Saturday, June 16, 2012

Spartacus by Howard Fast

And Spartacus taught me that all the bad things men do, they do because they are afraid.

This line comes very near the end of Howard Fast’s novel, but I think it sums up a lot of the reasons he wrote the book. Better, perhaps than the dedication he includes at the very beginning:

This book is for my daughter, Rachel, and for my son, Jonathan. It is a story of brave men and women who lived long ago, and whose names have never been forgotten. The heroes of this story cherished freedom and human dignity, and lived nobly and well. I wrote it so that those who read it, my children and others, may take strength for our own troubled future and that they may struggle against oppression and wrong—so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time.

Fast wrote that dedication in 1951, and I learned from Wikipedia that the “troubled future” he was referring to arose partly out of the communism scare of the 1950s. Fast was one of the oppressed in that struggle, actually imprisoned at one point due to his involvement in the Communist Party USA. In some ways, therefore, I think it makes sense for Fast to see a direct parallel between the oppressions of ancient Rome and the oppressions of 1950s America.

Without knowing that backdrop ahead of time, however, there were two things that really surprised me about the novel. The first was how little Spartacus actually appears in it. The only thing I knew about Spartacus before picking up the book was what I had learned from watching Kubrick’s film, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was kind of a minor player in the book on which that film was based. The story is really told from the perspective of several Roman citizens, only one of whom actually new Spartacus, and their perceptions of him are clouded by the very corruption and opulence that Spartacus was rebelling against. In retrospect, given Fast’s motivation for writing the book, I think it is an effective technique. Our narrators are corrupted by the injustices of their society—injustices that they sit atop and that give them their power. As one of them self-referentially observes during a conversation about the use of slaves:

There was a disease in them, but the disease did not appear to weaken them. Here they sat, having eaten their fine food, sipping their mellow wine, and those who contested their power were crucified for miles and miles along the Appian Way. Spartacus was meat; simply meat; like the meat on the cutting table at the butcher shop; not even enough of him to crucify. But no one would ever crucify Antonius Caius, sitting so calmly and surely at the head of the table, speaking of horses, making the extremely logical point that it was better to harness to slaves to a plow than one horse, since there never was a horse which could stand the half-human treatment of slaves.

And the second thing that surprised me was how many parallels I saw between the injustices of Fast’s portrait of ancient Rome and those of America in the 2010s. I’m not looking to put a ton of stock in the comparison, nor do I wish to place any kind of political or value judgment on it, but time and again I found myself stumbling across a sentence, or a paragraph, or a section talking about the levers which turn Roman society and realizing, with only the change of one or two words, they could equally describe the drivers of our current environment.

Here, for example, is a description of the men paid to oversee the slaves at the gold mines of Nubia, and in it   I see some parallels with the millions of middle management, ladder-climbing drones in our modern, corporate world.

They are men of Alexandria, bitter, hard men, and they are here because the pay is high, and because they get a percentage of all the gold the mines produce. They are here with their own dreams of wealth and leisure, and with the promise of Roman citizenship when they have served five years in the interest of the corporation. They live for the future, when they will rent an apartment in one of the tenements in Rome, when they will each of them buy three or four or five slave girls to sleep with and to serve them, and when they will spend each day at the games or at the baths, and when they will be drunk each night. They believe that in coming to this hell, they heighten their future earthly heaven; but the truth of the matter is that they, like all prison guards, require the petty lordship of the damned more than perfume and wine and women.

And for those who continue to climb that ladder of opulence and comfort? They see what Batiatus, the man who trained Spartacus to be a gladiator, saw:

Whenever he encountered a millionaire—not merely a man who had millions but one who could spend millions—he was overwhelmed by his own sense of being so small a frog in so small a puddle. When he was a gang leader of the streets of the urbs, his own dream was to accumulate the 400,000 sesterces which would entitle him to admittance into the order of knighthood. When he became a knight, however, he first began to realize what wealth meant, and for all he had climbed—by his own shrewdness too—there was an endless vista of ladder ahead of him.

