A Journey Along 'Spartacus Road'

In 73 B.C., the slave Spartacus escaped from the gladiator school where he was trained and went on to lead an army of former slaves from town to town, crushing the Roman leaders and stirring fear along the way. Author Peter Stothard followed the path that Spartacus took in Italy and writes about it in his new book, Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy. Host Guy Raz talks to Peter Stothard about his journey.

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GUY RAZ, host:

As regular listeners will know, we usually talk about books and music towards the end of the program, and the book we're about to feature shouldn't exist. Its author, Peter Stothard, was supposed to die of terminal cancer 10 years ago.

Stothard is a well-known editor in London. He now heads up the Times Literary Supplement. But after he miraculously survived, he wanted nothing more than to forget about his struggle with cancer. But he couldn't.

And while traveling in Italy, he began to compare his own battle with cancer to a war that took place over 2,000 years ago, a slave uprising that shook the Roman Empire to its core.

Peter Stothard's new book is called "Spartacus Road," and it mixes his personal battle with the battle led by the slave Spartacus.

Mr. PETER STOTHARD (Author, "Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy"): I started writing it like a historical diary, but what I was actually writing on the "Spartacus Road" was my story of Spartacus, which I knew very well, but it was seen through this extraordinary filter of pain and chemical from about a decade before. And that's the unusual nature of this book, and that's the strangeness that many people have seen and appreciated in it.

RAZ: In 73 B.C., Spartacus and a small band of warriors take on a much larger contingent of Roman forces at Mount Vesuvius against impossible odds. You took that battle and relived it in your mind when you were being treated for cancer, almost as if that battle was happening inside of you.

Mr. STOTHARD: Yes. Somehow, that story, which is a powerful, emotional, evocative story in itself, it was almost as though I was seeing it in a kind of distorted bubble screen around me. It was very strange. And I can see why I wanted to forget about all that as soon as I went back to my proper job. But obviously, I couldn't forget about it, and when I was on Mount Vesuvius, it came roaring back.

RAZ: I just want to read a bit from that. You can almost picture those Roman soldiers and those slaves with their swords and shields. You write, inside of you, there was an assault of iron on the upholstery of my stomach, ribs grasped like ladders, alien objects left behind, broken glass, blunt knives, wave upon wave of pain.

And you can see that wave upon wave of soldiers attacking, and it's such an evocative image.

Mr. STOTHARD: Yes. In this particular case, I was writing about Roman history and telling the story of Spartacus in this way that I had really never expected to do.

RAZ: Because this book is sort of part memoir and part travelogue and part account of history, you obviously had a lot of time to think about what you went through. You had nicknamed your cancer Nero, who of course was the Roman emperor who killed his mother and several other family members and is sort of regarded by ancient historians as tyrannical. And then you describe your cure as a miracle. How did it happen?

Mr. STOTHARD: I was told that there was nothing that they could do for me, that it couldn't be operated on. So they said they couldn't do anything about it. I went to Houston, Texas, found some clever scientific guys who said that possibly there's something they could do, very unpleasant, very painful. In fact, the drug was banned in Britain.

But they said, we can give this a go if you like. And to everybody's amazement, it did work. The tumor started shrinking and I survived. And now, 10 years on, and it's, as I say, somewhat surprising to me even to hear myself talking about it now. I thought it had gone.

But I think what it teaches you is that these things that happen to you, you may think they've gone, but they haven't wholly gone. It's like watching sort of an ancient building from the air. You know, the walls may be covered up by grass, but you can see the outline of the palace from the helicopter.

You may not be able to see it when you're walking in the field, but you can see it high above. And I think that's how it is for me now.

RAZ: Peter Stothard, early on, you visit the town of Capua. This is where - the gladiatorial training camp from where Spartacus and about 70 other slaves escaped. Did you encounter any tangible reminders of that time?

Mr. STOTHARD: Yeah. Yeah, you can. You can look - I mean, there are certain things, the landscape and the vegetation and your sense of how people might have felt about, for instance, Spartacus.

I mean, Spartacus is shown to us as a good guy. You know, he was fighting for other people's freedom. He was against the big, bad, nasty Roman slave owners. You know, that's been the kind of view of Spartacus since the 18th century pretty much.

But for the Romans, of course, he wasn't like that at all. He was the most terrifying thing.

RAZ: I mean, he sowed terror in the hearts of Romans. You write: His army took prodigious quantities of revenge in death, rape and drink.

Mr. STOTHARD: Yeah, and I know that's not the kind of Kirk Douglas idea, but there's truth to this. Well, obviously, there are many truths to this story. I'm not saying it's the only way to look at it. But if you're on the road, and if you're seeing it through Roman eyes, through the eyes of the people who are living there, and you go to their little houses and their little shops that are - some of them are still being excavated in Capua, you see the guys struggling to make a living; okay, they had slaves. They might not be considered good guys today. But these were guys desperately trying to make something of their lives, and slavery was part of their lives.

And then suddenly, these people who are part of your life - they were in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the libraries, they kind of rise up, and the peculiar kind of terror - clearly, in my mind, it did associate with the notion of a kind of a cancerous attack from within.

RAZ: After leading a rebellion for two years, eventually, Spartacus is defeated by Crassus. He's killed in battle. Crassus decides that all of the rebels who survived should be publicly crucified along the Via Appia, that ancient Roman road, 6,000 of them are crucified. That meant every 40 yards, there was another rebel crucified, and you walked along that path. What was that like?

Mr. STOTHARD: This was a pretty spectacular death show. The Romans wanted to get rid of the idea of Spartacus. But, you know, before they forgot about him, they wanted to make sure one thing was remembered, which is that slave rebellions were an extremely bad thing which should be discouraged in the absolutely most extreme way. And in that, they were astonishingly successful.

RAZ: Peter Stothard, what do you think you were hoping to find on this journey?

Mr. STOTHARD: I think I wanted to understand my whole engagement with the thing which had meant most to me in my life, which was the engagement with Greek and Latin that had come to me very young.

I was not attempting to answer questions about Roman history. This is not history in the library, you know, going through documents. This is understanding how we understand our past, in my case, a particularly brutal and dramatic way, which has made "Spartacus Road" the book that it is.

RAZ: That's Peter Stothard, talking about his new book, "Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy." He's also the editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Peter Stothard, thank you so much.

Mr. STOTHARD: Thank you.

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