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Howard Fast

Spartacus
Dell, 1951

Reviews:

Spartacus, a fictionalization of a slave revolt in ancient Rome in 71 B.C., is well known today partly because of the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. It was originally published in 1951 by the author himself, after being turned down by every mainstream publisher of the day because of Fast's blacklisting for his Communist Party sympathies. The story of Spartacus, born a slave, trained as a gladiator, who led a slave revolt that was eventually put down by Crassus, was immensely popular, has sold millions of copies, and has gone through nearly a hundred editions. The appearance of this title in the North Castle series brings back into print a book that many regard as a classic, and is enhanced with a new Introduction by the author. -from the Publisher

- Publisher , 11/27/2005


Howard Fast's novelization of the slave revolt in Italy between 73-71 BC is both a work of left wing advocacy and a tremendously well done novel. I read it first when I was 14. Now, a long time later, once a year or so I re-read the copy I still have - for the enjoyment, for the character development, for the history, and for the political agenda. You could read it for any one or any combination of those features, and still get something out of this book. For those who don't know, Howard Fast was a member of the Communist Party of the United States from the 1930s on up to the early 1950s, a commited, though thinking member. And one who was willing to go to jail ~1951 rather than testify about others in the CPUSA. (For more about this aspect of his life, buy his biography, "Being Red.") So, in one sense "Spartacus" is a political novel with an agenda. For "Rome," read western capitalism run wild. For "slaves" read peasants, serfs or workers. And for Spartacus himself, read anyone you want to as a modern day revolutionary who is trying to do good. Is this a problem? Absolutely not! When I read this book at 14, I knew that when the author wrote something along the lines of "Rome is the whole world," that that could be taken as the Mediterranean world the characters in the novel must deal with, or as the whole capitalist world of the 20th century, which we today must deal with. If, like me, you don't worry too much about the evils of modern capitalism, you can read the book as pure historical fiction. And, like me, if you want to, you can catch Fast's criticism of 20th century capitalism without diminishing your enjoyment of the novel. How good is Spartacus as historical fiction? I am not a classical historian, but I read a lot, including those Roman detective novels, and McCullough's Roman series starting with First Man in Rome. I would guess that Fast is doing as good a job as McCullough. Does Fast account for every last Roman legion, including the dates it was raised, where it was stationed, and the historically correct name of its legate, etc? No, but given the relatively small amount of information available about Spartacus, Fast manages to make an historically valid interpretation. What Fast really does well is characters: Spartacus himself, introduced as a slave, and then as a gladiator, working his way towards open revolt, a human being who others men might follow in a desperate bid for freedom. Crassus, the rich Roman general, who ultimately defeats Spartacus in battle, but himself is racked by doubts about how well his own Roman morality compares with what he can understand of the goals and ethics of the slave army, an understanding which Crassus must gather painfully by calling to the camp of his army people who might have known Spartacus the gladiator or Spartacus the slave. And Gracchus, the senator who does understand the morality of Spartacus, but at the same time is so much a Roman that he must help destroy Spartacus. Throw in Cicero and a number of other characters who may or may not be historical, including Spartacus' slave wife, and you have a wonderful cast. Probably everyone knows that the revolt of Spartacus is finally put down violently, so that there are almost no survivors. And yet, through one lone survivor, and through the actions of some of the Romans who have been changed by the events of the novel, there is a posititive twist to the end of the novel, that gives the reader hope for a better world, not just in 70 BC, but also in 2000 A.D. Howard Fast writes well. As an example, here is one memorable exchange between Spartacus and some of the other gladiators just after they have escaped which still makes me feel good each time I think about it. The gladiators are working themselves into the frame of mind where they are willing to stay together and resist as an army, rather than scattering into the countryside and being hunted down one-by-one: A gladiator: "Then Rome will go to war against us!" Spartacus: "Then we will go to war against Rome." P.S. The movie is terrible. Although, I gather that it took a lot of courage on the part of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis to make it in 1960, which wasn't very long after Fast had been sent to jail for failing to testify. -written by Steven Zoraster, 1/99

- Steven Zoraster, 1/1/1999

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