A swift-moving, accessible chronicle of the insurgency against ancient Rome led by the charismatic slave leader Spartacus.
Strauss (History and Classics/Cornell Univ.; The Trojan War, 2006, etc.) demonstrates a good educator’s ability to marshal ample academic material and present it palatably to the general reader and student of history. Quoting often from early sources such as Plutarch, Appian and Cicero, he begins with the big picture. At a time when Rome was fighting wars on all fronts—against Mithridates in Greece and Thrace, against the rogue Roman general Sertorius in Spain and against the pirates off the coast of Crete—a gladiator named Spartacus engineered a prison breakout of 74 men in 73 BCE. That group grew into a rebel army within a year. Originally from Thrace, the former Roman auxiliary was revered and feared for his brutality, yet Strauss demonstrates that Spartacus was no “hothead,” but rather a disciplined, skillful tactician who had learned well from training among the Romans. Moreover, he had the prophecy of a certain “Thracian lady” on his side, a priestess of Dionysus who served as his consort and messenger. From their barracks in Capua, where they revolted against their handler Vatia, the ragtag gang consisting of warlike Thracians, Celts and Germans moved down the Campanian plain to Mount Vesuvius, then to the Ionian Sea and back to Mount Garganus, picking up recruits and raiding nearby farms. Yet instead of escaping through the Alps when they had the chance, Spartacus and his army turned back south. They were thwarted from crossing the Strait of Messina and eventually defeated at Oliveto Citra by the fierce Roman general Crassus, who celebrated by crucifying 6,000 rebels. Hubris, perhaps, proved the rebel’s downfall, yet Strauss colorfully illustrates the making of the durable Spartacus myth.
Graphic, adrenaline-pumping history.