Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Fortune's Favorites: Character Study: Spartacus

Character Study: Spartacus.  McCullough writes at length about Spartacus, but her real interest appears to be less in Spartacus himself than in gladiatorial combat during the Roman Republic, and particularly in vindicating the Republic against its reputation for bloodthirstiness in that regard.  This does not mean vindicating Roman slavery in general.  Granted, the brutal lot of a field slave, let along a mine slave, is never more than faintly hinted at.  Granted, many household slaves are shown as having real affection for their owners.  Granted, slaves are shown in skilled positions such as clerk and scribe.  And granted that elsewhere the author shows educated and cultured Greeks voluntarily offering themselves up as slaves to Romans because it offers a better career than remaining in impoverished Greece.  But she also makes clear that in Rome the owner of slaves exercised the absolute power of life and death over them and could crucify a slave any time at a whim.

A gladiator, now, is a different matter.  First Man in Rome has many retired gladiators running around working as hired muscle and making the point that gladiatorial combat was rarely fatal at the time.  If McCullough made that point with some subtlety in First Man in Rome, she brutally beats the audience over the head with it in Fortune's Favorites.  She says that, although the fiction was maintained that gladiators were captured foreign soldiers, really they were deserters and mutineers from the Roman legions, a fact most Romans preferred to forget because they regarded gladiators as sports stars.  She says it was a voluntary career choice, although that is clearly an exaggeration.  As she portrays him, Spartacus began life as an ordinary (unnamed) Roman boy with a natural affinity for all things military.  His first choice of career was as a soldier.  Later he was charged with mutiny, no details given except that he denies it.  He was court martialed, convicted, stripped of his citizenship, and drummed out of the army.  Then he was given a choice, lifetime exile from Italy, or becoming a gladiator.  So it was hardly a voluntary career choice for him, but it did not seem such a bad one either.  A gladiator, after all, was a kind of sports star, with all the glamour of a sports star, and a handsome one (which he was) could have so many women offer to sleep with him that he could afford to be choosy.

Gladiators are chosen at least partly for their looks.  He is so good-looking that he goes for 100,000 sesterces.  Point of comparison: When Caesar says he will sell the pirates who capture him as slaves, the women and children will go for 600 to 1000 sesterces each.  500 strong but unskilled men will fetch a cool 2,000,000, or about 4,000 each.  Cato the Censor used to boast that he never paid more for a slave than 6,000 sesterces, although that included skilled workers and clerks.  And a top-notch, highly educated Greek tutor fetches 200,000 to 300,000 sesterces.  So a handsome gladiator fetches the price of about 25 field hands, but only half to a third as much as a Greek tutor.  Then again, a Greek tutor is expected to tutor your sons until they reach manhood and possibly your grandsons, while a gladiator retires after only about five years.  Retired gladiators appear to occupy and odd space as neither slave nor freedman.  Retired gladiators have no masters and run their lives as they please, mostly as hired muscle.  But they are not admitted to citizenship, as a freedman would be. And it is not altogether clear whether a gladiator is truly a slave, or whether they are sold in the same manner as sports stars to this day.

Anyhow, gladiators take ring names like professional wrestlers.  Our 100,000 sesterces gladiator calls himself Spartacus.  He soon proves to be a problem because he keeps fighting gladiatorial combat as if it were war and not just a sport.  His trainer lectures Spartacus, for benefit of the reader, about gladiatorial combat really, really being just a sport and not true combat.  Gladiators are supposed to get cut in the ring and bleed to satisfy the audience's blood lust, but no one wants a 100,000 sesterces investment to be killed or maimed (even if it does amortize over a mere five years).  But Spartacus forgets this the first time he steps into the ring and his opponent cuts him.  He chops his head off. Everyone is shocked and horrified.  Some vomit or faint.

So Spartacus is sent to a school for problem gladiators that is really a prison.  Its brutality is described in considerable detail.  Plutarch, incidentally, agrees that Spartacus and his fellow gladiators are mistreated.  But, the author makes clear, this is not typical.  Only problem gladiators are treated so brutally.  Most live in a barracks, but are free to come and go as they please, are feted as sports stars, and save up for retirement.

In any event, the gladiators plan a revolt.  The women sent to service them participate by smuggling in kitchen tools.  The men reward them by allowing the women to kill the master of the school by themselves.  The leading woman, a barbarian priestess, eats his heart (literally).  Together they escape.  Spartacus picks two other gladiators as his lieutenants and the barbarian priestess who is also a seer as his girlfriend to round out his inner circle.  The escaped slaves assemble and vote on what to do next.  The text does not say so, but I assume this includes the women out of respect for their role in the revolt.   When the gladiators fight the Roman legions, the women serve as torch bearers.

Spartacus defeats the unsuspecting Roman army on numerous occasions.  His forces swell.  Some of the followers are other escaped slaves, but mostly Spartacus heads for the rebellious parts of Italy that still have not reconciled themselves to Roman rule and starts up the rebellion once more.  His force swells to 70,000 to 100,000.  But many are women and children straggling in the train, and so many camp followers slow them down.

Which calls for a digression on camp followers, a subject the author slightly touches on in earlier novels.  Contrary to popular belief, camp follower is not just a euphemism for prostitute.  War has not always been as all-male as most people think.  Many soldiers who went off to war did not leave their wives and children behind.  Rather, their wives and children followed behind the army and served in support roles such as cooks, laundresses, and nurses.  Roman warfare, on the other hand, was all-male.  In the first two books, the author describes at some length that the Roman army, like any other, needed support forces as well as combat forces, so about a third of any troop were non-combatants. But the non-combatants were still support troops.  They didn't fight, but they signed up as soldiers, were under military discipline, and were expected to march as fast as the fighting troops and carry as much.  Spartacus' support forces, by contrast, were a drag on him that we was required to divert forces to protect.

They end up deciding to escape to Sicily, right across the straits of Messina.  There is a chapter in the Odyssey in which Odysseus sails his ship through and unnamed narrow straits guarded by two monsters -- on one side Scylla a monster with man-eating heads and Charybdis, who sucks in and out the water to create a whirlpool.  Thucydides, that unrelenting rationalist, later identified the unnamed straits with the straits between Sicily and the Italian mainland and said that the narrow channel and swirling currents are the Charybdis of legend. Scylla was later identified with the jagged rocks on the Italian side.  It should also be noted that the Greeks settled Sicily and had a major presence there as far back as the founding of Rome and presumably taught local Italian fishermen the legend of Scylla and Charybdis.  Anyhow, Spartacus has to convince his followers to overcome their fear of Scylla and Charybdis. There is great disagreement by people in the area whether they exist or not, but local fishermen are sure they have the spell to avoid them.  (No one has actually seen the six-headed Scylla, after all).  Spartacus hires some pirates to take his followers across the channel, offering to pay half now and half later.  But they decide that getting half for doing nothing is a great deal, so they take the money and run.

Now Spartacus and his forces are fighting the Roman army under the command of Crassus, who is fighting a war of extermination.  And between war, cold, and hunger, his forces are all killed off. Spartacus falls, but his body is never found.  His wife and infant son escape.  Crassus crucifies 6,600 survivors along the roadside.  Gladiatorial combat may not have been as bloody as popularly believed, but the real violence of Rome was bad enough without it.

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