Stothard’s book – subtitled A Spectacular Journey through Ancient Italy – caught my eye when it was first published, as I enjoy historical accounts of classical antiquity. It also comes recommended by Tom Holland – a writer I really rate – Persian Fire, Rubicon and Millennium were all well informed and entertaining accounts of their different periods. So, when I came across this in a remaindered bookshop in Oxford, I was quick to buy it.
The use of the word spectacular in the subtitle turned out to refer to the latin word used to describe gladiatorial combat – the spectacle. That was a bit of a let down. It epitomised some of the other aspects that I found frustrating – this book would have been more suitable for a classicist, rather than a product of the moderns, like me. Stothard is well informed, and shares some illuminating information about Roman life, and especially Roman writers – but at times makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge that did not apply to me.
No one knows what route Spartacus took through Italy after his escape from the gladiator’s school, and this does present some problems to the writer. He looks around for clues, sharing the views of various Roman writers from the first century BC and later. We gain insights into the mindset of ancient Rome. Stothard also recalls aspects of his own life threatening cancer, concluding the book with an account of Epicurus’ view of death.
There were aspects of On the Spartacus Road that I enjoyed; others less so. The writer did not always carry me with him – allowing his own thoughts to wander, and picking up the thread several pages later; the referents change without any real warning to the reader, which was confusing. I am a determined reader and stuck it out to the end. I don’t think everyone would have so much patience.