Book Review: The Spartacus War

The Spartacus War, by Barry Strauss

It is unclear exactly what led the author to write this book as a classicist who bemoans the lack of good sources and firm knowledge and has to resort to all kinds of speculations and guesses about important elements of the war, but there are at least two possibilities.  For one, Spartacus is well-known as a mythical figure supporting freedom from tyranny and oppression, and it might have been impossible for the author to resist the chance to write at least some work that dealt with this mythos and its historical origin.  Likewise, the author may have sought out an opportunity to write a work on ancient history that allowed him the chance to exercise his speculative mind, as some other books of his, like his work on the death of Julius Caesar, showed that the author has an interest in historical mystery.  Both of these and other motivations are entirely possible, but while the resort is less firm than I would appreciate when it comes to works of this kind, the result is certainly worthwhile in that it places the Spartacus War and its waging in a complex context that includes Roman political and diplomatic history during the first half of the 1st century during the twilight years of the Roman republic.

The author organizes his tale in a generally chronological fashion, sometimes writing a bit more at length about various people involved in the Spartacus War in some fashion, demonstrating that although the Roman army didn’t bring their A-team to fight Spartacus and his fellow runaway slaves that it was the opportunity for at least some people to win some military glory, including such figures as Crassus, Cato the Younger, and Octavian (the father of Emperor Augustus).  After an introduction that laments the lack of good texts on this part of Roman history, the author divides his work into four parts.  The first part (I) deals with the breakout of Spartacus and others from slavery as gladiators (1) as well as some religious support from his doxy, who happened to be a priestess of Dionysus (2).  After that the author talks about the attempted vengeance of the Roman republic against the slaves (II), with initial attacks from unsuccessful scratch forces brought by some praetors (3), the successful efforts of the slave army to move through the hilly countryside of southern Italy thanks to pathfinders (4), and the efforts of Cato the younger and others to overcome the rebellion (5).  This leads into a discussion about the retreat of Spartacus’ army after its failure to escape Italy to the north (III), which includes a discussion of Crassus efforts at increasing Roman morale through the ancient practice of decimation (6), the betrayal of Spartacus’ army by pirates (7), and author’s hypothesis about a standoff on the Melia ridge (8).  The author then closes the book with a discussion of the fight to the death (IV) that ended the war, including chapters on the defeat of the Celtic section of the army that had split off from Spartacus’ main force (9), the last battle of Spartacus himself (10), and the portrait of the Roman victors (11), along with a conclusion that looked at various mopping up efforts and the consequences of Spartacus’ revolt.

I must admit that while I am familiar with the name of Spartacus and his role as a runaway slave that I have not seen any of the movies that take advantage of the mythic view of Spartacus as a liberator to present a more egalitarian view of the subject than was the case in history.  The author does a good job in this book at pointing out the little we know about him and his deeds, making generally good guesses about what he does not know, and pointing out of the ways in which he was either strategically or tactically sound and how he was not quite as much of a freedom lover as he was made out to be, given his lack of interest in gaining the support of urban slaves and his obvious favoritism for other gladiators or rural slaves.  The town & country divide among slaves is something that has always been of interest to me in my own studies on slavery and this book does help in that regard.  If you have an interest in the late Roman republic or in the history of slavery and slave insurrections this book is definitely a worthwhile book to read.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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