Travel literature review: On the Spartacus Road

On the Spartacus RoadOn the Spartacus Road by Peter Stothard

3 star

Rating: 3 out 5

Reviewed by Wayne Murphy

Wayne Murphy is a cartographic designer with a degree in History; he has just returned from an Italian holiday… fortunately unmarred by rampaging gladiators. He works in Lonely Planet's Melbourne office.

With high hopes and a traumatic past, cancer survivor Peter Stothard sets out from Rome on a rambling journey in pursuit of perhaps history’s most famous band of escaped slaves, but those seeking a visceral display of gladiatorial prowess and a recitation of glorious exploits may be disappointed. The titular hero Spartacus remains a ghostly shadow preceding Stothard’s path, somehow always seeming to remain out of focus and far less prominent than the book's title may suggest.

To his credit, Stothard has set himself a difficult task; traces of Spartacus’ deeds are few and marred by the prejudices of the time. To counteract these fragmentary records and remnants, Stothard’s tale is peppered with interesting locales, the writings of contemporaries on the scourge of the rebel slaves, and the words of the intriguing personages he meets, from a hard-bitten gladiatorial impersonator outside the Roman Colosseum to a Korean academic whose path criss-crosses that of the author. His tale at times becomes intensely personal, with memories of school, his father, and his battle with a cancer morbidly known as Nero rising to the forefront.

Some readers may be frustrated by the scant remnants of solid depictions or remains of Spartacus’ deeds, while others will enjoy an immersion into a tale that spans not only the length of southern Italy, but two thousand years of history. Frequent digressions and a tendency to fixate on seemingly unrelated details might weary other readers, but those that persist will be rewarded, or dismayed, with a victory over the elusive Spartacus and his followers.

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