This is a society in which the ultra-wealthy hold the reins of power. Some of the most compelling comparisons to our world come near the end of the book, when the philosopher Cicero argues the politics of slavery and Roman culture with a senator named Gracchus. Their conversation really pierces through the façade of their own society and, in doing so, I believe Fast is attempting to help the reader pierce beneath the façade of our own. At one point in that lengthy dialogue, Cicero accuses Gracchus of being too frank about his function as a politician. Gracchus responds that frankness is…

“My one virtue, and an extremely valuable one. In a politician, people confuse it with honesty. You see, we live in a republic. That means that there are a great many people who have nothing and a handful who have a great deal. And those who have a great deal must be defended and protected by those who have nothing. Not only that, but those who have a great deal must guard their property, and therefore those who have nothing must be willing to die for the property of people like you and me and our good host Antonius. Also, people like ourselves have many slaves. These slaves do not like us. We should not fall for the illusion that slaves like their masters. They don’t, and therefore the slaves will not protect us against the slaves. So the many, many people who have no slaves at all must be willing to die in order for us to have our slaves. Rome keeps a quarter of a million men under arms. These soldiers must be willing to go to foreign lands, to march their feet off, to live in filth and squalor, to wallow in blood—so that we may be safe and live in comfort and increase our personal fortunes. When these troops went to fight Spartacus, they had less to defend than the slaves. Yet they died by the thousands fighting the slaves. One could go further. The peasants who died fighting the slaves were in the army in the first place because they have been driven off their land by the latifundia. The slave plantation turns them into landless paupers; and then they die to keep the plantation intact. Whereupon one is tempted to say reductio ad absurdum. For consider, my dear Cicero, what does the brave Roman soldier stand to lose if the slaves conquer? Indeed, they would need him desperately, for there are not enough slaves to till the land properly. There would be land enough for all, and our legionary would have what he dreams of most, his plot of land and his little house. Yet he marches off to destroy his own dreams, that sixteen slaves may carry a fat old hog like me in a padded litter. Do you deny the truth of what I say?”

It’s a cynic’s view, perhaps, but I’ve heard these same sentiments expressed in our modern times relative to America’s foreign wars. The people doing the fighting have almost nothing at stake in the outcome, but those with political and financial power have a great deal to lose and to protect, and so the cycle of war and destruction must continue.

Cicero, I think, has a telling response for Gracchus:

“I think that if what you said were to be said by an ordinary man aloud in the Forum, we would crucify him.”

In other words, it is the truth and, more importantly, a truth that must not be spoken. But Cicero does disagree with Gracchus in one important particular—his underlying premise.

As you state it. You simply omit the key question—is one man like another or unlike another? There is the fallacy in your little speech. You take it for granted that men are as alike as peas in a pod. I don’t. There is an elite—a group of superior men. Whether the gods made them that way or circumstances made them that way is not something to argue. But they are men fit to rule, and because they are fit to rule, they do rule. And because the rest are like cattle, they behave like cattle. You see, you present a thesis; the difficulty is to explain it. You present a picture of society, but if the truth were as illogical as your picture, the whole structure would collapse in a day. All you fail to do is to explain what holds this illogical puzzle together.”

But Gracchus doesn’t shrink from this challenge. Quite the reverse. He embraces it and, in doing so, he paints an equally cynical but strangely compelling picture of modern democratic politics.

“I do,” Gracchus nodded. “I hold it together.”

“You? Just by yourself?”

