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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Spartacus. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep


As we were doing Spartacus this morning, Tom Morris, the producer, was spotting tweets coming in, many of which said “I’m Spartacus”. For those of you who don’t know, this was a scene towards the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film when all Kirk Douglas’s gladiatorial comrades adopted his name to protect him, and I suppose to put themselves in the same boat.  Anyway, it seems to have caught on with tweeters UK. Pity we hadn’t time to mention the ballet by Khachaturian.

I think this is going to be a bits and pieces (who wrote that song?) newsletter.

Mary Beard told me after the programme that Crassus (he who said that no man can count himself rich unless he can afford a private army), the one who finally defeated Spartacus, had taken on the Parthians and himself been defeated. His head was severed and later used as a prop in a performance of The Bacchae at the Parthian court. A story like that is what I think, perhaps many of us think, classical historians are for.

The business of gladiators being killed in the arena and a great flurry of thumbs down going on seems to be ill-founded. Put simply, gladiators were very expensive. They were an investment. Their owners did not like them to be killed and therefore, of course, as privileged, rich and wealthy owners do, they fixed things so that they got what they wanted. So in the end gladiators were as much for show as for dead meat.

There was a discussion about whether Spartacus’s wife could possibly have spent time with him in the gladiatorial school, i.e. lived with him. She certainly seems to have been there when he was bought as a gladiator in the first place.

Curious how we seem to like men fighting each other or lions, bare-topped, shouted on by crowds. But it wasn’t long ago that much the same thing happened around these parts, is it? Crowds at hangings, crowds at bear fights, crowds at executions, women knitting as the guillotine fell. How much would it take for it to come back?

So, out in the fresh air for a walk on this third consecutive, beautiful, false spring day in London. Into St James’s Park with carpets of daffodils and rugs of crocuses and silver birches looking white and bare.  The usual crowd of excited photographers around a single squirrel. Is this the last squirrel in the wild in St James’s Park?

The Lords were discussing the contribution of women to the economy, and I had lunch with one of my oldest friends and ate a ham hock terrine, which rests in my stomach like one of those old-fashioned leather footballs we used to play with and it hurt your foot to kick it.

Off to the Lake District for the Words by the Water literary festival and then off to interview Kate Atkinson.  Life’s on.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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  • Comment number 5. Posted by All for All

    on 12 Mar 2014 18:57

    julian davey @4
    "time for Melvyn
    to make way?"

    Lucullus and Pompey circling, would you play Crassus?

    From the Outer Reaches to the toe of Cornwall, Melvyn has marched with motley crew, keeping alive the conversation of questions, answers for every inquirer there between the lines, an archive to treasure, still building.

    If a cut must be parried or parodied, then "I'm Melvyn!" Ready to march again, as with canny Spartacus and his gladiators. We are fellow-slaves, and have come a long way.

    Olympus beckons, no doubt. But not yet, not yet.

    But I'm mixing my movies.

    Good followers will catch my drift, and Melvyn's, God willing.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by julian davey

    on 11 Mar 2014 22:38

    I'm rather sorry to say this goes.

    Is it time for Melvyn, nice chap that he is, to make way for someone else? It's not that, Melvyn, you don't know your stuff. But the manner in which you deliver it gets in the way of the content. I get distracted by your coughing down the microphone, your little laughs to yourself, and, if I may say so, your indistinct, delivery. I wonder if you have gone on for so long that you have forgotten some basic radio manners. It's such a great programme, but it can survive without you. Don't become a David Coleman!!

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by uncleho

    on 11 Mar 2014 10:06

    I attempted to listen to this episode, but as with many other episodes of this programme, as soon as one of the guests begins to speak about past events using the present tense I find myself so irritated that I have to switch off.
    Mary Beard's first words were ' ........ Rome at this point (73BC) is no longer a city state.........' I couldn't continue after that. Sorry Melvin.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by All for All

    on 10 Mar 2014 06:36

    Spartacus was a gladiator-slave who in modern times was made a symbol of self-liberation.

    From Wikipedia, Johann Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830), the Jesuit-educated rationalist founder in 1776 of Bavaria's 'illuminati', took the name (in his order) of 'Brother Spartacus'. The order sought (in perhaps a sub-Kantian over prescriptive manner) to promote the Enlightenment doctrines of equality and freedom throughout society.

    In 1777 Weishaupt was initiated into the Masonic Lodge, with hopes of seeing his illuminism incorporated within Freemasonry. However, writings intercepted in 1784 were found 'seditious', and his order was banned, an outcome echoing the role of betrayal in many lives, of Spartacus and soon after it is told of Jesus Christ.

    Wikipedia records from Weishaupt, exiled in Gotha, a series of works on illuminism (1785-1787). Though it is suggested that the order left "no enduring traces" of here relevant influence, it is of note that 1787 saw from one Francois-Noel Babeuf "the first signs of his future socialism", in his letter to the Academy of Arras. As leader of the Societe Des Egaux, 'Gracchus' Babeuf was executed in 1797.

