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Yerxa: Who was the "real" Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film?

Strauss: Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn't complete fiction, but offers some historical truth. The truth is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he really did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it's even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie. But there are some real differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent with today's Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent.

So what went wrong? We don't precisely know, though the sources allow us to make several suggestions. I think the most likely explanation is that Spartacus, while on campaign with the Romans, campaigned against other Thracians. Spartacus was taken prisoner, and as often happens to prisoners of war, he was sold back to the Romans as a slave. Now he might have expected that the Romans would intervene to ransom him. And he certainly had every right to expect the Romans not to buy him as a slave themselves. So if that is in fact what happened, Spartacus had a justified sense of outrage at how he had been mistreated.

The other huge difference between the movie and what actually happened is more subtle. The movie depicts Spartacus as someone who was against slavery philosophically and who wanted to create a world in which slavery wouldn't exist. But we simply can't say that was true of the real Spartacus. We have very little evidence that there were people in antiquity who were opposed to slavery outright. There is very little evidence of an ancient abolitionist movement and no evidence that abolition was Spartacus's motive. In fact, the closest we come to understanding his motive from the sources, which are sadly lacking, is that he wanted to take the army he raised out of Italy back to his native land of Thrace.

    -INTERVIEW: The Spartacus War: An Interview with Barry Strauss (Donald A. Yerxa, June 2009, Historically Speaking)

The Founders read ancient history and were inspired by it as they imagined a new and independent America. Perhaps because they were born thinking of themselves as Englishmen, they always had an eye on the lessons of the past. They focused on antiquity, a repository of republics like the one they wanted to create. Sam Adams expressed the wish that America be a Christian Sparta, but he was an outlier. It was Rome that fascinated the Founders.

They thirsted for the liberty of the Roman Republic. The Founders saw themselves as new Brutuses and Cassiuses taking down a tyrant. They miscast poor old King George III in that latter role: He was no tyrant but merely a clumsy ruler out of his depth and lacking in the political finesse to negotiate with a rebellious province. But never mind: The Founders stalked the ghost of Roman liberty and they did it well. Take Valley Forge in the troubled winter of 1777, for example, where George Washington gave his troops a teaching moment through a play. It was Joseph Addison’s drama Cato, a tale of the most determined opponent of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, a man who gladly gave his life for the freedom of the Republic. The lesson was obvious.

The Roman Empire also told other stories to the Founders. It was a cautionary tale about how a country loses its liberty, as Rome did after the fall of the Republic. Yet imperial Rome also offered the promise of greatness. The Roman Empire at its height spanned about 3,000 miles and comprised about 70 million people. Already in 1780, Thomas Jefferson imagined America, still a collection of colonies on the Atlantic Coast, becoming an Empire of Liberty growing across the continent. He imagined a new Rome, as it were, but one that would combine the freedom of the Roman Republic and the expanse of the Roman Empire.

    -ESSAY: What’s So Useful About Studying Ancient History?: Americans are notoriously ignorant of history, even their own, and while there’s nothing new about this indifference, the consequences are profound. (Barry Strauss, May. 27, 2019, Daily Beast)

Given that Professor Strauss is praised by his three peers in the field of popular Roman History--Tom Holland, Mary Beard and Adrian Goldsworthy--he hardly needs my recommendation. Suffice it to say, not only is this account of Spartacus and the Spartacus War supremely readable, as the genre requires, but it is a model of honest reconstruction of historical sources. The author makes it abundantly clear when he is citing genuine evidence, when he is interpreting sketchier sources, when he is relying on archaeology and when he is speculating. Since most of what most of us know, or think we know, of the great revolutionary comes from Howard Fast's best-selling novel and Stanley Kubrick's classic film, he has a considerable job to do in setting the record straight, but, remarkably enough, much of what we "know" turns out to be true, or true enough (as see those reviews and the excerpt from an interview with Mr. Strauss above).

