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Spartacus
By Arthur Koestler, 1939 (translated by Edith Simon)


An Excerpt From the Novel "The Gladiators"


This is Part Three of a Five-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five


A week after his conference with the Slave Leader, Crassus made the decisive error of his life, never to be rectified. When he received word that Spartacus and the remainder of his Army had broken out of Bruttium and were now this side of the trench, he lost his head and sent a message to the Senate, demanding that Pompeius be recalled from Spain to his succor.

This break had occurred during a cold night, thick with falling snow. The remainder of the Slave Army, gathered by Spartacus for one last desperate attempt, had taken by surprise the Third Cohort under Cato, immediately by the west coast near the Gulf of Euphemia, and forced its way through to the north. In order to have quick passage for the ox-carts within the sick, wounded and the children, they filled and bridged the trench with tree-trunks, brushwood, snow, horse-carion, and the prisoners from the Third Cohort, after having strangled them. After that the Twenty Thousand wandered across; covered by darkness and wrapped in snow; driven by hunger, they wandered into the last combat against an overwhelmingly superior enemy; they wandered to meet death, and knew it.

One day later Crassus knew as well that the break had been but an act of despair, and that the adversary was no longer a menace to him. But now it was too late. For years, coolly and prudently, he had built step by step the ladder for his ascent, had lent out his money without interest, chewed sweetmeats and waited for his opportunity, when Power would fall in his lap, a ripe fruit. One hour had ruined it all. His panic-stricken cry for aid to the Senate had cast him for all times in the role of Pompeius’ inferior.

In later times, Crassus himself could not understand how it had happened that cold winter morn that he had so inexplicably lost his head. Eight days before, the man with the fur-skin had been sitting on the sofa opposite his desk, awkward and embarrassed and had played with his inkwell; one month later he was destroyed by Crassus’ army. What mocking power had, in between those two dates, frightened him so terribly with the mere shadow of the self-same man, and driven him to political suicide?

In the eighteen years or six-thousand five-hundred days Crassus had still to live, not a single one passed without his brooding over this question. It still bothered him in the hour when, in front of the town Sinnata in the Mesopotamian desert, the dagger of a Parthian groom inflicted on him an inglorious and pointless end. The bloody head of the man who had realized that money has more might than the sword, who had crushed the greatest rebellion in Italy, and had dreamed of becoming Emperor of Rome, was carried by actors across the stage of a Princely court in Asia Minor. The Prince’s name was Orodes, and in honor of his son’s wedding feast The Bacchae by Euripides was being enacted, when a messenger from the battlefield brought the freshly severed head of Crassus. So the actor in the part of Agave exchanged the puppet-head of Pentheus for the genuine head of the banker Marcus Crassus, and sang his song, under the frenzied enthusiasm of the audience:

Lo, from the trunk, new-short-Hither a Mountain Thorn-Bear we! O Asia-born-Bacchanals, bless this chase!

When Crassus sent his cry for help to the Senate, Pompeius and his army had successfully terminated the Spanish war, and were already on their way home. Crassus wanted to put an end to it all, at least before Pompeius reached Italy. The Slaves, too, after three years’ wanderings without hope or goal, yearned for the end; it came to them in the battle by the river Silarus, which only a few survived.

On the eve of the battle by the river Silarus an old man arrived at the camp. His name was Nicos; he was a former servant of the games-director Lentulus Batuatus, and had walked the long way from Capua to Apulia on foot. His appearance caused great amazement among the fighters of the original horde who knew him of old; he was at once brought to Spartacus’ tent. And there he sat now, old, arid and infirm, and talked to him on the even of the last battle.

The man with the fur-skin received him kindly and without overgreat surprise; the springs of wonder and surprise had run dry inside him, and whatever happened in these last days seemed to him familiar of old, and long expected.

“Have you at last come home to us?” he greeted old Nicos. “We waited a long time for you; you always said we would take a bad end, and now you’re just in time to see it happen.”

Old Nicos nodded gravely. His eyes were dimmed by cataract, he could no longer see clearly. Yet he saw how much the man with the fur-skin had changed since their last meeting in Capua; he felt that all haughtiness had left him, felt the peaceful repose that went out from the former gladiator, and the sad yet transparent look in his eyes.

