T. URBAINCZYK, Spartacus, London: Bristol Classical Press, 2004. Pp. 144. ISBN 1-85399-668-8. STG 10.99.
Review by Constantina Katsari
Theresa Urbainczyk’s book on the slave, gladiator and rebel-leader Spartacus, is a laudable attempt to describe the character and actions of the ancient hero, while at the same time the author tries to reconstruct the reasons and effects of the slave wars, the phenomenon of slave resistance and the idolisation (or not) of Spartacus in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Since the book was written as part of the series Ancients in Action - an initiative of Bristol Classical Press that aims at the popularization of ancient history - Urbainczyk had to squeeze a rather large amount of evidence into a very short space. On the positive side, the style and format of the book, which almost reads like a novel, will appeal to a wider audience outside the academe. At the same time, university teachers and students alike will certainly be able to use it in class as it is probably one of the most intelligible short summaries of Greek and Roman slave resistance currently available.
The book consists of 8 chapters, of which the first 5 reconstruct the history of slave rebellions and slave resistance in the Greek and Roman worlds. Extensive passages examine in some detail the structure of Roman society, the lives of the slaves and the institution of gladiatorial games, in an attempt to contextualize the phenomenon of the rebellions. Of course, special emphasis has been paid to the history of the third and last slave uprising in the Roman Republic, that led by Spartacus. The roles played by both Spartacus and Crassus are accurately depicted on the basis of the existing historical evidence. Although the author herself acknowledges that the number of footnotes is relatively small, all of the sources have recently been made available in Brent Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents (New York, 2001). The idea that Spartacus was planning a slave revolt that would change the Roman system of slavery forever is one of the most thought-provoking aspects of this volume. Such a claim is based on the fact that Spartacus did not leave Italy after his initial victories, although he had plenty of chances to do so. Instead, he decided to stay and fight against the Roman legions, probably with the intention of freeing all the slaves residing in Italy. Interestingly, this hypothesis runs counter to most modern commentary on this subject, e.g. Keith Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 BC 70 BC (London, 1989), according to which the slaves aimed at rebellions that would guarantee their personal freedom and would not change the Roman socio-economic system.
The innovative nature of the book is particularly evident in the last three chapters, where ancient and modern approaches to the subject are analysed in more detail. Chapter 6 is probably the most interesting, since Urbainczyk attempts an analysis of the Parallel Lives of Plutarch (c.AD120), paying special emphasis to the lives of Spartacus and Crassus. According to Urbainczyk, Plutarch reveals a clear bias in favour of the Greek heroes of the past (e.g. Spartacus) and tries to undermine the integrity of the Romans (e.g. Crassus). Yet although it is true that some modern scholars use the works of second-century AD authors in order to trace elements of Greek and Roman identities in the culture of the Roman world, the distinction between the two identities is probably not as clear as we would like to depict it. In the case of Plutarch, therefore, we are dealing with a man who lived in the Greek-speaking province of Achaea and wrote in the Greek language, but was also a true Roman citizen, loyal to the Roman State. As Tim Whitmarsh recently noted in his celebrated book, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation (Oxford 2001), we cannot deny the existence of a double bind of Roman-Greek cultural relations that cannot and should not be disentangled. Despite the disagreement of scholars on the subject, Urbainczyk manages to identify an area of study that has been relatively neglected by modern historians of antiquity: the historical evaluation of Plutarch’s comparisons. Finally, in chapters 7 and 8, she discusses the novels and movies dedicated to the subject of Spartacus during the 20th century. Her attempts to contextualize these literary and cinematic endeavors in the light of European and North American Communist movements reveal the existence of a number of diverse modern approaches with regard to the portrayal of the life and deeds of Spartacus.
All in all, Spartacus is an interesting and thought provoking book that will appeal both to students and to the educated readers of classics.