The factual account is fascinating enough, but Spartacus is such a central figure in Western Culture that Mr. Strauss's discussion of the mythical figure is just as valuable. For a Roman Empire that had become dependent on a slave economy, the specter of slave revolt was so terrifying that Spartacus became a bogeyman. For those who yearned for a return to Roman Republicanism and those who sought to institute same in the Anglosphere, his fight for freedom became archetypal. And for Marxists the notion that he and his followers shared out the wealth they captured became a mystic model of socialism. While you really should read the book, there's a fine on-line lecture where Mr. Strauss picks apart all these factual and fanciful strains of the story that really rewards a listen Ultimately, the real accomplishment of this book is to show us that the real Spartacus and his rebellion were so remarkable that they can bear much of the ideological weight we've freighted them with for two millennia now.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Barry Strauss (3 books reviewed)
Barry Strauss Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Barry S. Strauss
    -BOOK SITE: The Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster)
    -PODCAST ARCHIVE: Barry Strauss (
    -ARTICLE ARCHIVE: Barry Strauss (
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss, Visiting Fellow: Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working GroupMember (Hoover Institute)
    -ENTRY: Strauss, Barry S. (
    -FACULTY PAGE: Barry Stuart Strauss, Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies (Cornell University)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Barry Strauss (IMDB)
    -AUDIOBOOK: Barry Strauss The Death of Caesar The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination
    -Excerpt: from The Spartacus War: 3. The Praetors (NPR)
    -ESSAY: A Failed Rebel's Long Shadow (Barry Strauss, July 16, 2010, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Cicero and Original Day of Infamy (Barry Strauss, Death of Caesar December 8, 2021)
    -ESSAY: The Unbelievable (Mostly) Untold Tale of Spartacus’s Wife (Barry Strauss, Apr 5, 2013, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: What’s So Useful About Studying Ancient History?: Americans are notoriously ignorant of history, even their own, and while there’s nothing new about this indifference, the consequences are profound. (Barry Strauss, May. 27, 2019, Daily Beast)
    -ESSAY: Why Ancient Rome Needed Immigrants to Become Powerful: The Caesars embraced newcomers, less out of idealism than out of self-interest. (BARRY STRAUSS, 4/03/19, History)
    -ESSAY: How Anti-Trade Nativism Wrecked the Ancient Greeks: Cleon was an Athenian demagogue, a shrewd operator known for violence and for getting things done. (Barry Strauss, May 22, 2016, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: The Ides of March: A Leadership Epic Fail: Lessons from Julius Caesar about what not to do when running a company. (Barry Strauss, March 15, 2016 , WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Things Shakespeare Got Wrong About the Ides of March (Barry Strauss, MARCH 15, 2015, History News Network)
    -ESSAY: American Sniper, American Iliad (Barry Strauss, February 21, 2015, Real Clear Politics)
    -ESSAY: The Classical Roots of ‘The Hunger Games’: The blockbuster film franchise reaches back to the myth of Theseus, ancient Greece and Rome, and the very foundations of Western culture (Barry Strauss, Nov. 13, 2014, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Under the Banner of Women: History shows that love and war are not always opposites. (Barry Strauss, March 27, 2014, City Journal)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Present at the Revolution: The enduring legacy of Cato, inspiration to George Washington and many others (Barry Strauss, January 18, 2013, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: Reflections on the Citizen Soldier (Barry Strauss, Parameters)
    -EXCERPT: Prologue: Piraeus (Simon Says)
    -ESSAY: Go Tell The Spartans: At Thermopylae a king and three hundred of his soldiers set the standard for battle to the death against overwhelming odds. (Barry Strauss, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History)
    -ESSAY: What, You Condemned Anti-Semitism?: How very one-sided! (Barry Strauss, 12/11/02, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Reflections on the citizen-soldier (Barry Strauss, Summer 2003, Parameters)
    -REVIEW: of Warrior Politics by Robert D. Kaplan (Barry Strauss, Arion)
    -ESSAY: The Fisherman: Catching Spartacus    -EXCERPT: from The Trojan War A New History (Barry Strauss, NPR)
    -BOOK REVIEW: How to wage war: On Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History, by Andrew Roberts & Military Strategy: A Global History, by Jeremy Black (Barry Strauss, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Populism, II: Populares & populists: On the proto-populist movements of the Roman Republic. (Barry Strauss, October 2016, New Criterion)
    -BOOK REVIEW: Herodotus’s wheel: On Robert Strassler’s The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories (Barry Strauss, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: The biggest loser: Why the failings of Demosthenes prove his historical importance. (Barry Strauss, March 2013, New Criterion)
    -BOOK REVIEW: A war without heroes: A review of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson (Barry Strauss, New Criterion)
