HarperPress £18.99 (353pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

On the Spartacus Road, By Peter Stothard

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup