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Myth, reality and expectations,
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This review is from: Spartacus and the Slave War 73-71 BC (Paperback)
As another reviewer mentioned (on the US site), the structure of this Osprey volume is somewhat original because it provides a lot of context. Although it may be a bit harsh to portray it as "more social commentary than military history", it does tend to be a bit light on the latter. This may be because the (Roman) sources are themselves rather discrete on the precise military circumstances during which an army of slaves clashed and repeatedly defeated Roman forces, including consular armies. It may also reflect the author's deliberate choice to develop the historical context of Spartacus' slave revolt and discuss the myth that surrounds the Thracian slave-gladiator, or even a combination of the two.
Whichever interpretation happens to be correct, and to the extent that this is about second-guessing the author's intentions, we will probably never know and it might even not matter that much anyway. What potential readers may be more interested in, however, is whether this combination "works out" well and makes this volume interesting and worth reading. In my view, the answer to both questions is mostly positive, although, at times, I did get the impression that the context provided also served as padding and that Nic Fields may also perhaps have got a bit carried away, including in his section on the posterity of Spartacus.
I also got the impression that, despite providing a lot of useful information, the volume's structure was somewhat artificial and did not always work very well. One example is the introduction which is in fact a short summary of the two slave wars that had taken place in Sicily (but not in mainland Italy) some 30 and 60 years before the revolt headed by Spartacus. Another example is the very first paragraph of this introduction with its "pell-mell" references to Hollywood, to the Spartacus League of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, to Subcommandante Marcos and to "Che" Guevarra. At a minimum, I would have expected to see these mentions appear in the last section of the book, as opposed to upfront in the introduction where they really felt out of place.
Then, to bring in the pieces on the two previous Sicilian revolts, there is a piece titled "the origins of the revolt". The problem here is that neither of these sections really shows what the origins of Spartacus' revolt were. All they contain is a mention about slave revolts being highly unusual and this is something rather odd to say when you describe the two precedents immediately afterwards. Also odd is the fact that these two revolts in Sicily are summarized but there is next to no discussion explaining whether, and to what extent, they were similar or different from the one to come.
The author then comes up with an interesting section which is somewhat mistitled and called "Roman social order". The first page is indeed about the essential importance of order and status to the Romans but almost all of the rest of the section - and the most interesting part of it, is about the Roman slave system, how it was fuelled by piracy, how gladiators were a part of it, and where this practice of using slave-gladiators to fight and kill each other originated from. The closing piece of this section is on "Oscan speakers" and, again, it is strangely misplaced and out of context, especially since it is a very short overview of the history of these Oscan speakers, mostly herdsmen and shepherds, who would form one of the main components of Spartacus and his fellow leaders' forces, alongside the freed slaves. This looked a bit like if the author just could not decide where to put it in the book and finally added it to this section because it had to go somewhere.
Then the reader reverts to the more usual Osprey pattern, with the opposing commanders being presented. The main point about Spartacus is clearly and well made: his consecutive victories over trained Roman forces (and they were certainly not all second-rate militias, even if some of the first ones may have been) was due to mixture of talent and - very probably - previous military experience as an officer, rather than as a simple warrior. We do not know anything more than that for certain and, in particular, nothing about his origins or when and in what circumstances he was enslaved, other than a number of semi-legendary stories which the author mentions and presents as such.
The author, however, does not deal as well with Marcus Licinius Crassus, partly because this character seems to have been rather "unsympathetic", but also, and probably mostly, because he does not seem to have realized to what extent he has been "blackened" by the Roman sources in what looks like a major, and rather successful - "character assassination". He ultimately failed and got himself and his army killed and destroyed by the Parthians as a result. However, the deeper reason for the very negative image of him that you almost always come across in Roman sources is that he used money as a political weapon. Most, if not all, of the senators (including a certain young and very ambitious Gaius Julius Caesar) were deeply indebted to him at one point or another and by threatening to call in his debts or by lending to them; he could make or break careers. As a result, they all feared and hated him and since and this is reflected in the sources which are all senatorial, or written by people who were the clients of powerful senators, or the clients descendants of the descendants of Crassus' rivals. One aspect, in particular, does NOT come out in the book, is that Crassus himself must have been a much better commander that any of the ones that Spartacus had confronted and beaten before.
The presentation of the respective armies is not bad, although unremarkable, with some interesting elements about the herdsmen and shepherds being armed and behaving as brigands, so both accustomed to violence and knowing already how to fight. The piece on the Roman army is a rather generic one which is largely "inspired" from some of the author's other publications and, ultimately, seems to be derived from Lawrence Keppie ("The making of the Roman army: from Republic to Empire").
The section on opposing plans is also a bit of a puzzle. The author, very correctly, does state that Spartacus was neither an idealist nor a "revolutionary" who intended to abolish slavery or had any "bright vision of a new world". Apart from this, however, we simply do not know much about his plans because nobody from his side survived to tell the tale and the somewhat erratic movements of his army during the whole length of the revolt make his intentions somewhat unclear. It seems likely that his plans changed several times under the force of circumstances but it is rather unclear as to why, after having marched until Mutina in the north, where he fought and defeated a Roman army, he then decided to march back to Bruttium where Crassus essentially trapped him.
The Roman plans are easier to reconstruct. As Nic Fields does show rather well, the Romans seem to have begun by constantly underestimating both the scale of the revolt and the abilities of their adversaries, perhaps even more than they had for the two previous revolts in Sicily. Then there seems to have been some kind of panic as they realized that there was a "clear and present danger" marching on Rome. As a result, Crassus was essentially given "carte blanche" to deal with the insurrection but even this does not seem to have been "easy". By then, after the defeat of both praetorian and consular armies, Crassus could put together a huge force with which to crush the slave army. We have no idea regarding the numbers of either side during the last battle, although the size of the slave army is likely to have been reduced through campaigning and desertions and was most probably outnumbered. Despite this, the battle seems to have been hard fought. Towards the end of it, Spartacus, seeing that he had lost and trying to cut his way through to Crassus and kill him in a last desperate gamble (a bit like Richard III would try - and also fail - to do at Bosworth Field over 1500 years later). This episode is rather superbly illustrated by Steve Noon.
The aftermath, and Crassus' treatment of the survivors - some 6000 were survived - is unfortunately not entirely explained. The reasons for the mass crucifixions and the display all along the Via Appia are clearly presented. Crassus wanted to show who had really won the war and made a point in a rather terrible way. What is not explained, however, is the existence of so many prisoners in the first place. Given the atrocities that took place during the slave war, one could have expected that there would be no prisoners at all. Slaves, however, were very valuable (as shown elsewhere in the book), so it seems that towards the end of the last battle Crassus might have given the order to spare those who surrendered, once Spartacus had been killed. Pompey's attempt to "steal his thunder" made him reconsider...
At the end of this long review, I cannot help having mixed feelings about this Campaign title. Since it is neither really entirely "good" nor "bad", but did not really meet my expectations, I will rate it three stars.