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The Spartacus War

The Spartacus War

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The Spartacus War

4/5 (21 évaluations)
355 pages
6 heures
Mar 17, 2009


An authoritative account from an expert author: The Spartacus War is the first popular history of the revolt in English.

The Spartacus War is the extraordinary story of the most famous slave rebellion in the ancient world, the fascinating true story behind a legend that has been the inspiration for novelists, filmmakers, and revolutionaries for 2,000 years. Starting with only seventy-four men, a gladiator named Spartacus incited a rebellion that threatened Rome itself. With his fellow gladiators, Spartacus built an army of 60,000 soldiers and controlled the southern Italian countryside. A charismatic leader, he used religion to win support. An ex-soldier in the Roman army, Spartacus excelled in combat. He defeated nine Roman armies and kept Rome at bay for two years before he was defeated. After his final battle, 6,000 of his followers were captured and crucified along Rome's main southern highway.

The Spartacus War is the dramatic and factual account of one of history's great rebellions. Spartacus was beaten by a Roman general, Crassus, who had learned how to defeat an insurgency. But the rebels were partly to blame for their failure. Their army was large and often undisciplined; the many ethnic groups within it frequently quarreled over leadership. No single leader, not even Spartacus, could keep them all in line. And when faced with a choice between escaping to freedom and looting, the rebels chose wealth over liberty, risking an eventual confrontation with Rome's most powerful forces.

The result of years of research, The Spartacus War is based not only on written documents but also on archaeological evidence, historical reconstruction, and the author's extensive travels in the Italian countryside that Spartacus once conquered.
Mar 17, 2009

À propos de l'auteur

Barry Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University, The Corliss Page Dean Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a leading expert on ancient military history. He has written or edited several books, including The Battle of Salamis, The Trojan War, The Spartacus War, Masters of Command, The Death of Caesar, and Ten Caesars. Visit BarryStrauss.com.

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The Spartacus War - Barry Strauss


"[The Spartacus War] has all the excitement of a thriller. . . .  The account of what it meant to be a gladiator, of the tactics required to be victorious and of the agony of defeat is particularly adrenaline-fueled. Spartacus’s death—not on a cross, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 movie, but charging the Roman general who led the campaign against him—comes as a worthy climax to an epic that never once relaxes its tension."

—Tom Holland, The Washington Post

The great slave revolt of the gladiator Spartacus shook the Roman world of the first-century B.C. as much as it fascinates us still two millennia later. The classicist and stylist Barry Strauss explains why all that is so in a narrative that is as engaging to read as it is thoroughly researched.

—Victor Davis Hanson, Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow, Classics/Military History, the Hoover Institution

With his trademarks of extensive knowledge, insights, and great story-telling ability, Barry Strauss brings us as close as we can get to the enigmatic Spartacus, the slave who defied the Roman Republic.

—Adrian Goldsworthy, author of Caesar: Life of a Colossus

The long track of history—especially ancient history—is marred by potholes and chasms of the unknown and unknowable. No contemporary historian bridges these gaps better than Barry Strauss. He does not leap across them so much as build elegant spans of logic, of the likely and the possible. His raw materials are an immense knowledge base, wit and humor, and a welcome sense for brevity. Spartacus comes alive.

—David L. Robbins, author of War of the Rats and The Assassins Gallery

A swift-moving, accessible chronicle of the insurgency against ancient Rome led by the charismatic slave leader Spartacus. . . . Strauss colorfully illustrates the making of the durable Spartacus myth.

—Kirkus Reviews

"[Strauss] unites a novelist’s storytelling skills with the expert’s command of ancient sources to retell for classically challenged moderns some of the most important and exciting stories from ancient history. The Spartacus War is a worthy successor to those earlier achievements, weaving together evidence from ancient literary sources, archaeology, epigraphy, and personal autopsy of the Italian regions where Spartacus marched and fought to give us a fast-paced, gripping story that tells us everything we can reliably know about Spartacus the man and the revolt he inspired. . . . The Spartacus War exemplifies popular history at its finest."

—Bruce S. Thornton, The New Criterion

Barry Strauss, whose previous work is saturated with ancient lore and gore from the Battle of Salamis to the Peloponnesian War, knows his stuff so well that he can spin a great epic tale about the Spartacus rebellion from 73 to April 71 B.C., even though the facts are slim. . . . Riveting.

—Sam Coale, The Providence Journal-Bulletin

Strauss neither condescends to his readers nor panders to them with the desperation of many pop historians. He writes history for adults.

—John Wilson, Books & Culture

The Spartacus revolt is a fascinating and engrossing story, which Strauss relates with great style and energy. . . . Highly recommended.

—Richard H. Berg, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

No one presents the military history of the ancient world with greater insight and panache than Strauss.

—Publishers Weekly

This is a colourful and thrilling account that deserves the widest possible readership.

—Christopher Silvester, Daily Express (UK)

[A] racy retelling of the real story behind the myth of the rebel slave.

The Sunday Times (UK)

This absorbing story is told in the most enthralling way and the reader, either specialist or amateur, will be unable to put the book down without reaching the end—and they’ll reach the end fast.

BBC History Magazine (UK)

Masterful story-telling. . . . deeply satisfying. . . . Strauss’ Spartacus will remain the standard popular history. . . . a well-told reconstruction of a gripping tale.

—Tony Williams, The Internet Review of Books

Strauss delivers a rousing good tale of Spartacus.

—The Library Journal

The weight of a gladiator’s shield, the look of the landscape, the fury of battle—Strauss weaves all this and much more into his account, which reads with the ease of a novel, while constructing historical interpretations that deserve serious consideration. . . . [A] lively and imaginative book.

—Thomas R. Martin, History Book Club




Author’s Note



1. The Gladiator

2. The Thracian Lady


3. The Praetors

4. The Pathfinders

5. The Stoic


6. The Decimator

7. The Pirate

8. The Fisherman


9. The Celtic Women

10. Spartacus

11. The Victors



Glossary of Key Names

Note on Sources




To Josiah Ober and Adrienne Mayor



I have used Roman place names wherever possible, with the exception of such common names as Italy and Spain.

I have translated all ancient Greek and Latin quotations myself unless otherwise noted.


LUCIUS COSSINIUS WAS naked. Senator, commander, and deputy to the general Publius Varinius, Cossinius usually wore a full suit of armor and a red cloak, fastened with a bronze brooch on his right shoulder. But now he was bathing. A bath was a luxury in wartime, but no doubt hard to resist after leading two thousand men on the march. As he had approached, Cossinius could have seen the pool glistening on the grounds of a villa at Salinae—Salt Works, located on a coastal lagoon near Pompeii. In the distance stood Vesuvius, still a sleeping volcano in those days, its hills green with pine and beech trees, its orchards overflowing with apples and with grapes that made wine good enough for a senator’s table; its soil teeming with hares, dormice, and moles that the locals favored as hors d’oeuvres.

While Cossinius let his guard down, the enemy prepared to strike. Runaway slaves, gladiators, and barbarians, they were a rabble in arms, but they had already beaten Rome twice that summer. Their leader was as cunning as he was strong, as experienced as he was fresh, and he spoke words to steel the most timid soul. He was Spartacus.

There was probably only a moment’s warning, maybe a centurion sounding the alarm or the shouts of the men. Cossinius, we might imagine, moved quickly out of the water and onto his horse before his slave finished rearranging his master’s cloak. Even so, Spartacus’s men burst into the grounds of the villa so fast that Cossinius barely escaped. Not so his supplies, which the enemy captured, and which would now go to feed the rebel force.

They hounded Cossinius and his men back to their camp. Most of the Romans were new recruits. Children of Italy’s abundance, they had nothing but hasty training to prepare them for a savage foe, some of them giants, red-haired and tattooed, and buoyed by success. In spite of the curses and threats of their centurions, some Romans ran away; the rest stayed and were slaughtered. Everything they had now belonged to the enemy, from their camp down to their arms and armor. Lucius Cossinius was naked again, but this time he was dead.

It was the autumn of 73 B.C. After several months of rebellion, the fortunes of the Senate and People of Rome were heading toward low ebb. A city that had shrugged off Etruscan adventurers, weathered a Gallic invasion, stood up to Hannibal’s charge, endured civil war, survived annual outbreaks of malaria, and fought its way to such power that it could think of itself as the head of the world, was afraid of a runaway gladiator.

What began as a prison breakout by seventy-four men armed only with cleavers and skewers had turned into a revolt by thousands. And it wasn’t over: a year later the force would number roughly sixty thousand rebel troops. With an estimated 1–1.5 million slaves in Italy, the rebels amounted to around 4 percent of the slave population. To put that figure in perspective, the United States in the nineteenth century had about 4 million slaves, and yet Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 involved only two hundred of them.

Rome had seen slave rebellions before but this one was different. Earlier revolts had either been relatively small or, if extensive, far off in Sicily, but this enormous army had come within a week’s march of Rome. Not since Hannibal crossed the Alps had foreigners done so much damage to the Italian countryside. Earlier slave revolts coalesced around mystics and gang leaders, not gladiators and ex–Roman soldiers. Spartacus struck a chord in the Roman psyche. No other leader of rebel slaves was so well remembered or so feared. As a gladiator, Spartacus belonged to a group of men who were licensed to kill—to kill each other, that is: Romans had a lurid fascination with the arena but rebel gladiators aroused disgust and then dread.

Spartacus came from Thrace (roughly, Bulgaria), an area known to Romans for its fierce fighters and ecstatic religion, and for its alternation between alliance and rebellion. As a onetime allied soldier in Rome’s service, Spartacus should have been a Roman success story. Instead, he had become the enemy within. Thracians, Celts, and Germans—barbarians all, in Roman eyes—made up most of his followers. Earlier slave rebels came from the citified Greek East; fairly or not, the Romans scorned their warrior prowess. They dreaded a fight against barbarians.

Timing made matters worse. When Spartacus began his revolt, Rome faced major wars at both ends of its empire. Mithridates, a king in Asia Minor (today, Turkey), had sparked a substantial war against Rome in 88 B.C. that had spread to Greece and Thrace and was still going strong after fifteen years. Meanwhile, in Spain, the renegade Roman general Sertorius ran a breakaway government whose Roman leaders had the support of a native resistance movement. Finally, at the same time, off the coasts of Crete, the Roman navy struggled to catch pirates who were plundering the sea lanes. Rome eventually defeated all these challengers, but in 73 B.C. that outcome was not yet clear.

By exploiting propaganda masterfully, Spartacus threatened to widen his base of support. He sounded themes that appealed not only to slaves but also to Italian nationalists and to supporters of Mithridates. Although his message probably attracted few free men to his banner in the end, it was enough to frighten Rome.

Spartacus’s was the most famous slave revolt in antiquity and arguably the largest as well. It was a revolt that absorbed southern Italy, caught Rome with its homeland virtually defenseless, led to nine defeats of Roman armies, and kept antiquity’s greatest military power at bay for two years. How was it possible? Why did the rebels do so well for so long? Why did they fail in the end? And how could the world’s only superpower have let such a problem persist in its own backyard?

•  •  •

It’s a story that should have been in pictures, and, of course, it is. In 1960, Spartacus appeared, a Hollywood epic starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The film was a hit then and remains a classic. It was loosely based on a bestselling 1951 novel by Howard Fast, which he wrote after serving a jail term for contempt of Congress during the McCarthy era. An American communist who eventually left the Party, Fast was not the first communist to admire Spartacus. Lenin, Stalin, and Marx himself saw Spartacus as the very model of the proletarian revolutionary. German Marxist revolutionaries of 1919 called their group the Spartacus League; their failed uprising grew legendary. Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian wrote a ballet about Spartacus that won him the Lenin Prize for 1959.

Noncommunist revolutionaries admired Spartacus as well. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of the Haitian Revolution, history’s only successful mass slave revolt, emulated Spartacus. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who fought to unify Italy, wrote the preface to a novel about Spartacus. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist revolutionary, translated that novel into Hebrew. Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher, judged Spartacus’s rebellion as perhaps the only just war in history. Even anticommunists approved of Spartacus: Ronald Reagan, for example, cited him as an example of sacrifice and struggle for freedom.

But while Spartacus was the stuff of legend, he was no myth. He is, however, an enigma to us. Spartacus left no writings. His followers scratched out no manuscripts. Surviving ancient narratives come from Roman or Greek writers who wrote from the point of view of the victors. To make things worse, few of their writings survive. Still, they leave absolutely no doubt about it: Spartacus was real.

Plutarch (ca. A.D. 40s–120s) and Appian (ca. A.D. 90s–160s) provide the most complete accounts of Spartacus to survive from antiquity but they are short, late (one hundred fifty to two hundred years after the revolt), and come each with an ax to grind. Even shorter is the discussion by Florus (ca. A.D. 100–150), but his concise remarks are full of significance. These three writers relied on important but now mostly lost earlier works by Sallust (86–35 B.C.) and Livy (59 B.C.–A.D. 17). Almost nothing of Livy’s discussion of Spartacus survives. We have a precious few pages’ worth of selections from Sallust’s account of the war.

Three other contemporaries of Spartacus comment briefly on his activities: the great orator Cicero (106–43 B.C.), the scholar and politician Varro (116–27 B.C.), and Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.). Many other ancient writers over the centuries mentioned Spartacus, from the poet Horace (65–8 B.C.) to Saint Augustine (A.D. 354–430) but they add little. Even by the standards of ancient history, accounts of the Spartacus rebellion are meager.

However, there are archaeological finds, the results of topographical research, and experiments in historical reconstruction ranging from gladiators’ contests—without real weapons, of course—to weaving vines into ropes such as Spartacus’s men used to climb down Vesuvius. Coins, frescos, sling balls, and fortifications all record the rebels’ path through the Italian countryside. The bones of a gladiators’ cemetery in Turkey reveal training secrets and suggest the agony of death. Tombs, shrines, and towns; gold and iron; plaques and paintings, all take us beyond the stereotypes of barbarians in Greek and Roman texts. Finally, Roman slavery comes to life through graffiti, chains, auction buildings, slave quarters, and slave prisons.

The story of Spartacus is, first of all, a war story: a classic case study of an insurgency, led by a genius at guerrilla tactics, and of a counterinsurgency, led by a conventional power that slowly and painfully learned how to beat the enemy at his own game. The Spartacus War is also a tale of ethnic conflict. Spartacus was Thracian but many of his men were Celts; they were proud, independent, and fighting-mad. Tribal divisions turned the rebels into feuding cliques who ignored their chief. The march for freedom degenerated into gang warfare, and, as so often in history, the revolution failed.

The Spartacus story is also a love story and a crusade. Spartacus had a wife or mistress; her name is not recorded. A priestess of Dionysus, this unnamed companion preached a rousing message. She drew on the liberation theology that had fired Rome’s earlier slave revolts and still fueled the anti-Roman war that had raged for fifteen years in the eastern Mediterranean. Spartacus had a divine mission.

The Spartacus War is also a story about identity politics. A rebel against Rome, Spartacus was more Roman than he cared to admit and certainly more Roman than the Romans could admit. He terrified the Romans not just because he was foreign but because he was familiar.

Spartacus was a soldier who had served Rome, and his behavior might have reminded Romans of their heroes. Like Marcellus, perhaps Rome’s most red-blooded general, he thirsted to kill the enemy commander with his own hand. Like Cicero, he was an orator. Like Cato, he was a man of simple tastes. Like the Gracchi, he believed in sharing the wealth among his men. Like Brutus, he fought for freedom.

Like the most ambitious Roman of them all, he claimed to have a personal relationship with a god: like Caesar, Spartacus was a man of destiny. No sooner had he died than men began to dream of Spartacus’s return. The human Spartacus fell to the power of Rome; the legend might topple empires still.

The Spartacus War is also a story about the complexity of slave revolts. We do not know if Spartacus wanted to abolish slavery, but if so, he aimed low. He and his men freed only gladiators, farmers, and shepherds. They avoided urban slaves, a softer and more elite group than rural workers. They rallied slaves to the cry not only of freedom but also to the themes of nationalism, religion, revenge, and riches. Another paradox: they might have been liberators but the rebels brought ruin. They devastated southern Italy in search of food and trouble.

In the end, the story comes back to Spartacus. Who was he? What did he want? Our answers must be based less on what Spartacus said, about which we know little, than on what he did. By necessity, we must be speculative. But we can also be prudent in our speculation because Spartacus’s actions speak loudly. They fit the timeless patterns of insurgencies and uprisings, as shaped by the particulars of his case.

Rome was big, strong, and slow; Spartacus was small, hungry, and fast. Rome was old and set in its ways; Spartacus was an innovator. Rome was ponderous, while Spartacus was nimble. The Romans suffered so badly from Spartacus’s ambushes, night moves, sudden turnabouts, and mobile flank attacks that eventually they gave up facing him in battle. They insisted on isolating his forces and starving them out before they were willing to risk combat.

The ancient sources describe a man of passion, thirsting for freedom and burning for revenge. Spartacus’s actions tell a different story. He was no hothead but rather a man of controlled emotions. Spartacus was a politician trying to hold together a coalition that was constantly slipping out of control. Whether by nature or training he was a showman. His greatest prop was his own body but Spartacus used many symbols, from a snake to his horse, to form his image. A cult of personality helped attract tens of thousands of followers but at a price of luring them into the delusion of invincibility.

Spartacus was Thracian, and in Thrace warfare was the most honorable profession. The name Spartacus—Latin for Sparadakos—is plausibly translated as Famous for His Spear. Thracians were masters of the horse, which made them fast, mobile, and utterly different from the Romans, who were born infantrymen with little talent for cavalry. And the Thracians had a genius for guerrilla warfare. They perfected light armor for foot soldiers and hit-and-run tactics, to which the heavy-armed Romans were vulnerable. And thanks to his service in an auxiliary unit of the Roman army, Spartacus had been schooled in conventional warfare, too.

When it comes to the Romans, our evidence is better, if still limited. The Romans were constrained by the enduring strategies of counterinsurgency. They had to locate, isolate, and eradicate an enemy that avoided pitched battle while harassing them via unconventional tactics. To do this required achieving superiority in intelligence, which in turn required local knowledge. Still, while the Romans never adopted a strategy of winning popular support, they displayed more savvy in dealing with locals than we might expect.

But the Romans had a lot more on their minds than Spartacus. In 73 B.C., Rome was a city of scars. Italy was a peninsula divided between Rome and its often-unwilling allies. Over the centuries Rome had conquered Italy’s hodgepodge of peoples, including Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, Lucanians, and Bruttians. Many tensions existed and two decades earlier they had exploded into a rebellion (91–88 B.C.). The Italian War (also called the Social War, that is, war of the socii, Latin for allies) took three years of bloody battles and sieges before Rome restored peace, and only at the price of granting citizenship to all the allies. Especially in the South, some Italians remained bitter and unreconstructed. The Italian War was followed by a civil war between the supporters of Sulla and the heirs of his late rival, Marius. Sulla won and served as dictator, but after his retirement in 79 and death a year later, civil war flared up again in 77. Italy was at peace in 73 B.C. but stripped of legions, should trouble break out anew: they had been sent abroad to fight Rome’s many enemies.

The Italian countryside included a large population of slaves, who often ran away and who sometimes rose in armed rebellion. In 73 B.C., Roman Italy was, in short, a bone-dry forest in a summer heat wave. Spartacus lit a match.




SPARTACUS WAS A heavyweight gladiator called murmillo. A man of enormous strength and spirit, as the sources say, he was about thirty years old. Murmillones were big men who carried thirty-five to forty pounds of arms and armor in the arena. They fought barefoot and bare-chested, rendering all the more visible the tattoos with which Thracians like Spartacus proudly embellished their bodies. Murmillones each wore a bronze helmet, a belted loincloth, and various arm- and leg-guards. They carried a big, oblong shield (scutum) and wielded a sword with a broad, straight blade, about a foot and a half long. Called the gladius, it was the classic weapon of the gladiator. It was also the standard weapon of a Roman legionary.

Although we know nothing of Spartacus’s record in the arena, we can imagine him locked in combat one afternoon. Fans that they were, the Romans have left masses of evidence about the games, and recent historical reconstructions enrich the picture. We know, for example, that Spartacus would have fought just one other man at a time, despite Hollywood’s image of mass fights. Real gladiators fought in pairs, carefully chosen to make an exciting contest—but not a long life for the contestants.

A murmillo like Spartacus never fought another murmillo; instead, he was usually paired with a thraex. Thraex means Thracian, but Spartacus did not represent his country in the arena, perhaps

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  • (4/5)
    Interesting read, a lot of it is speculation due to the lack of the primary sources that have come down to use about the war as well as differing accounts from the one we do have. So motives of Spartacus and such do have to be taken with a grain of salt but Strauss does present very plausible reasons for what Spartacus did. I would recommend it as a primer for someone interested in the war but doesn't want to tackle the primary documents but again with the caveat that motives are speculative.
  • (5/5)
    This fairly short work effectively covers what we know about the course of the most famous slave uprising in history and the man who inspired and led it with a fair degree of success for two years until the Roman state's eventual triumph. In fact we know relatively few specifics about the detailed course of events and the individual battles involved, and very little indeed about Spartacus himself. In popular conception, Hollywood has of course filled in many of the gaps through the wonderful, though romanticised, classic film version starring Kirk Douglas (Spartacus actually fell in the final battle and his body was never recovered, although it is quite true that 6,000 survivors of that battle were crucified along the road from Capua, where the revolt started, to Rome). Strauss fills in some of the gaps through intelligent speculation and extrapolation from details of other Roman military engagements, analysis of the various Roman literary sources (none of which were contemporary), archaeology and even the topography of southern Italy. He doesn't fill space unnecessarily by writing extensively in general about the history of Rome, or of gladiators, as some authors might to make a book longer (the main text is 190 pages).In the introduction he briefly covers the symbolism of Spartacus's later reputation (he and Julius Caesar are probably the two most famous names from ancient Rome to the general public). He has been hailed as a freedom fighter both by the political left, albeit sometimes in a rather romanticised way, as his aim was freedom and a peaceful life outside Italy for his followers, not the abolition of slavery as an institution; but also by the political right in the form of Ronald Reagan. His ultimate failure was probably inevitable, as despite the success of his guerilla tactics against complacent Roman generals, especially in the early stages of the revolt, his only plausible aim was escape from Italy and he faced the inexorable iron might of the Roman military machine. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate his significance. Even the little we do know shows he was an inspiring leader, and his earlier background in the Roman auxiliary forces gave him an understanding of Roman military tactics his fellow rebels lacked. In the author's words, "What began as a prison breakout by seventy-four men armed only with cleavers and skewers had turned into a revolt by thousands. And it wasn’t over: a year later the force would number roughly 60,000 rebel troops. With an estimated 1-1.5 million slaves in Italy, the rebels amounted to around 4 per cent of the slave population". He was clearly a force to be reckoned with and the Roman state only beat him when it sent one of its top people, Marcus Licinius Crassus, against him. Even then, it was only when the slave army split due to ethnic and other tensions that Crassus really began to succeed. The revolt represents one of the most dramatic series of events in Roman history, even in the extremely eventful first century BC filled with the doings of Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Octavian, Mark Antony and others.
  • (5/5)
    This is a very good, well-written history. Dr. Strauss has overcome extra difficulty in presenting it as there are so many holes in the story that has come down to us from the original historians of it. Dr. Strauss quotes different sources that describe the same event, and helpfully explains why some information is more believable than others.
  • (3/5)
    Take a history professor who really both has a ton of integrity and really knows his stuff and you end up with a somewhat frustrating book. Here's the problem: There is so little actual verified knowledge about Spartacus that anybody attempting to write his story is forced into one of two paths: "Make it up" or be "honest about all the conjecture and options".

    Ultimately if the author had written a fictional story based upon the most likely scenarios, this would have been quite enjoyable. Instead the author spends a lot of time caveating everything and going off on tangents about stuff that we do know for sure and as such the enjoyment was reduced.
  • (3/5)
    Inexplicably disappointing. In a previous review of author Barry Strauss’Salamis I noted the problem with reconstructing military actions from ancient sources; there just aren’t that many. Nobody on Spartacus’ side left anything in writing and most of the Roman accounts were written much later. Thus the Servile War lasted for two years, involved a Long March the length of Italy and back, included perhaps a dozen major battles, and next to nothing is known. There are only vague notions of where some of the battles were fought; in one case scholars put the possible locations 50 miles apart, and in another nothing is known except Spartacus was the victor in a large battle somewhere in Italy. There are no surviving representations of Spartacus (maybe; Strauss notes a wall painting – almost a graffito – in Pompeii that identifies a sketchily drawn horseman as “Spartak”). There’s a bust usually believed to be Marcus Licinius Crassus but even that’s uncertain.In Salamis Strauss got around the lack of historical documentation with a variety of techniques – capsule biographies of the participants, discussions of the mechanics of oared naval warfare, etc. He does more or less the same thing in The Spartacus War but it doesn’t seem to work quite as well. It seems like none of the digressions are carried far enough to be insightful rather than distracting. Thus there’s a brief account of gladiatorial combat, a brief account of Roman slave economics, a brief account of legionary tactics, and so on; not enough detail to be interesting to a serious history student but enough to put off a lay reader. At the same time Strauss assumes familiarity with Roman history to the extent that the reader is expected to know about the Punic and Social wars.There are maps of the Roman Empire, Italy, and Campania, which would be of much greater benefit if they included notations showing the tracks of Spartacus’ army and the locations – even if approximate – of the known battles. There are no footnotes; endnotes are by page number with no indications in the text. The references – presented as a list of suggested reading and organized by topic – are excellent and extensive. The writing style and overall presentation kept giving me the impression that this is a “young adult” book, and that might be a pretty good niche for it – but it isn’t marketed that way. Still, this might be a good gift for a middle school or high school student interested in Classical history, especially if they were inclined to do further digging on their own.
  • (4/5)
    Well-written speculation about Spartacus, painting a picture of him that's honestly quite different to what I was expecting. Of course, it makes sense: he couldn't have done what he did if he weren't a good general, skilled at inspiring men and drawing up battle plans. This book makes that clear, though, and traces the things he did to hold his army together and train them.

