In his new biography, Spartacus, the Italian historian Aldo Schiavone attempts to drill down through the sedimented legends to the bedrock of historical fact.
Because there are no sources except literary ones, this means that his short book often takes the form of hermeneutics – closely parsing the exact language of the historians to deduce what really happened, or, just as important, what those historians wanted to conceal. For the central premise of Schiavone's book is that Spartacus represented a dangerous challenge to Roman values and power, which the official Roman sources could not fully acknowledge. To understand who Spartacus was and what he wanted, Schiavone argues, it's necessary to read against the grain of the text, and to place him as far as possible in a broad historical context.
It is not possible, Schiavone writes, to enter into Spartacus's mind, the way a biographer might do with a modern subject. His world was just too different from ours, and there is too little surviving material: "Nothing of what he had in mind is known to us directly. His psychology and mental landscape are completely inaccessible; a fascinating theme, but entirely obscure. Our protagonist's intentions can only be deduced from the bare sequence of his actions."
What we do know with some degree of confidence, on the other hand, is the kind of society Spartacus lived in.
Rome in the first century B.C. was, Schiavone shows, in the throes of transforming itself from an agrarian city-state to a world-spanning empire. Perhaps the most important element in this change – certainly the most important for understanding Spartacus – was the huge increase in the slave population of Italy. At this time, most slaves were prisoners taken in war, and the Romans had just conquered huge swaths of the eastern Mediterranean, flooding the market with new supply.