Masses & Mainstream
March, 1952, pp 53-58
An Epic Revolt
Doxey A. Wilkerson
by Howard Fast.
Published by the author. Box 171,
Planetarium Station, New York. $2.50.
"SPARTACUS" is a powerful novel of ancient slave society with rich meaning for the liberation struggle of our day. It is brilliantly written, and in certain sections probably represents the high point in the development of Howard Fast's superb craftsmanship.
The story of Spartacus and his army of slave warriors is one of the great epics of history. Early in the First Century B.C., a quickly organized force of 70,000 runaway slaves (some sources say 90,000, others 100,000 ), led by Spartacus and his heroic band of escaped gladiators, held the military might of Rome at bay for almost four years, routing its best legions, establishing control over most of southern Italy, ant threatening the "Eternal City" itself.
They were finally destroyed by the state power of a slave system which, although in process of decay, was still a strong and stable society. Their revolutionary struggle for freedom - which historians euphemistically call "The Servile War" and "The Gladiatorial War" - forecast the day, some four centuries hence, when the maturing revolution of the slaves would pave the way for the "Barbarian invasions" and destruction of the Roman Empire - and along with it the slave mode of production upon which it rested.
The Spartacus revolt long ago attracted the attention of revolutionary leaders of the modern proletariat. Karl Marx wrote Frederick Engels in 1861: "As a relaxation in the evenings I have been reading Appian on the Roman Civil Wars.... Spartacus is revealed as the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general (no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat." More recently, Soviet historiography found the Spartacus revolt an important event in its analysis of "The Transition from the Ancient World to the Middle Ages" (as in Voprossy Istorii, July, 1949).
But the story of Spartacus is little known in our day and country. Only from fragmentary and scattered accounts of a few contemporaries can it be pieced together at all. It is hardly mentioned in the history books of our schools and colleges. Only three sentences are devoted to the Spartacus revolt in the Encyclopedia Britannica's tedious, 100,000-word treatise on "Rome" and its long succession of rulers. Moreover, even the rare and brief accounts of Spartacus which do appear in our literature seek to deprecate this revolutionary movement as an incidental uprising of "desperate savages," "outlaws," "brigands," and "impoverished peasants."
In Howard Fast's novel, the Roman general whose legions finally defeated Spartacus recounts to associates visiting at the aristocratic Villa Salaria how, on orders of the Senate, he also destroyed two magnificent monuments carved by the revolutionary slaves out of volcanic stone on the slope of Vesuvius: "We destroyed the images most thoroughly and ground them into rubble - so that no trace of it remains. So did we destroy Spartacus and his army. So will we in time - and necessarily destroy the very memory of what he did and how he did it."
This prediction of the wealthy Roman praetor, M. Licinius Crassus, was almost fully realized. We are greatly indebted to Howard Fast for resurrecting and interpreting the significance of this heroic slave war for liberation, a war which came close to accomplishing what could be fully consummated only on the basis of economic and political developments which had yet to run their course.
Although the setting and narrative of Spartacus date back more than 2,000 years, it is clear that this novel was written to illuminate our own times. The pompous decadence of the Roman ruling class is here contrasted with the simple dignity and progressive vigor of the slaves in a way which evokes repeated images of the main contending classes of today.
One sees the cynical corruption of the Roman political leaders, their gross sexual immorality and perversion, the degradation of their women and the degeneracy of their youth. Here pictured is the sadistic delight of the ruling class and its sycophants in gladiatorial "fighting of pairs to the death," and their morbid fascination with the mass crucifixions of "enemies of the state." The magnificent "public" baths, the splendor of the latifundia estates and the elaborate cuisine of ruling class families contrast sharply with the horrible oppression of the slaves and the murderous poverty of the urban poor.
The reader is impressed with the parasitism of almost the whole non-slave population, in a society where even the dole or the army or the role of paid informer is considered much more "honorable" than work. One also comes to understand the vapid servility of the intellectual apologists of this rotten system - the Roman philosophers and statesmen who, like Cicero, would "explain, even to ourselves, the logic of this justice"; who held, and seemingly believed, that "the state and the law served all men, and the law was just."
At the same time, it must be stated that the author's descriptions of the sexual adventures of his patrician characters are carried to excess, with consequent harm to the book.
On the other hand, the reader sees here the inherent dignity and spiritual nobility of the Roman slaves - in the alert but immobile countenances of the litter-bearers and house servants as they listen to the conversation of their masters; in the beautiful "comradeship of the oppressed" among Spartacus' followers, embracing those from many lands and tribes and religions; in their love and respect for their leaders; and in the simple laws they set for governing the revolutionary army: "Whatever we take, we hold in common, and no man shall own anything but his weapons and his clothes.... And we will take no woman, except as wife . . . nor shall any man hold more than one wife."
One grasps the foundational economic power of these producers of material goods, as when Spartacus asks his follows: "What is Rome but the blood and sweat and hurt of slaves? Is there anything we cannot make?" One senses the tremendous revolutionary dynamic in the simple creed: "The only virtue of a slave is to live." One also catches a glimpse of the free society which only the modern revolutionary working class can build, as in Spartacus' vision of "a world where there are no slaves and no masters, only people living together in peace and brotherhood . . . cities without walls . . . no more war and no more misery and no more suffering" - a vision which "had broken loose from the fetters of his time."
These and many more basic insights into the decaying class society of ancient Rome - and of our own times - are deftly woven into the narrative with such skill that one hastens on with the gripping story, hardly aware of the political purposes of the author. But the reader ends up with a profound and enduring lesson in the dynamics of social change.
