Spartacus by howard fast

Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus is told in a non-linear fashion. It begins after the Servile War has concluded and three Romans are traveling along the Via Appia which is dotted with the signa poenae or “tokens of punishment” as the Romans slyly refer to the “six thousand, four hundred and seventy-two corpses hanging from crucifixes”, the retribution that has been exacted upon a sampling of the slaves who made war upon the mighty Roman Republic.

Most of the book, in fact, is told from the viewpoint of the Romans after the war is over, with major section headings entitled “How Caius Crassus journeyed along the highroad from Rome to Capua, in the month of May” and “Which concerns Marcus Tullius Cicero and his interest in the origin of the Great Servile War”. The Romans are always narrated in past tense.

But every now and then the narration is interrupted by a present tense interlude from the point of view of the slaves, giving details of how the the revolt began and progressed.

But for a story of a great war lasting years against the mighty Roman Republic, battle scenes are few and far between; the narration mostly concentrates on the inner thoughts of the characters.

And the title character, Spartacus, is merely one among several characters who are developed along the way.

As Howard Fast conceived the novel while he was in prison, the theme of the story is freedom, that being perhaps more precious than life itself.

And along the way, Fast doles out fascinating details of Rome in the first century BCE:

In those days, Rome was like a heart which pumped its blood along the Roman roads to every corner of the world. Another nation would live a thousand years and build one third-rate road which perhaps connected its major cities. With Rome it was different. “Build us a road!” said the Senate. They had the skill. The engineers plotted it; contracts were handed out and the construction men took it under way; then the labor gangs built that road like an arrow to wherever it had to go. If a mountain stood in the way, you got rid of the mountain; if there was a deep valley, you flung a bridge across the valley; if there was a river, you bridged the river. Nothing halted Rome and nothing halted the Roman road.

This highroad, upon which these three light-hearted young people were travelling south from Rome to Capua, was called the Appian Way. It was a well-built, broad road of alternate layers of volcanic ash and gravel, and surfaced with stone. It was made to last. When the Romans put down a road, they laid it not for this year or the next, but for centuries. That was how the Appian Way was laid down. It was a symbol of the progress of mankind, the productivity of Rome, and the enduring capacity of the Roman people for organization. It stated quite clearly that the Roman system was the best system mankind had ever devised, a system of order and justice and intelligence. The evidence of intelligence and order was everywhere, and the people who travelled the road took it so much for granted that it hardly registered upon their minds.

For example, distance was specified, not estimated. Every mile of the way was marked by a milestone. Each milestone gave the pertinent information a traveller needed to know. You knew at any point precisely how far you were from Rome, from Formiae, from Capua. Every five miles, there was a public house and stables, where one could find horses, refreshments, and, if necessary, shelter for the night. Many of the public houses were quite magnificent, with broad verandas where drinks and food were served. Some had baths, where weary travellers could refresh themselves, and others had good, comfortable sleeping quarters. The newer public houses were built in the style of Greek temples, and they added to the natural beauty of the scenery along the way.

Where the ground was flat, marsh or plain, the road was terraced, with the right of way rising ten or fifteen feet above the surrounding countryside. Where the ground was broken or hilly, the road either cut its way through or crossed gorges on stone arches.

The road proclaimed stability, and over the surface of the road flowed all the elements of Roman stability. Marching on the road, soldiers could do thirty miles in a single day and repeat that same thirty miles day after day. Baggage trains flowed along the roads, loaded with the goods of the republic, wheat and barley and pig iron and cut lumber and linen and wool and oil and fruit and cheese and smoked meat. On the road were citizens engaged in the legitimate business of citizens, genteel folk going to and from their country places, commercial travellers and pleasure travellers, slave caravans going to and from the market, people of every land and every nation, all of them tasting the firmness and the orderliness of Rome’s rule.

Apparently The New York Times must have received a visit from one of Jedgar Hoover’s henchmen, which had them quivering in whatever they used for boots, because they published a scathing review on February 3, 1952 (see below) of Mr. Fast’s novel, signed by one Melville Heath, calling it “a dreary proof that polemics and fiction cannot mix” and further claiming that Mr. Fast’s “villains of the piece (the Senate, and the legions that do its bidding) are blackhearted rogues whose only god is the status quo.” Actually I found Crassus, the richest man in Rome and the general who ultimately defeats Spartacus, and thus the main antagonist of the novel, to be one of the most complex characters, and I suspect that Fast might not have considered him a villain, even though, given Fast’s communist leanings one might have expected him to have very little sympathy for Crassus.

In any case I hope Mr. Fast was not too put out by the Times review as he had good company; Gore Vidal claimed that the New York Times never gave him a favorable review in his entire career.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the Wikipedia page for Spartacus has some glaring errors, almost as if the writer only skimmed the novel.

Wikipedia says: “Spartacus had been born a free man in his homeland of Thrace, but he was captured as a young man and sold as a slave in the gold-mines of Nubia.” 

Wiki spartacus01

Now that conforms with the little bit of history that has been written about Spartacus, but not with Fast’s novel. In the novel both Spartacus’s grandfather and father had been slaves (“Never a moment of freedom for my father or grandfather”), and he himself had been born a slave. After the revolt, he muses to himself: “it is no small thing to be free when you have been a slave for a very long time, for all the time that you have known and all the time your father has known.” 

Further on Wikipedia claims: “The novel deviates from and extends known historical facts. In particular, the real Gaius Gracchus died about ten years before the birth of Spartacus.” 

Wiki spartacus02

Once again Wikipedia has it wrong! The Gracchus in the novel is not the historical Gaius Gracchus, but the entirely fictional Lentelus Gracchus.

I might try to fix Wikipedia, but I’ve tried to fix their mistakes on other pages, and the Libertarian jerks who control that site are often very quick to return the erroneous information to its wrongful place. Wish me luck!


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Nyt spartacus review February 3 1952

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