    From conversations in Paris in 1840 with followers of Gracchus Babeuf, the British Victorian utopian socialist John Goodwyn Barmby 'claimed' to have brought the word 'communist' to Engels and into English usage, as translation from the French communiste; the matter is disputed.

    To the point, to run away from slavery might under the yoke of Rome have had as its highest ambition the finding of a better slavery, only with the protection afforded by a better leader such ambition moving-on to hope of freedom in the shareable discipline of equality, if not in this life then in the next, for our children.

    Tragic then today, just as the Trans-Atlantic Dream is exposed as morally bankrupt (its agents in Kiev and in subject capitals worldwide caught - this time in full public gaze - recklessly again stirring a regime-change 'even in Europe', making even Gas-Putin look good), so comes UK Labour's Uriah Heap, chasing after that vain Dream, promising secure subsistence slavery for Master Copperfield, instead of making universal fair employment the responsibility of all.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 9 Mar 2014 21:34

    The 1st and 2nd Servile Wars of the Romans aganst slave rebellions were in Sicily. These took 2 and 4 years to put down respectively.The 3rd vs.Spartacas’s slave rebellion was more a danger to Rome. After breaking out with fellow gladiators from the training centre,Spartacus and about 78 others made for Vesuvius,where they acquired a growing army of fellow slaves. Forming the nucleus of the threat were gladiators–prisoners of war, convicts and slavesspecially trained to fight and kill one another as entertainment for crowds packing amphitheatres throughout Latin lands. Notoriously tough and highly skilled, the gladiators surging toward Rome had little to lose. Facing death in the arena on an almost daily basis, these warrior-slaves felt their only key to freedom lay in crushing Rome itself.

    Seneca abhorred gladiatorial contests:“Man, a sacred thing to man, is killed for sport and merriment.”Many training schools were situated near the town of Capua,north of Naples. Masterminding the slaves’s revolt,Spartacus himself had probably once been an auxiliary in the Roman army before being sold into slavery.Defeating the 1st militia of 3000 troops,they had by then grown to 40,000.This grew to 70,000 after several more victories.Spartacus co-led the army of revolt with 2 Gallic men,one of whom broke away and was later cornered and killed with 30,000 of his men.Spartacus went north,intending to at 1st leave northern Italy to get to Gaul,but his mob of men,fatally took it into themselves to go south and fight.This was a growing crowd of rebellious slaves,who had a kind of equality with each other,but also had a mind of its own that would not be dictated to.They had defeated governors,consuls and legions,they could have escaped over the Alps,but maybe the idea of raiding Rome and Italy,took possession of them,and Spartacus didn’t want his army to split again,as they were ever rebellious amongst themselves.

    Crassus with many legions of 5000 men each pursued Spartacus and the rebels to the toe of Italy and attempting to starve them into submission.On top of this there were break-aways amongst the rabble army of slaves.Lucullus and Pompey were closing in and Spartacus took on Crassus’s legions,trying to overwhelm them and defeated Spartacus,many escaping rebels were to be pursued by Crassus and Lucullus and 6000 were crucified along the road from Capua leading to Rome. The Spartacus rebellion was the last of the major slave insurrections that Rome would experience. The fear engendered by the revolt, however, would haunt the Roman psyche for centuries to come.Ancient societies were built on slave economies

    Crassus resurrected “decimation;” this was the ancient Roman military punishment for “unit” cowardice in the face of the enemy. Decimation literally meant that the soldiers of a cowardly unit were forced to beat every tenth soldier to death with wooden staves as punishment for failure to face the enemy. This was not something that the Roman Army regularly practiced at the time of the Spartacus insurrection, but Crassus was so incensed that he revived the custom; he was probably incensedbecause he had paid for those legions with his own money.Spartacus was a great,charismatic leader who was enslaved by the people he led,he could have escaped to freedom in northern Italy,but he didn’t want to leave his people so he went south with them. Lewis Grassic Gibbon,Arthur Koestler and Howard Fast wrote novels on Spartacus.

    His body was never found and he had the mystery of the ancient great men like Jesus,who inspired many followers.He inspired the German Communist Party and Karl Marx, "the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history" and "[a] great general ([though] no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat." Gladiators were at the bottom of the pile of Roman society.Many were slaves,others were condemned criminals:those were the conscripts,willing and unwilling.Others were volunteers.Signing up as a gladiator might have been one of the very few routes out of total destitution in the Roman world.Survival,in the short term at least,might be bought at a high price that amounted to more than just danger.It involved a loss of day-to-day freedom almost akin to slavery itself,under the control of the troupe manager,or lanista,who negotiated a price with elite sponsors. A thumbs up for this episode!

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