HarperPress £18.99 (353pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
On the Spartacus Road, By Peter Stothard
Friday 19 February 2010
Ancient Rome was, without a trace of shame, a slave society. Captives from her innumerable wars were auctioned as chattels, and were seen as no more than "talking instruments". By the first century BC, slaves may have accounted for one third of the population of Italy, some two million souls.
The principle of servitude was unchallenged in the classical world. Even Christians said that slaves should obey their masters. Some thinkers encouraged owners to behave with decency and respect, but if one slave murdered his master all the others were put to death. In a criminal investigation, no slave could be held to have told the truth unless he had been tortured.
Slaves were feared as a potential fifth column. Mass revolts were an abiding nightmare, although few and far between. This must have been, at least in part, because a slave who worked hard and made himself agreeable stood a good chance of being freed, in which case his son could claim the prize of Roman citizenship. For that, it was worth putting up with a lot.
Agricultural labourers in remote haciendas had few opportunities for manumission. When the Thracian gladiator Spartacus escaped from his training school in Capua in 73BC, they flocked to his standard. He soon led an army of at least 70,000 men and proved an able commander, although eventually he was defeated and killed.
The particulars of his career are largely missing. Ancient historians treated his nine victories over Rome's invincible legions with embarrassed dispatch. This sketchiness has allowed novelists, composers, choreographers and film-makers to mould him into a freedom-fighter for their own times.
Peter Stothard decided to track Spartacus's marches across Italy, and On the Spartacus Road is the diary of his travels. Few traces of his hero remain. So, faute de mieux, the book is bulked out by digressions.
In fact, taken as a whole, it is a single huge digression, a circumvallation built around the most terrible experience in the author's life. About ten years ago, he contracted pancreatic cancer, among the most dangerous of malignant growths, which slips with promiscuous ease throughout the body. Death is the common outcome. With a scholarly eye for the curious detail, Stothard lets the reader know that pancreas means "'all-flesh' in Greek, a delicacy much prized by cannibals".
He endured both the disease and treatment, a painful alternation of chemotherapy and surgery. Displaying the sangfroid of the emperor's Stoic opponents, he nicknamed the invader "Nero". And, marvellously, he survived.
The passages in which he touches on the misery of the cancer patient are very moving – and the man himself steps out of the page, entire and present. But for much of the time, Stothard is invisible. Quite often his part in his own journey is obscure. So he refers to one of the Roman forum's best-kept secrets – a network of subterranean tunnels where gladiators probably waited. But did the author actually climb down and see them for himself, or take the information from a guide-book? We cannot tell.
This studied impersonality casts a slight chill over the narrative and in place of a "quest" we have, in effect, a collection of essays, loosely linked to various Italian places. We learn of all kinds of interesting people, most with little connection to the slave leader – Domitian's flashy, forgotten poet Statius, the amiable, able and self-important Pliny (junior), the water expert Frontinus, Hadrian's bohemian friend Florus, and so forth.
But Spartacus remains a shadowy figure, albeit that once in a while we receive an unforgettable insight into his impact on ordinary people - as when Stothard visits (or we assume he does) the ruins of a farmhouse in southern Italy probably destroyed by Spartacus's men. Archaeologists found some worn coins in what was left of an outdoor latrine, and the author nicely surmises that the farmer was carrying them in his tunic or the fold of his toga, as one did, and dropped them when surprised in mid-evacuation. For an empathising moment, the past becomes now.
Anthony Everitt's life of the Emperor Hadrian is published by Random House US
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove