Spartacus was the gladiator/slave who escaped from bondage in 73 BC and led an army of 70 slaves that eventually grew to 140,000, and who may have defeated Roman soldiers in as many as nine battles before being conquered in 71 BC. Little is known about him that can be verified; there are contradictory accounts about his life and achievements. Through the centuries Spartacus has been an inspiration for many, a hero who struck a crucial blow for freedom. Such was not the case at the time. Slavery was such a basic institution that even those who raised questions about its fairness could not imagine a society functioning properly without it. For the government and for most individuals, including other slaves, the rebel army meant horror and terror. Who is one to trust at such a time?

In Spartacus Road, Sir Peter Stothard gives us several books in one. He recreates the travels of Spartacus with a beautifully written and wonderfully readable book that is part history, part journalist’s and classicist’s notebook, part travel account and, most importantly, the memoir of a cancer survivor who was told 10 years earlier that he would never be able to make the trip. Stothard is presently the editor of the Times Literary Supplement and he was editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002. He was knighted for his services to the newspaper industry in 2003.

Throughout his book, there are reflections and speculations about Spartacus’ decisions and on Roman culture in which Stothard addresses such subjects as death and the place of the gladiatorial contests in the lives of participants and audiences. Drawing on what little remains of the work of Sallust, an Italian historian and politician who was a contemporary of Spartacus and probably the first to write about him in a systematic way, and many others, the author traces the 2,000-mile route along which the greatest slave revolt in antiquity took place. We learn how Spartacus has been portrayed by artists, sculptors and writers such as Arthur Koestler. There are illuminating references to such interesting but largely forgotten figures as Florus, Statius and Frontinus, as well as more famous ones like Plutarch.

Stothard’s passages about his personal struggle against cancer are especially moving. At one point he notes that “A fatal disease is a gladiatorial experience of a king, a final appointment with a certain end at a near but not specified time.” He calls his cancer “Nero.” When he feels severe pain below his ribs, he is reminded of battlefields such as those on which Spartacus fought.

This thought-provoking book offers a unique reading experience and I highly recommend it. 

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