The Spartacus War

Valentina Arena is impressed with an enthralling yet historically accurate account of the Roman empire’s most famous slave


Reviewed by: Valentina Arena
Author: Barry Strauss
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20


W ho has not heard of Spartacus? Hollywood has forged public perception of the slave and his revolt of 73 BC – notably in Kubrick’s 1960 drama starring Kirk Douglas.

This is understandable: the story has all the elements of a great epic. A Thracian who fought alongside the Romans to build their empire but who ended up a slave of those he supported; a gladiator who was adored and feared by Roman spectators, who wished him to live so that they might be further entertained by his risk of death; a leader of a revolt venerated as a man of god but betrayed by his allies; a man who ultimately fought for freedom.

None of these elements are missing from this book. This absorbing story is told in the most enthralling way and the reader, either specialist or amateur, will be unable to put their book down without reaching the end – and they’ll reach the end fast.

Without ever sacrificing historical accuracy on the altar of entertainment, Strauss guides the reader through the history of Spartacus, from his origins as a Thracian auxiliary of the Roman army to his death fighting Crassus, the commander desperate to elevate himself to military glory. The book concludes by following the moves of the few rebels who managed to escape the Roman army and the destiny of those Roman generals who in their career had encountered Spartacus.

What is most admirable is Strauss’s ability to address a wide audience without ever diluting the richness and complexities of historical research. Very useful maps lead the reader through the journey of the rebels in their search for freedom. A chronological table sets the revolt in context and a glossary of key names provides the inexpert reader with easy access to the main protagonists.

A note on sources functions as an excellent guide to further reading. This allows the wealth of minute details, essential to the reconstruction of such an ill-attested episode of Roman history, to be followed through, without, however, weighing down the treatment.

Strauss considers all the available evidence, from the literary (mainly Plutarch and Appian) to the archaeological (for example, hoards and burials), leaving no stone unturned. Where no information is recoverable, Strauss recurs to two important factors. One is imagination – not wild and uneducated but an informed ability to recreate the most impalpable aspects, to recover their flavour, and transform them into learned speculation.

Another element is geographical knowledge. Not only does a full understanding of the territory support speculations on the reasons behind Spartacus’s tactics, but it also adds an extra, at times also psychological, dimension to the narrative. A deep understanding of military and social history completes the picture. 

The structure of the book inevitably reserves a prominent role to individuals and their motivations (be they those of Spartacus and of his companion Crixus or, on the opposite side, those of Cato the Younger and of Crassus). This is important, and Strauss does a very good job in unearthing what can plausibly be recovered.

However, not only are intentions very hard to be identified with certainty, but, more importantly, this search leaves unexplored some of the deepest dynamics at work in the Roman system (for example, the special command granted to Crassus to fight Spartacus is seen merely as a means to oppose his rival Pompey).

The question of Spartacus’s intentions is inevitably doomed to remain unsolved. That he did not simply wish to abolish slavery seems well-established in scholarship. Strauss emphasises the possibility that he just wished to leave Roman Italy and return to his Thracia, where there were lands not yet under Roman dominion. This never happened. His plans were hampered by his followers who seemed more inclined to plunder. Having sacrificed his horse, Spartacus died fighting the Romans on foot.


The symbolic power of Spartacus well outlived him. According to Strauss, it partly supported the establishment of the Augustan principate, which is doubtful, but his name has certainly lived on to our time.