The Revolt That Ravaged An Empire

Washington Post

Review by Tom Holland
Sunday, April 5, 2009; Page B06

THE SPARTACUS WAR

By Barry Strauss

Simon & Schuster. 264 pp. $26

One of the frustrations of studying the last, agonized century of the Roman Republic is that our sources invariably derive from the ruling elite. No snob like a senatorial snob: To search the writings of authors such as Cicero or Sallust for details of how the lower classes lived is like panning for gold. Most despised of all — and most ignored, of course — were the slaves. It was certainly no concern of a Roman aristocrat to examine the lives of those millions of unfortunates upon whose bent backs the entire glittering edifice of classical civilization had been raised. Yet one of those same unfortunates remains to this day a household name whose fame outshines that of many a senatorial high-flyer. After all, it was not Pompey, nor Cicero, nor even Julius Caesar who ended up being played on the big screen by Kirk Douglas, but the lowest of the Roman low: a gladiator.

What makes this all the more extraordinary is that Spartacus himself, the slave who defied an empire, left no testimony of his own. The few, fragmentary accounts of his life that do survive were composed by authors in whom the very thought of a slave rebellion inspired horror and contempt. From them we know the basic details of Spartacus’s career: how he was brought from Thrace to fight in an arena in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius; how he and about 70 other gladiators, armed only with kitchen utensils, broke out of their barracks; how for two years, from 73 to 71 B.C., his growing band of runaway slaves ravaged Italy; how at one point he led more than 100,000 men. And yet, despite the terror he inspired, there was a quality to Spartacus that even the Romans seem sneakingly to have admired. Whether it was overpowering his guards or putting consuls to flight or killing his horse to deprive himself of any means of flight when he finally faced defeat, he lived “fortissime” — as a man of exceptional courage.

The very features that so appealed to Hollywood, however, make Spartacus a potentially treacherous subject for any classicist. Historians, no matter how seduced by the drama of his revolt, are more circumscribed than their script-writing counterparts by the moth-eaten character of our sources. The balance between accessibility and scholarship, imagination and responsibility, is not always an easy one to strike. In his previous book on the Trojan war, Barry Strauss, a professor of classics at Cornell, seemed so desperate not to bore readers that he occasionally floated free of scholarly moorings. “The Spartacus War,” however, has all the excitement of a thriller but none of the poetic license. Whether it is the remains of a trench system in the toe of Italy or an abandoned silver ladle or the mention of one of Spartacus’s guides in “one line in a lost history book,” Strauss makes every last scrap of information count. This is particularly the case when it comes to descriptions of fighting. 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.
ad_icon

As to the broader question of what Spartacus was fighting for, whether a principled love of freedom or a bandit’s love of plunder, Strauss hedges his bets. The goals of the rebellion, he concludes, were both noble and coarsely pragmatic: “honor, prowess, vengeance, loot, and even the favor of the gods.” If so, then one of the reasons why Spartacus endured so long in the memories of the Romans must surely have been that he reminded them of themselves.

Certainly, as Strauss points out, it was never a part of the rebels’ manifesto to abolish slavery itself. What they objected to was not the institution, but their own entrapment within it. Marauding up and down Italy, they lived precisely as their former masters did: off the labor and produce of others. That notwithstanding, Spartacus does appear to have held some authentically exceptional principles. Uniquely among the leaders of slave revolts in the ancient world, he seems — if we can trust our sources — to have put his faith in something like an ideal of equality. For that reason alone, it might be argued, he more than merits this fine biography. As another, if less well historically attested, gladiator put it: “Brothers, what we do in life, echoes in eternity.”

Tom Holland is the author of “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.” His new book, “The Forge of Christendom,” will be published in May

SPQR re-enactment

Global Post

ROME — Recently, residents and tourists around the Coliseum watched in awe as a legion of Roman soldiers marched in unison down Rome’s Imperial Avenue.

“Caesar!” called out the commander in Latin as the legion came to a stop. “I, Centurion Lucius Valerius Seianus, have brought your favorite legion here to return the scepter of command to your hands!”

A horn blared as the Centurion placed a large laurel crown on the pedestal of the statue of Julius Caesar, the great Roman general who was stabbed to death in the Forum 2,053 years that day — March 15, or the “Ides of March.”

As an excited crowd of tourists snapped their cameras, the legion made its way to the Roman Forum.

“It’s our way of exporting Rome’s history without being boring,” said the Centurion, whose real name is Giorgio Franchetti. He is president of the historical reenactment group, called “SPQR.”

The name is an acronym in Latin from ancient Rome, Senatus Populus Que Romanus — meaning the Senate and the People of Rome. With 35 active members of all ages, “SPQR” is one of several non-profit associations in Rome devoted to experimental archeology.

“Experimental archeology means putting yourself in the shoes of ancient characters who can no longer tell you how they lived,” Franchetti said, “to experience their struggles in first person.”

Members of the group are not actors. They are passionate Romans who believe their approach to archeology helps keep ancient Rome alive, much as Civil War reenactors in the U.S. discover history by portraying period characters and recreating scenes from another era.

In addition to studying archeological findings, such as jewels, weapons and military equipment, these enthusiasts re-create an entire living environment by organizing Roman encampments, gladiator trainings and religious rituals.

