"The Spartacus War," Barry Strauss' new book on one of the most famous conflicts in ancient history, sheds light for the first time on the slave rebellion, the rebels' tactics and why they were ultimately defeated.
"I got interested in the subject of insurgencies because of what's going on in today's world," said Strauss, a professor of history and classics and incoming history department chair.
Spartacus led a slave rebellion against the Roman army from 73-71 B.C., immortalized in novels and on film -- but until now, English-language scholars have avoided writing books about the war "because the evidence is deeply problematic," said Strauss, who pieced together archaeological and written evidence, as other scholars had.
"I found things that other people overlooked, or they weren't interested in," he said. "From the ancient evidence, we only have the story from the point of view of the Romans -- and nothing written or recorded by the rebels themselves."
Among the myths Strauss challenges in his book are the motivations for the conflict and the belief that Spartacus had fought against the Romans before being enslaved.
"The reality is Spartacus was an allied soldier who fought in the Roman army," he said. "He was sold into slavery, was mistreated by the Romans and wanted to get revenge."
Spartacus also wanted to get back to Thrace, which is now Bulgaria. His soldiers "were Thracians, Germans and Celts -- groups thought of as barbarians, as very strong and tough. Romans had difficulty fighting them in battle. Spartacus' story is also a story of imperial overstretch -- a case of an empire that was stretched thin in terms of its military resources. Spartacus was able to take advantage of this."
At the time, Rome was at war in Spain and in what is now Turkey. When rebellion broke out in Italy, the Romans were forced to send in inexperienced men to fight "gladiators, slaves and shepherds -- the tough guys of the countryside. They're natural soldiers," Strauss said. "Spartacus, as a Thracian, comes from a country that excels in guerrilla warfare. When you put this all together, you've got a rebel army that ends up being very successful in fighting the Romans" -- until the Romans brought in troops from the other fronts and installed a new general, Crassus, to put down the rebellion.
Strauss augmented his research with historical reconstruction and extensive travels to the Italian sites where the war unfolded.
"I learned just how much of Spartacus' war was fought in the mountains," he said. "He was skilled at that kind of fighting. When he escaped, he made his original camp on Mount Vesuvius, a dormant volcano at the time. He had his men weave ropes out of wild grape vines to escape down the mountainside and then attack the Romans from the rear."
Strauss' research interests include ancient and military history, and he has taught courses on ancient warfare. "The Spartacus War" was published in March by Simon & Schuster; since then, Strauss has given talks on the book throughout the eastern United States. He also blogs on Spartacus and related topics at http://www.barrystrauss.com/blog.
He is also the author of five other books, including "The Trojan War: A New History" (2006), and has lent his expertise to several television documentaries. This fall he will appear in the History Channel series "Titans," discussing Odysseus and the Trojan War.
"The issue of insurgencies is still with us," Strauss said. "I think Rome's experience with Spartacus underlines how difficult it is for imperial states or great powers to deal with insurgencies. Whatever comfort we can take from this, the U.S. is certainly not the first great power that has been forced to retool."