    From the little information available, Barry Strauss really did a good job here, while emphasising that most of it was speculation. And it was fun to read, which isn't always the case even with the most fascinating subjects when it comes to non-fiction. I actually read almost all of it in one go.
  • (4/5)
    Who is Spartacus? How much do we really know and what is mere speculation? Barry Strauss does a great job weaving personal accounts, questionable historical documentation, hearsay and theories into a riveting read. He introduces the reader to the life of Spartacus, as it may have been- how he ended up a gladiator and how the revolt played out. Unfortunately, when researching an event that happened over 2,000 years ago, historians do not always have a lot to go on and what documentation survives is taken with a grain of salt. Strauss does a commendable job pointing out what we know and what we think transpired.The Spartacus War does a great job re-telling the tale that has grown into a legend, a story enjoyed by all walks of life. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the revolt spawned by Spartacus. As a history buff it kept me interested throughout!
  • (4/5)
    Triggered by the fun but horribly inaccurate TV series Spartacus Blood and Sand, I picked up Barry Strauss' The Spartacus War which just came out in paperback. The short text really helps in correcting many errors and provide some context. Unfortunately, Spartacus' fame vastly surpasses the factual basis about him. Strauss develops two strategies to counter this. The first, applied almost comically, is to repeat some facts over and over again to the point that one could easily develop a drinking game. The second strategy is to work with hypotheses and conjectures, which is fine and scientific. Strauss, however, has a knack to first elaborate about the lack of facts and then throw caution to the wind and ride his unfounded hypothesis to death. These two strategies noticeably diminish the pleasure of reading. Overall, it is a good introduction to a famous man, told from the slaveholder's perspective.Strauss has the odd habit of pushing his Republican talking points. There is simply no need to insert such political stuff into historical accounts. As an example, he writes on page 191: "We find crucifixions disgusting, but Romans probably tolerated them as a grim necessity. Nowadays many people reject the death penalty as cruel and unusual or criticize a tough interrogation technique like waterboarding as torture, while others accept them." Most critics of the death penalty object not to the cruelty (which is mostly a question of the executioneer's skill) but to the (frequent) miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, the death penalty is applied mostly in states and countries where a fair trial and (color-)blind justice does not exist. Strauss' supposedly neutral presentation is heavily biased. The same holds true regarding waterboarding which is not an interogation but a torture technique (unless one applies the tortured syllogism: The US doesn't torture, The US waterboards, ergo waterboarding is not torture). Is there something in the water that turns classicists into rightwing nuts?
  • (4/5)
    A new addition to Mr. Strauss's works. This one discusses the slave revolt led by Spartacus in Ancient Rome. Most people know the bare bones of the story, but this book goes beyond that to cover the battles, Italian topography, and the various warrior philosophies and techniques of Thracian, Celtic, Roman, and German soldiers. I found it to be a lively, thorough retelling of the tale. It is not biased or overly sentimental and covers the real man rather than the myth that Hollywood has created for us. I found this man very much to my liking. There is an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources for those wishing to read further on this subject. My only regret was that since this was a library loan the maps on the inside covers were obscured by the tape holding the dust jacket in place. However, that problem will be resolved when I secure my own copy making the reread near perfect. I look forward to reading other books which Mr. Strauss has written.