Book review: On the Spartacus Road

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On the Spartacus Road by Peter Stothard Harper Press, 353pp, £18.99

ALL physical journeys are also journeys of the mind. Those books which pursue them are fathered by time, and given birth by the thrust of momentum, driven through stations along the route, and kept in suspense by a sense of terminus as well as the looming prospect of termination.

The trick is to make the reader forget, while the author remembers, researches, revises and deals his discoveries like playing cards, spinning his stories and weaving time with sleight of hand, like magical light.

In On the Spartacus Road Peter Stothard has achieved all this and more, sometimes sublimely, sometimes surprising us with twists of time and location, with several eccentric and colourful brushes with his guides both substantial and ghostly, ancient and modern, imagined and real.

His is a journey to be relished. Intrigue from the start is already heady, and diverting – evoking the deaths of 29 gladiators who strangled themselves, a pact it seems, in AD 393. There were no survivors. How was it done? Stothard dwells on the matter briefly. This is a puzzle upon which to ponder, a small hors d'oeuvre for the reader to chew in advance of the other, much greater intrigue involving an errant army of slaves who sought, by different means, their freedom.

For this is the story of a pursuit, and of a pilgrimage – that of Stothard (his verification of his own past, and of his youth, his rebirth from illness) – chasing clues along the putative escape route taken by Spartacus and a handful of opportunistic top-drawer gladiators, whose number became over months a growing army that fought and defeated (at least nine times) its masters, the Romans, between 73 and 71BC. From Sicily to the Alps and from Paris to Hollywood, it has never wholly left the modern mind.

"The barest facts about Spartacus are difficult to find," he tells us. "They disappear and reappear … (like the road itself). They have been twisted in the service of cinema, politics and art. There is Spartacus the romantic gladiator from Thrace, the fighter for freedom … and there is Spartacus the terrorist and threat to life, the one who survives in others' fears …" All in all, so many versions of this ancient and modern fighter for Stothard to pin, like the squirming worm, or a glorious hero, on the nib of his seeking pen.

With so little to go on there is room for much speculation. Into the space vacated by facts, Stothard brings to bear a lifetime of classical study, a scholar's nose for the keenest truffles amongst the footnotes and implications of the bagful of well-thumbed texts he has packed for the road, as well as an instinct for salient gossip and an easy manner with strangers.

So there he is, at the Colosseum, engaging with Carlo, a fancy-dress Roman, a modern professional, here to be photographed with the tourists; Carlo's gladiatorial image, thanks to Spartacus and the myth-makers, has no sell-by date. "We agree terms," writes Stothard. "He points my head up towards the Colosseum's high arches with an air of proprietorship …

" 'This is where Spartacus would have fought and died if he had not escaped from Capua first,' states Carlo. 'He came this close to walking down this road as a conquering hero. From Capua he could have changed the world.'" Two passing Americans applaud and want to know if this is the place for paying respects to Russell Crowe. Carlo nods.

This brief encounter is reported by Stothard with relish – the journalist hack with an eye for a scene and ear for comic possibilities – and with a weight that is no more or less than that he accords to later meetings with fellow travellers such as a pair of earnest Koreans, armed with maps and theories and questions. He is relaxed, amused, observant, and refreshingly unstuffy.

He traces Spartacus (or more accurately, approaches him), through the writings of Horace and Plutarch and Pliny the younger, often supplying us with embellishing salient detail to bring to life the everyday ways of the ruthless, aesthetic, complex and hierarchical Romans, whose modes and mores were mixed with political intrigue and carried off with strutting arrogance, with a blood lust and unabashed penchant for gore that often went unchecked, provided the price was paid by others. Spartacus bucked this trend and struck fear, which is why he lives on long after his death.

Stothard weaves from Rome to Aricca, then on to Benevento and from Capua to Acerra. At Vesuvius he pauses to ponder Spartacus's small band as, against high odds in the summer of 73BC, they outwitted and routed 3,000 soldiers led by Gaius Claudius Glaber. This event is not recorded in the 1960s movie, starring Kirk Douglas, which Stothard summarises, critiques and acquires a copy of: "There is not much pillage and certainly no rape." Kirk Douglas portrays the real-life terrorist, thinks Stothard, as a decent "benign Pied Piper" who makes the escape from the grip of the Romans seem like a dance, not a short-lived foray.

A short-lived fate once seemed on the cards for Stothard himself. He alludes to it sparingly, as he does to other biographical details – an elegant etching of his father's life and times, his own keen boyhood picking up fluent schoolboy Latin, his gap year travels all around Como, under the tutelage of a yogurt-seller. The illness – a decade ago – proved almost fatal, and in a sense lends a raison d'tre to Stothard's enterprise, as he returns in the course of his Spartacus trek to the scene of his gap year studies, recalling old ghosts, plus the chemotherapy-induced hallucinations of recovery, 'imagining the imaginings of the ancient past'. An ancient past that has come to claim him.

He pays his alms dutifully – following each known redoubt of the slave army's conquest, heading towards Reggio Calabria, then veering north to the Sorrentine peninsula, weaving his tale through the dreamy underworld of ancient poems and letters, portraying a land as vicious and prejudiced and redemptive, as strange and familiar as our own.