Monday, March 30, 2009

Barry Strauss' "The Spartacus War"

Barry Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University as well as the director and a founder of its Program on Freedom and Free Societies. His books include The Battle of Salamis, named one of the Best Books of 2004 by the Washington Post, and The Trojan War: A New History, a main selection of the History Book Club.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Spartacus War, and reported the following:
If you like two-fisted reconstructions of ancient battles, you’ll love page 99 of The Spartacus War. If you hate uncertainty, however, then you won’t be so sure. Page 99 packs all the grandeur and misery of writing a history of Spartacus into 300 words.

Rebel, gladiator, and slave, Spartacus is one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. He is also one of the most poorly documented. He and his 60,000 troops wreaked havoc on Roman Italy for two years but they left no records. The Romans, who won the war, told the story, but no complete contemporary Roman account survives. We have only fragments, so the story of Spartacus is a jigsaw puzzle missing many parts.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Spartacus was such a noble opponent that even the Romans were forced to admire him. That is intriguing in itself, which makes the historical detective work of studying Spartacus even more absorbing.

Page 99 imagines a battle in southeastern Italy between the Romans and a Celtic breakaway group from Spartacus’s army. The date was 82 B.C. We know little about the battle except its outcome and one detail about the fighting. In my reconstruction, scholarship mixes with the imagination to yield informed speculation.

Spartacus himself doesn’t appear on the page, nor does my extensive travel in Italy. I tromped around many of the war’s battlefields but not this one. A pity all that, but still, the page does give a taste of the book’s research.

Excerpt, p. 99:

Ancient battle lives in the imagination as a climax: a collision, followed by dozens of disorderly, individual fights that go on until one side prevails. Real battle was probably episodic. Like boxers, the two sides combined, broke apart, regrouped each in its own corner, and then hit each other again. Finally, one army would collapse and run. Such typical Roman battle lasted two to three hours, but episodes of hand-to-hand fighting probably each lasted only 15-20 minutes before exhaustion set in.

The only detail of the battle of Mount Garganus to survive is the report that the rebels “fought extremely fiercely”: a conventional statement but it might just be true. Celtic warriors were known for their ferocity and tenacity in battle. We might imagine the bravest legionaries circling around the enemy’s flank or trying to stab their way into the enemy lines. Eventually they succeeded, but probably at a price.
Read an excerpt from The Spartacus War, and learn more about the book and author at Barry Strauss' website.

--Marshal Zeringue