    -BOOK REVIEW: Brutality & benevolence: A review of Ataturk: Lessons in Leadership From the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire (World Generals Series) by Austin Bay (Barry Strauss, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Troy’s Night of the Horse: The Trojans got tricked, but did the Greeks need a wooden horse? (Barry Strauss, History Net)
    -ESSAY: The Greatest Ancient Leader (Barry Strauss, History Net)
    -ESSAY: Ancient Uprisings That Changed the World (Barry Strauss, History Net)
    -ESSAY: Battle of Thermopylae: Leonidas the Hero (Barry S. Strauss, Fall 2004, MHQ)
    -ESSAY: American Universities Must Stop Covering for the Chinese Communist Party (R. RICHARD GEDDES & BARRY STRAUSS, May 6, 2020, National Review)
    -ESSAY: MissionU and the University’s Mission (BARRY STUART STRAUSS, May 10, 2018, National Review)
    -BOOK REVIEW: of In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria (Barry Strauss, American Interest)
    -BOOK REVIEW: Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present by Jakub J. Grygiel (Barry Strauss, American Interest)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Death of the Republic: The fall of Rome, as much as its rise, continues to rivet us. (Barry Strauss, Summer 2019, Claremont Review of Books)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Lecture: Barry Strauss on Leadership: Historian Barry Strauss tells the story of three great soldier-statesmen of the ancient world—Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar—and discusses what they can teach us today about ambition, leadership, strategy, and more. (Barry Strauss, Jun 24, 2013, The Getty)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: “Trustworthiness of Ancient Sources” - Barry Strauss (Barry Strauss, Feb 1, 2016, Hillsdale College)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Spartacus: The Man and the Myth: Barry Strauss talks about his new book, The Spartacus War, the real story of the Hollywood hero and revolutionary icon. Strauss depicts a Spartacus with parallels of insurgency and counter-insurgency between then and president-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Barry Strauss, Mar 12, 2014, WGBHForum)
    -PODCAST: with Barry Strauss, Episode 97: What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us? (Jack Butler, April 9, 2019, The Remnant)
    -PODCAST: Episode 32: The Gallic War by Julius Caesar (HOSTED BY JOHN J. MILLER, April 24, 2018, Great Books)
    -PODCAST: Episode 011: Barry Strauss on “The Death of Caesar” (Historically Speaking, April 15 , 2015)
    -PODCAST: Episode 237: Ten Caesars by Barry Strauss (HOSTED BY JOHN J. MILLER, March 11, 2019, Great Books)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Spartacus and the Great Books (Barry Strauss, March 4, 2010, Jefferson Center, UT Austin)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Barry Straus - Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine: What can leaders from the Roman Empire teach us? And in what ways is the Roman Empire still alive and well today? In a Chats in the Stacks talk, Barry Strauss will discuss his new book Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Barry Strauss, Oct 22, 2019, Cornell University Library)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Cornell history professor sheds new light on the death of Julius Caesar: Barry Strauss, Cornell's Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies and chair of the Department of History, talks about "The Death of Caesar: New Light on History's Most Famous Assassination" in this July 22, 2015 lecture sponsored by the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions. (Barry Strauss, Aug 25, 2015, Cornell University)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: : Applying Lessons from Ancients to Modern Business Culture (Barry Strauss, May 9, 2017, Talks at Google
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: The Battle of Salamis: A Conversation with Prof. Barry Strauss: Renowned historian Prof. Barry Strauss joins HALC to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Salamis and discuss its importance in deciding the outcome of the Persian Wars, its legacy today, and his book The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece (The Hellenic American Leadership Council, Apr 24, 2020)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Strauss Offers Fresh Look at 'Trojan War' (NPR, September 21, 2006, Talk of the Nation)
    -INTERVIEW: The Spartacus War: An Interview with Barry Strauss (Donald A. Yerxa, June 2009, Historically Speaking)
    -INTERVIEW: 'Spartacus War': Story Of The Real-Life Gladiator (Neil Conan, February 02, 2010, WBUR)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Barry Strauss on Ten Caesars (James Blake Wiener, 15 March 2019, Ancient History Encyclopedia)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Salamis: The Battle That Saved Western Culture (Weekend Edition, July 18, 2004, NPR)
    -PROFILE: Cornell classicist and historian Barry Strauss studies that elusive thing called peace (Paul Cody, July 2, 1998, Cornell Chronicle)
    -INTERVIEW: Salamis: The Battle That Saved Western Culture: Book Details Decisive Clash Between Ancient Persians, Greeks (Brian NaylorJuly 18, 2004, Weekend Edition Sunday)