“It took me a long time,” said old Nicos, “and I had to become a very old man and nearly blind, before I realized that one may not run away from one’s inner fate. For forty years I served; and when I got freed, pride dazzled me, and I prattled silly stuff and nonsense in the Diana Temple on Mount Tifata. But now I know that I had to come to you, now that you’ve reached your journey’s end.”

Spartacus smiled: “So you no longer believe it to be the evil road, my father?”

“I still do,” said Nicos. “Yours was the way of evil, the way of disruption, and yet I had to come to you, to share your end. I know more about it than you do, for I was born in bondage, and that is why I belong with you. But you used to live in the mountains of your homeland, though not long enough to recognize the limits of freedom. You believe yourself free and yet you are caught in a net of manifold threads. There are day, and night, and your neighbor, and the alienness of woman, and the wicked blinking of the stars: borders, which shut you in; threads, from whose mesh you can’t escape. There is no feeling you can wholly draw, and no thought you may fully think out. There is only one thing you can entirely fill: service.

Spartacus shook his head: “Why then do you come to us?”

“Your way was not mine, but your end is my end,” said the old man. “Peace be with all of us. Freedom is beset by walls, run up against them with your head – the wall will remain, but your head will receive bumps. There is nothing on earth that achieves perfection, and all action is wicked; even the action you think good throws a shadow which is wicked. Blessed are the serving and oppressed who fall at the hand of the wicked and evil, for they will find peace. That is why I came to you.”

Spartacus smiled: “You are welcome, my father, even though your old head harbors curious thoughts. There are only few alive of those you need to know; we welcome you.”

With increasing darkness they could see the Roman torches on the adjoining hill. Both camps were making the last preparations for the battle. Crassus held a short review; on his white horse he rode along the spreading line of his infantry, his glance glided dolefully up and down the shining armor which stretched like a steel wall along the hill; he did not address his soldiers, and they noticed that he chewed sweetmeats all through the parade.

Spartacus also assembled his ragged, barefooted men at the highest point of his hill. Up there, in full view of the Romans, he had a cross erected with a Roman prisoner nailed to it. It was the last display of his decrepit Army, parade of the wretched and desperate; they thronged the hill all around the cross on which the Roman squirmed and bled, and they could not grasp the meaning of that miserable spectacle. And the man with the fur-skin told them they should deeply imprint this picture on their minds, for this was the end in store for every one who surrendered, or whom the Romans got alive. They understood what he meant then, and he knew that they understood him.

He had his horse brought, the white steed of Praetor Varinius, led it to the cross, affectionately stroked its nostrils, and cut its throat. “Dead men need no horses,” he said to the mute horde, “and living men can get themselves new ones.”

Afterward he had the last provisions in food and wine distributed and went into his tent.

Night progressed, the last of the great horde ate, drank and loved the last of the women. On the adjoining hill bright dots scintillated through the night like glow-worms: the torches of the enemy. Sometimes the wind would carry over shreds of the tunes sung by the Romans on their hill; hardy, gay songs, patriotic songs, drunk with wine and the nearness of victory.

One could hear them in the tent of the little lawyer Fulvius, who sat there in the light of an oil-wick and wrote his chronicle, now never to be completed. He could hear the intoxicated Roman songsters, and he recalled the last days in the foolish city of Capua, when the patriots had marched through the streets with waving flags and rattling spears. He remembered the treatise he had at that time begun to write, which would never be completed now, either. The little baldheaded lawyer’s heart ached sorely; through the open tent flap he could see the baneful red dots move in the distance, and pitiful fear overcame him; he did not want to be alone this last night. He rolled up his parchment, caressed it nimbly, and went through the pitch-dark camp alleys to the tent of the Essene.

He found him quarrelling strenuously with old Nicos from Capua. The two old men sat side by side on the rug, sipping wine out of a jug, hot wine brewed with cloves and cinnamon, and quarreled about the course of the world, while the Romans up on their hill rattled their spears and sang blood-thirsty songs. The tepid wind that made the canvas shiver mildly from time to time, waved the sounds across.

“Can you hear the song of evil?” said old Nicos, and his aged lips drew small, gurgling sips of the hot wine. “There you can see now what forcible action leads to. They’ve all caught the smallpox of enthusiasm.”

Go to Part Four

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