The Times, 4 January 2010

On the Spartacus Road Review

On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey through Ancient Italy
by Peter Stothard

Spartacus is a figure so embedded into our culture that even now, he can command a group of disparate people to rise up in rebellion. Kirk Douglas had a son, the little-remembered Eric Douglas, who was an actor and stand-up comedian. He once came over to the UK to do some gigs, and inadvertently created one of British comedy's finest legends. Eric wasn't having a great gig at a London club; in fact, he was going down the pan. His opening line, I seem to remember, focussed on the fact that he lacked the cleft in his chin possessed by both his father and brother. The audience was not in the least interested. Their indifference eventually overwhelmed him and he finally shouted, 'Do you know who I am? I'm Kirk Douglas' son!'. The room looked on in silence, then someone in the audience stood up and said, 'No, I'm Kirk Douglas' son.' He was swiftly followed by several more. Within seconds, the entire audience was on their feet, all claiming to be Kirk Douglas' son, in a pitch-perfect parody of the scene in Spartacus. That, by anyone's standards, is a tough gig.

Perhaps it also reminds us of the difficulty in finding Spartacus: like so many legends, he is impossible to uncover - we don't have any definite idea of what he looked like, what he believed, who he loved. Spartacus was nominated for six Oscars, six Golden Globes and one BAFTA. Yet Kirk Douglas wasn't nominated at all; in some ways, Spartacus is the most forgettable aspect of his own story. Contemporary Roman authors mention him only in passing, if at all. And why should they? No-one wants a record of the times when Roman legions were overcome by a rabble army of gladiators and slaves. If you wanted to write about Rome's defeats, then you would pick a war fought against a mighty opponent, like Hannibal and his Carthaginians. Deeply traumatic though the Romans' found these losses, the Second Punic War was on an appropriately epic scale. A force came from the untrustworthy East, using cunning and trickery to destroy tens of thousands of Roman lives, before a Roman commander, Scipio, took back the initiative and restored Roman honour.

But Spartacus' revolt was nothing like that. Gladiators, slaves, and foreigners within Italy revolted. The very people that a Roman citizen was superior to - the fighters who lived or died for their pleasure, the slaves who grew their crops - suddenly stopped remembering their place, and fought back. As Peter Stothard explains, this was almost unthinkable, 'They [Spartacus' army] had taken prodigious quantities of revenge in death and rape and drink. Most importantly, they had looked at Roman men and women as Roman men and women were used to seeing them, as objects for use. All these objects were the same.'

This role-reversal is at the centre of On The Spartacus Road. It's an intriguing book which is impossible to categorize: ancient history, travelogue, memoir, and biography all at once. Stothard is less interested in the bald facts of Spartacus story (wisely, given how few and disputed they are). A description of Spartacus' initial escape from the gladiatorial training school doesn't even appear until page 90. Rather, Stothard's real passion is for the process of thinking about Spartacus, both for the ancients and for us. What do we learn about ourselves when we talk about Spartacus' revolt? Do we cheer him on, as an example of the powerless taking arms against their oppressors? Or despise him, for the rape and murder committed under his aegis? Is he, in other words, a freedom fighter, or a terrorist?

The most compelling part of this book is its intrinsic impossibility. It shouldn't exist at all, because ten years ago Stothard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and told it was terminal. He describes his cure as a miracle. And throughout the pain which characterized his sickness, his thoughts were drawn back to Classics. He even named his tumour after Nero, the Roman emperor who killed his step-brother, Britannicus, his wife, Poppaea, and his mother, Agrippina. During episodes of terrible pain, Stothard found his mind re-creating Spartacus' battle fought on the slopes of Vesuvius, where the slaves took on Roman soldiers, and won: 'During some of Nero's visits I had vivid views of this first fight in the Spartacus war, not those of a general watching high up on a nearby hill but those of a soldier seeing what was close before his eyes. It was as though I had been at the centre of this and other slaughters, hour after hour after hour.'

The role of gladiators in Rome was complex. Their deaths weren't mere entertainment; they also encouraged the Romans to consider their own mortality, philosophically and without fear. The act of considering Spartacus, the ultimate gladiator, can still allow us to do that now.