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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

“The Spartacus War”, by Barry S. Strauss

264 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1416532057

“I am Spartacus!” Who amongst us did not thrill to that scene of soldierly solidarity in the face of guaranteed doom, as thousands of slaves voluntarily gave up their lives to die on their feet (kinda) rather than to live as human chattel? In 73 BC, a Thracian slave named Spartacus led a group of his fellow gladiators in an escape from the gladiator school where they were held. As more slaves rallied to his banner, Spartacus began a war that raged up and down the Italian peninsula and tied up Roman Legions for two years in what came to be known as the Third Servile War – or, the Spartacus War. This excellent book tells the story of Spartacus and his war: what happened and why, and who did what.

Although I, for one, would have liked more of the backstory behind the Spartacus War (such as more details on the development of slavery in general and gladiatorial slavery in particular in ancient Rome), Barry S. Strauss in his The Spartacus War has given us an immensely readable and interesting look at the makings of a legend. Few of us have neglected the popular movie, Spartacus, and all of us have pondered the real story behind the Hollywood recreation, but Strauss gives us that real story, drawing from a multitude of resources as he tries to separate fact from fiction. As a master of unconventional warfare tactics, Spartacus challenged the Roman legions for a whole two years, but the shortsightedness of Spartacus (like so many other guerilla chiefs) was in understanding the limitations of fighting a guerrilla war. Spartacus was not entirely at fault, since recognizing those limitations was not always enough when his followers refused to understand and challenged his strategy. The heroism of the insurgent gladiators was infectious, leading many freemen to join their cause and earning respect from their opposition. This masterful telling of the story provides much food for thought to military leaders and military historians alike.

There is a good deal of speculation in this work that has been criticized by some reviewers, and I must admit that there is a good deal of speculative storytelling going on here. However, as Strauss points out, the few sources that any modern historian can draw upon were all written long after the Spartacus War, and the contemporaneous sources that they used are all (save for a few scraps to be found here and there) lost to us; thus, Strauss is forced to weave a story from these secondhand (and often contradictory) sources and more modern archeological artifacts. The result is speculation – but speculation that is clearly identified as such, for Strauss does not blithely speculate upon this or that action or outcome and declare it as established fact; rather, he shows why he has come to the conclusion that he did while further recognizing that other interpretations are possible.

Strauss has delivered an exemplary work by not simply presenting unfounded facts and theories about one of the most famous (but scarcely known figures) in human history, but by communicating to his readers what is known and what is probable about Spartacus and those around him. His enjoyment and enthusiasm of his chosen subject is obvious. A very informative and enjoyable read.

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