“Cicero, do you really think I’m an idiot? I’ve lived a long and dangerous life, and I’m still on top. You asked me before what a politician is? The politician is the cement in this crazy house. The patrician can’t do it himself. In the first place, he thinks the way you do, and Roman citizens don’t like to be told that they are cattle. They aren’t—which you will learn some day. In the second place, he knows nothing about the citizen. If it were left to him, the structure would collapse in a day. So he comes to people like myself. He couldn’t live without us. We rationalize the irrational. We convince the people that the greatest fulfillment in life is to die for the rich. We convince the rich that they just part with some of their riches to keep the rest. We are magicians. We cast an illusion, and the illusion is foolproof. We say to the people—you are the power. Your vote is the source of Rome’s strength and glory. You are the only free people in the world. There is nothing more precious than your freedom, nothing more admirable than your civilization. And you control it; you are the power. And then they vote for our candidates. They weep at our defeats. They laugh with joy at our victories. And they feel proud and superior because they are not slaves. No matter how low they sink, if they sleep in the gutter, if they sit in the public seats at the races and the arena all day, if they strangle their infants at birth, if they live on the public dole and never lift a hand to do a day’s work from birth to death, nevertheless they are not slaves. They are dirt, but every time they see a slave, their ego rises and they feel full of pride and power. Then they know that they are Roman citizens and all the world envies them. And this is my peculiar art, Cicero. Never belittle politics.”

Never belittle politics, indeed. Few of us, then or now, really understand it or can wield it with any expertise. Also like today, most people are inured to the role it plays in their lives and the decisions they make. It’s a thick coat of propaganda that is focused less on distracting them from some horrible truth and focused more on defining the framework by which truth is understood.

Most of the Roman citizens in Fast’s work live wholly within this framework. As an example, near the end of the novel, Crassus, the general most responsible for defeating the slave uprising, has purchased Spartacus’ wife, Varinia, and is determined to get her to see the futility of Spartacus’ rebellion.

Crassus said, more gently, “You have been living in Rome now, Varinia. I have taken you through the city in my litter. You have seen the power of Rome, the endless, limitless power of Rome. The Roman roads stretch across the whole world. The Roman legions stands on the edge of civilization and hold back the forces of darkness. Nations tremble at the sight of the legate’s wand, and wherever there is water, the Roman navy rules the seas. You saw the slaves smash some of our legions, but here in the city there is not even a ripple for that. In all reason, is it conceivable to you that a few rebellious slaves could have overthrown the mightiest power the world ever knew—a power which all the empires of antiquity could not match? Don’t you understand? Rome is eternal. The Roman way is the best way mankind ever devised, and it will endure forever. This is what I want you to understand. Don’t weep for Spartacus. History dealt with Spartacus. You have you own life to live.”

Rome itself, of course, is gone. But many of the ideas that created it are not. As Crassus says, that Rome is eternal.

+ + +

Finally, here are some additional sound bites from that long dialogue between Cicero and Gracchus that just seemed too good to let go unrecorded.

Long ago, Cicero had discovered the profound difference between justice and morality. Justice was the tool of the strong, to be used as the strong desired; morality, like the gods, was the illusion of the weak. Slavery was just; only fools—according to Cicero—argued that it was moral.

+ + +

Politics, as he occasionally said, required three unchanging talents and no virtues. More politicians, he claimed, had been destroyed by virtue than by any other cause; and the talents he enumerated in this fashion. The first talent was the ability to choose the winning side. Failing that, the second talent was the ability to extricate oneself from the losing side. And the third talent was never to make an enemy.

+ + +

Gracchus laughed. “Who knows! Julia, politics is a lie. History is the recording of a lie. If you go down to the road tomorrow and look at the crosses, you will see the only truth about Spartacus. Death. Nothing else. Everything else is sheer fabrication. I know.”

+ + +

Only one or two of the chairs were empty. Gracchus, remembering that session, decided that at such moments—moments of crisis and bitter knowledge—the Senate was at its best. The eyes of the old men, who sat so silent in their togas, were full of consequence and without troubled fear, and the faces of the younger men were hard and angry. But all of them were acutely conscious of the dignity of the Roman Senate, and within that context Gracchus could relinquish his cynicism. He knew these men; he knew by what cheap and perverted means they purchased their seats and what a dirty game of politics they played. He knew each and every particular well of filth each and every one of these men kept in his own backyard; and still he felt the thrill and pride of a place among their ranks.

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