One of the best nonfiction books I read last year was Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel book, and part literary criticisms.
Peter Stothard’s Spartacus Road: A Personal Journey through Ancient Italy is another unclassifiable volume of what I’ll call belles-lettres: part Roman history, part memoir/travel, part analysis of literature pertaining to the history of the escaped slave Spartacus, part translations of Roman poetry and letters.
When Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and former editor of The London Times, suffered from pain from an undiagnosed cancer, he often experienced what he called “pain pictures,” vivid memories of his own past and also of scenes he knew from his classical education. He hallucinated, or saw pain pictures, of Spartacus’s battles with the Romans, when “Nero,” as he referred to his cancer, tortured him.
Scenes from a classical education came unwilled. During some of Nero’s visits I had vivid views of this first fight in the Spartacus war, not those of a general watching high up on a nearby hill but those of a soldier seeing what was close before his eyes. It was as though I had been at the centre of this and other slaughters, hour after hour after hour.”
After he recovered from his illness, Stothard remained psychologically traumatized. He had survived a rare cancer but could not put the experience behind him. And so he decided to travel the Spartacus Road, the route Spartacus and his slave army traveled when they escaped from the gladiator school near Capua. This strange but brilliant book fuses his journalism with his knowledge of the classics.
The book is a history of Spartacus, but it is also an often humorous 21st-century travel diary in which he discusses the tourist industry and the people he meets. He pores over maps with a Korean teacher and her doctor husband, meets a priest who insists that he talk about his father, and encounters a peripatetic gladiator-actor who cannot play his part due to odd union rules, and who thus has become the manager of a woman who poses as a statue-like Virgin Mary.
Stothard is equally fascinated by the lives and views of Roman poets and historians. He begins by writing about Symmachus, a little-known politician of the late Roman Empire who wrote letters, edited texts of Livy, and understood the disasters of slave wars. Stothard also delves into the famous poetry of Statius, Horace, and Lucretius, the histories of Sallust and Plutarch, the letters of Pliny, Cicero’s scorn of Spartacus, and the Epicurean philosophy recorded mainly in Lucretius’s beautiful hexameters..
As Stothard speculates about Spartacus, about whom little is known, he wonders what kind of man this leader of the gladiators was. He might have been calm, he might have been vicious.
He may have found the thinking hard. He may be one of those who had survived his fights with fellow men and animals in the Arena but not the feelings that followed afterwards. Psychological trauma is not a discovery of modern analysis alone. The Romans knew about it too. Anyone selling a slave who had fought a lion or bear had to declare that contest in a contract. Attempted suicides had to be declared, even escapes.”
And I cannot help but think that journalists may also be gladiators, with widely different codes, some being resisters and heroes, others merely ambitious or vengeful.
Stothard interweaves personal memories with his travels, some of them serious, some of them funny. He remembers seeing the Stanley Kubrick movie, Spartacus, on the walls of the chemistry lab at school in the ’60s, and is pleased when he manages to buy it from a Polish DVD seller on the street. (He especially likes Jean Simmons as Varina.) And I found this very comical because, during one of my rare intervals of teaching Latin in the ’80s, I showed Spartacus on the VCR before Christmas break. Some things never change.
I was drawn to Spartacus Road because I, too, have a classical background, and it seems natural to turn to the classics in a crisis. I am not a historian, but I am fascinated by the poets, by Cicero and Pliny, and during one horrifying illness, infected by a deadly bug bite which the doctors could treat only by trial and error of different medications administered through IVs, I recited all the lines of Roman poetry I could remember, thinking they would control the pain. Since I had memorized only lines I made my students memorize, there were fewer than I needed.
Stothard’s voice is brilliant, creative, and very strong–there is no hint of uncertainty or weakness in his voice. But as the book goes on, it becomes a better, more original, less journalistic, book, and he occasionally shows his vulnerability, though never for longer than a paragraph.
This stunning book deftly balances the historical significance of Spartacus’s rebellion with Stothard’s very private war against cancer and struggle to be well.
What a great book. A great pleasure to read, and astonishing that I found it.
Have you read Clark’s Rome and A Villa. It not, let it be your next. It’s a masterpiece of travel art and classical meditations too.
Thank you, Ellen. I haven’t heard of it and will certainly look int it!
Somehow travel non-fiction has never had the immediacy for me that fiction has. I’ve always been meaning to read Paul Theroux’s travel books, but somehow I never get around to it.
I’m primarily a fiction reader, but I was drawn to this book by Stothard’s knowledge of classics as well as the travel. I do like Paul Theroux, but as I remember his books ARE straight travel.
Stothard is a brilliant writer, which also gives him an edge over some classical scholars and historians, who are brilliant but less good writers. And so I strongly recommend this book, but I don’t know how to classify it: a little of this, a little of that.
By the way, here is another travel book on my list: Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape (NYRB), which I thought I had, but it turns out I have ANOTHER book by Highet. HIghet apparently describes the places wherere Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal lived, and according to the book description, combines “historical context and locating them in the physical world.”
So I like travel with literature!
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