It is not surprising that none of the big commercial publishing houses would bring out this book, or that the New York Times reviewer slanders it as "a tract in the form of a novel . . . proof that polemics and fiction cannot mix." They would defend the rotten and doomed imperialism of our day from the tremendous power of this cultural weapon of the working class.
For the novel shows that the Spartacus revolt reflected deep and inherent contradictions in the class society of the slave system, and that it probably would not "have changed history too much if Spartacus had perished" in the gladiatorial arena. Fast also suggests the true class basis of ethics in his strong contrast between the moralistic rationalizing of the decadent Roman ruling class and the elemental Spartacan code: "What was good for his people was right. What hurt them was wrong."
A writer must be alert to the nature and historic role of the modern industrial proletariat to have the aristocratic young visitors at an ancient perfume factory sense that "there was something different and frightening" about the workers they saw there: "They were not slaves - nor were they Romans. Nor were they like the dwindling number of peasants who clung to bits of land here and there in Italy. They were different men, and their difference was worrisome." There is real materialist insight reflected in the musings of the Roman Senator, Gracchus, on why the fine ladies and gentlemen visiting at the Villa Salaria were so obsessed with discussions of the slain Spartacus and his wife, Varinia - "because Spartacus was all they were not.... Home and family and honor and virtue and all that was good and noble was defended by the slaves and owned by the slaves - not because they were good and noble, but because their masters had turned over to them all that was sacred."
The power of Spartacus stems, in part, from Howard Fast's consummate skill in telling a great story; but it comes much more fundamentally, at its points of real strength, from insights into history which are the fruits of Marxist science.
Spartacus is extremely well written. Parts of the novel beg comparison with the very finest writing in contemporary literature, notably the gripping account of the slaves working in a gold mine in the Nubian Desert, the intensely dramatic struggles "to the death" of the gladiator pairs in the arena at Capua, and the poignant recollections of the last of the gladiators as he nears death on the cross. Particularly striking also is the author's effective use of symbolism - as in his description of the magnificent Roman road lined with some 6,000 "tokens of punishment," the crucified bodies of captured slave warriors; the mutual respect and love of Thracian, African, Gaul and Jew in the gladiator training school; the old slave woman who feared to heed Spartacus' call to arms, but later keeps watch defiantly as the last of his followers is executed; and the somewhat irrelevant choice of David, the Jew, for the final crucifixion, just about one century before the death of Jesus.
An important weakness of the novel lies in the fact that hardly any of the characters are fully drawn, with the possible exception of David, who often seems to rival Spartacus as protagonist. Indeed, although the whole narrative is about Spartacus, one gets to know him largely through the eyes of his friends and enemies; there is too little of Spartacus directly for him to emerge fully as a person.
This weakness results, in part, from the oblique point of view from which the story is told. The direct focus is chiefly on the ladies and gentlemen of the Roman ruling class, presumably estimably to highlight their decadence. Largely through them and incidental to their doings and sayings - with only interspersed direct accounts of the slaves, themselves - does the story of Spartacus unfold. This is a curious and ill-chosen framework within which to interpret the heroic struggles of the revolutionary slaves whom Spartacus led. One shudders to think what might have happened to Gideon Jackson and his comrades if Freedom Road had been written from the point of view of the deposed ruling class of former slave owners in the Reconstruction South.
The fundamental weakness of Spartacus lies in its most disturbingly liberal, self-negating and incredible denouement. Crassus, "the richest man in the world," the proud and arrogant Roman general who defeated Spartacus and destroyed his army, appropriates the slain warrior's wife for his slave and falls in love with her: "Varinia, I love you. Not because you are a slave, but in spite of the fact . . . if you love me, I'll be something else. Something new and fine." Gracchus, the wealthy, corrupt and cynical leader of the Roman Senate, also falls in love with Varinia - sight unseen. He disposes of his fortune in order to have her stolen from Crassus, and spends one "grateful" night talking to her before she is to leave Rome forever: "In all his life before, he had never experienced this same feeling of contentment."
In the morning, just before leaving on her final journey, the strong and fine and heretofore fiercely partisan wife of the slain Spartacus reaches up and kisses the Roman politician who helped destroy her husband, and bids him to share her life: "If you come with. me, I will try to be good to you - as good as I can be for any man." After she is gone, Gracchus frees his twenty slaves and commits suicide.
Absolutely inexcusable! It is a betrayal of the cause for which Spartacus fought and died. And the fact that it is a woman - the widow of Spartacus - who is made the agent of the betrayal compounds the wrong. It is tragic that Fast should mar this generally powerful and realistic novel with such sentimental and impossible tripe.
Reprinted on the jacket of Spartacus is the laudatory comment of Angus Cameron that "one can come away from the reading of this story hating Gracchus and Crassus and the rest for what they stand for and yet seeing the universal possibilities of good in each of them . . . you have told about life as it really is." One can understand this point of view in a liberal editor, but not in a class-conscious novelist for the revolutionary proletariat.
The final chapter of Spartacus is superfluous and anti-climactic. It tells the story of Varinia's trip to freedom and summarizes her life and that of her children among the Gaulish peasants in the foot-hills of the Alps - all of which had better been left to the reader's imagination.
Despite its weaknesses, Spartacus is a very fine novel which merits the widest distribution. It ends with the prophecy: "And so long as men labored, and other men took and used the fruit of those who labored, the name of Spartacus would be remembered, whispered sometimes and shouted loud and dear at other times." For American readers Howard Fast has done much to make that prophecy meaningful in our day.
DOXEY A. WILKERSON