carefully, and with watering eyes, in order to establish that they were indeed, part of a carefully contrived gesamtkunstwerk des mitteleuropas - a double concentrate, if you like, of the unbearable lightness of being.
People who have read William Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn' will immediately recognise what they are getting in Peter Stothard's more informatively titled 'On the Spartacus Road'. What we have here is a cultured meditation wich pivots on one man's journey up and down the spine of Italy in pursuit of a man about whom little is known. And whereas for Sebald, the personal focus is on a disposition which would once have been described as melancholic, and later, depressive, and now as bi-polar affective disorder, Sir Peter Stothard had something which the average Englishman will probably allow as a more justified thing to beef about - namely a rare form of cancer which threatens to extinguish his consciousness for good.
This is a brilliant book.
In Sir Peter Stothard's rendition, Spartacus' story is a mirage - a shimmering set of illusions built on the ruins of a shattered civilisation and animated by a set of contemporary prejudices which will one day seem strange and meaningless - if, indeed, they survive at all. For him, Spartacus is an elusive, but brilliant figure, about whom little can with certainty be said. His revolt emerged from an angry nothing, gathered into a force of ungovernable destruction, and was, in due course, utterly extinguished.
It was, as understood at the time, an offence not just against law, but against nature - a revolution, certainly, but a revolution without a cause.
It can, in fact, be compared to a cancer in the way it emerged, grew in strength, and was, in due course, surgically removed. The revolt of the gladiators may have been a heart-rending expression of human misery, but it brought heart-rending misery wherever it went, and the author of this book, who is by no means unsympathetic to victims of exploitation and oppression, has no illusions about the savagery of the consequences for agricultural communities which had flourished for thousands of years and which were now, and forever, utterly extinguished.
One of the things that comes across from Sir Peter's book is the huge and lively detail of a culture which Europe sees, self-flatteringly, as its own foundation, but of which it today knows little. A huge accumulation of arts and letters has perished as utterly as the complex structure of government and administration upon which it depended. Where some freak of nature might seem to have preserved a treasure trove, such as the library of L.Calpurnius Piso at Herculaneum, we find it stuffed, not with the lost works of Greek Literature and Latin History, but third rate expositions of epicurean philosphy. Meanwhile, the only major contemporary account of Spartacus' revolt has to be cut and pasted from scraps used to back the text of an unread Commentary by St.Jerome on the Prophet Isaiah.
The way in which what survives of classical antiquity has made it though the whirlwinds of human destructiveness is one of the themes of this work - another is the destructiveness of ignorance and stupidity. But among what survives, there is the endlessly fascinating gleam of the unexpected. The author of this work, though self-effacing, has a wide command of sources that most graduates of Classical Studies will lack: and how many general readers today will be acquainted with the works of Symmachus and Statius, or Fronto and Frontinus?
As for our guide and instructor, the impression is one of post-modern isolation, if not alienation - an impression made all the more poignant by reflections on death and annihilation. Here, too, we have a clever son, out of sympathy with his father, looking back, with regret, on mutual impatience and incomprehension It comes as some comfort to deduce from the acknowledgments that Sir Peter has a wide range of cultivated friends, and that he has a wife and son to whom he there pays grateful tribute.
Looking at the blog which the editor of the Times Literary Supplement publishes on-line I see that Sir Peter has been looking for a review in the Mail by Boris Johnson. Unhappily, that Review has not appeared. Perhaps it is an impish sense of humour that makes me wonder what Mr.Johnson might have made of Sir Peter's professional evaluation of Plutarch as 'a moderately conservative columnist, smart, entertaining, not too deep or difficult, supremely well informed, not too fixed in any philosophical position, always with enough room to backtrack, and trim. His prodigious quantity of output would satisfy the most demanding employer.'