Their devotion to the study and practice of the Roman Empire has turned them into a subculture of purists.

Last summer, when rumors circulated about an idea to build a theme park inspired by the Roman Empire, SPQR President Giorgio Franchetti went on alert. He feared the plan would provide a superficial rendition of Roman life with one goal in mind: making a profit.

ROME — Recently, residents and tourists around the Coliseum watched in awe as a legion of Roman soldiers marched in unison down Rome’s Imperial Avenue.

“Caesar!” called out the commander in Latin as the legion came to a stop. “I, Centurion Lucius Valerius Seianus, have brought your favorite legion here to return the scepter of command to your hands!”

A horn blared as the Centurion placed a large laurel crown on the pedestal of the statue of Julius Caesar, the great Roman general who was stabbed to death in the Forum 2,053 years that day — March 15, or the “Ides of March.”

As an excited crowd of tourists snapped their cameras, the legion made its way to the Roman Forum.

“It’s our way of exporting Rome’s history without being boring,” said the Centurion, whose real name is Giorgio Franchetti. He is president of the historical reenactment group, called “SPQR.”

The name is an acronym in Latin from ancient Rome, Senatus Populus Que Romanus — meaning the Senate and the People of Rome. With 35 active members of all ages, “SPQR” is one of several non-profit associations in Rome devoted to experimental archeology.

“Experimental archeology means putting yourself in the shoes of ancient characters who can no longer tell you how they lived,” Franchetti said, “to experience their struggles in first person.”

Members of the group are not actors. They are passionate Romans who believe their approach to archeology helps keep ancient Rome alive, much as Civil War reenactors in the U.S. discover history by portraying period characters and recreating scenes from another era.

In addition to studying archeological findings, such as jewels, weapons and military equipment, these enthusiasts re-create an entire living environment by organizing Roman encampments, gladiator trainings and religious rituals.

Their devotion to the study and practice of the Roman Empire has turned them into a subculture of purists.

Last summer, when rumors circulated about an idea to build a theme park inspired by the Roman Empire, SPQR President Giorgio Franchetti went on alert. He feared the plan would provide a superficial rendition of Roman life with one goal in mind: making a profit.

Roman-era air pollution … April 1st

An isolated salt marsh on the coast of contemporary Iceland is the last place most people would think of looking for Roman-era air pollution.

But traces of atmospheric lead pollution found in the sedimentary cores of an Iceland salt marsh, most likely originated from first- and second-century C.E. Roman mining and metal-working operations, a new study reports.

The research, which appeared in the April 1 issue of the journal Science of the Total Environment, indicates that the lead most likely found its way aloft from what is now Somerset in Britain.

William Marshall, a research fellow in geoscience at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., and the paper’s lead author, says it’s the most distantly detected example of such Roman atmospheric pollution from Britain. Previous evidence of Roman-era atmospheric lead pollution has been found in peat deposits in Europe, in sediments from Swedish lakes and in ice cores from Greenland.

However, this sedimentary sampling taken at Vidarholmi, on the island’s west coast, shows just how readily and how far a little bit of particle pollution can travel, says Marshall. (The remote spot has also been used to show how sea levels have been rising in the Atlantic.)

Although lead does occur naturally as a byproduct of mankind’s gold, silver, copper and tin mining, this soft, malleable heavy metal has polluted the atmosphere since the onset of metallurgy.

Its signature isotopic ratios are used to link it to specific mining ores after it has rained out and become part of earth’s surface sediments. Marshall and colleagues used the lead’s isotopic signatures and timing of its deposition within the sediment to determine the Icelandic sample’s link to its likely Roman-era origin.

This paper adds another important piece to the geographical jigsaw puzzle of lead pollution history in the Northern Hemisphere, says John Farmer, a geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh and not involved in the study.

At the height of their empire, the Romans were shipping large lead ingots from Britannia’s Mendip minesto the continent in large part for use in their famous plumbing (a word which comes from the Latin plumbum — for lead).

“Detecting ancient Roman pollution in an Icelandic salt marsh provides a cautionary tale for those who expect an ocean or a mountain range to protect them from the impact of highly polluting factories on other continents,” said Thomas Peterson, a research meteorologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., also not part of the study.

Marshall is now analyzing new samples from a second Iceland location in an effort to extend the record back some 3,000 years to better establish the area’s pre-Roman lead levels.

An amphitheatre cut into the hills

S Wales Argos

Doing it like the Romans

9:20pm Friday 3rd April 2009

An amphitheatre cut into the hills above Rhiwderin is giving children at Pentrepoeth infant school a unique new learning facility.

The arena can sit 40 pupils and allows a storyteller or teacher to address the youngsters.

Eco-team leader John Willmore said: “We built a nature trail a year ago which gives the children a chance to explore. But they had nowhere to sit down and learn.

“They submitted their designs and we decided to create a Roman-style feature for outdoor learning.”

The ampitheatre took four weeks to build by Craft Wales, who dug four metres into the bank to create the unique look.

It cost £7,000. This was met by the Parent Teachers Association. Fundraisers included a cycle ride from Bassaleg to Bangor. This was completed by Martin Jenkins- Fiance of teacher Christina Richards- and took four days, raising over £5,000.