    -PROFILE: Strauss goes into battle with myths in 'The Spartacus War' (Daniel Aloi, May 20, 2009, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Barry Strauss brings ancient warfare to life in The Battle of Salamis (Franklin Crawford, 9/30/04, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Strauss navigates midlife waters with memoir on learning to scull at 40 (Franklin Crawford, 4/08/99, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Classicist and historian studies that elusive thing called peace (Paul Cody, 7/09/98, Cornell Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: Rowing against the current: Princeton fellow looks at middle-aged love affair with sport (Justin Feil, April 28, 1999, Princeton Packet)
    -INTERVIEW: Gladiator: A conversation with historian Barry Strauss, author of a new book on Spartacus. (INTERVIEW BY DONALD A. YERXA, Books & Culture)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (Kirkus)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (American Interest)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (Jack Miller Center)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (LA Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "barry strauss" (National Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (New Criterion)
    -ARCHIVES: "barry strauss" (History Net)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (City Journal)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (Ancient History Encylopedia)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (Daily Beast)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (You Tube)
    -ARCHIVES: Barry Strauss (NPR)
    -REVIEW: of The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss (Tom Holland, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Mary Beard, Sunday Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Christopher Hirst, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Valentina Arena, History Extra)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Bruce S. Thornton, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Adrienne Mayor, 5 Books)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (John Wilson, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (John Stoehr, Creative Loafing)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (Arthur M. Eckstein, Michigan War Studies Review)
    -REVIEW: of Spartacus War (A Trumpet of Sedition)
    -REVIEW: of Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Ceasar and the Genius of Leadership by Barry Strauss (Victor Davis Hanson, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Masters of Commands (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss (Adrian Goldsworthy, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Catharine Edwards, Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Catherine Nixey, NY Times book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Jerry Lenaburg, NY Journal of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Steve Donoghue, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Ten Caesars (Ryan Shinkel, Modern Age)
-REVIEW: of Rowing Against the Current by Barry Strauss (kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Trojan War: A New History by Barry S. Strauss (Thomas Zacharis, History Net)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Johannes Haubold, International Journal of the Classical Tradition)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Peter Jones, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Christoph Ulf, Michigan War Studies Review)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Victor Davis Hanson, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Ursus, UNRV History
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Writing Bros)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Vicki J. Yiannias, Greek News)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Ivy Panda)
    -REVIEW: of Rojan War (Charles, The Worthy House)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Article Myriad)
    -REVIEW: of Trojan War (Adelaida Lower, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss (James Romm, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Death of Caesar (Nick Owchar, LA Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Death of Caesar (Lev Grossman, TIME)
    -REVIEW: of Death of Caesar (Greg Woolf, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Death of Caesar (Roger Kimball, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Death of Caesar (Scott Manning, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of Death of Caesar (Robin Levin, Death of Carthage)
    -REVIEW: of The Battle of Salamis. The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization by Barry Strauss (John Lewis, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Tom Holland, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (Brother Edward Sheehy, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salamis (N.S. Gill,
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Salams (W.J. Rayment)
    -REVIEW: of Battles of Salamis (Rob Colburn, Row2k)
    -REVIEW: of The War that Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium By Barry Strauss (Peggy Kurkowski, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: Spartacus: History of Gladiator Revolt Leader (Owen Jarus, September 18, 2013, Live Science)
    -AUDIO DISCUSSION: Spartacus: Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life of Spartacus, a Roman gladiator who was involved in a series of slave uprisings against the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. (Melvyn Bragg, 3/06/14, In Our Time)