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By Arthur Koestler, 1939 (translated by Edith Simon)

An Excerpt From the Novel "The Gladiators"

This is Part One of a Five-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) was born in Budapest and resided in several subsequent locales including London, Paris, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He is one of the most compelling writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Among his books are "Darkness at Noon," a classic novel of anti-totalitarianism (it influenced "1984" by George Orwell); the equally brilliant "Dialogue With Death"; an idiosyncratic study of human creativity titled "The Act of Creation"; and "The Roots of Coincidence," which, in the view of some observers, goes off the deep end by favorably comparing telepathy research with advances in quantum physics. (Koestler left most of his substantial estate to fund studies in parapsychology.) Among his many other works is "The Gladiators," a fictional treatment of the Spartacus saga and the Slave War of 73-71 BCE. ("The Gladiators" is a thematic prequel to "Darkness at Noon.") The story of Spartacus has been told many times, including in the 1960 film; Koestler's version stands out. - B.F.


He knew that this was the end. His horde was beginning to scatter about the woods. One month longer, and the Romans could hunt them down one by one. The best of them had fallen, the rest were going to the dogs. The men in the camp had grown hollow-eyed; despair covered their livid faces as with cobwebs. Every day the women came running through the streets of the camp, in their arms infants with big heads and spidery limbs, and screamed they should surrender, so that everything might become as it once had been. They ran through the camp, with babies at their loose breasts and with wild, tangled hair, and screamed wildly that they did not want to die.

The men did not want to die either. They stood by the beach, watched the waves rolling close, filled their lungs with the cool fragrance of the seaweed and thought it was good to be alive, and felt that the worst sort of life was still better than the best of deaths.

Despair and the wish to live deprived men and women of their reason. They talked of throwing their weapons away and going over to the Romans, and they believed they would be forgiven. They came to Spartacus and looked at him with the childish, trusting glances of their sunken eyes, like wounded animals, and believed that he would save them. But he knew that everything was finished; and when seven weeks had passed after the pirates’ breach of trust, he decided to go to Crassus. It was not easy for him; he thought of Zozimos the rhetorician: he would probably have flapped excited sleeves, harangued of Pride and Honor, shrieked of shame and iniquity. But Zozimos was dead, and the others wanted to live. And when at night they listened to the waves and smelled the sea breeze, words like honor and shame were nothing but maudlin stutter lost in the thunder-drone of the surf.

The rains were as good as past and spring was already drawing near, when Spartacus started on his way to Crassus. His attendants might only escort him to the rampart, Crassus had stipulated. The trench he was to cross alone.

On the other side the Roman Guards were waiting for him. As soon as he set eyes on them, the man with the fur-skin was aware of setting foot in another world, and the first impression moved him deeply. It moved him to look at the brisk, well-fed soldiers, their shining, contented eyes, the polished metal of their armor, the flawless leather of their straps. The Guards escorted him and did not speak. They looked haughtily straight ahead; the freshly starched linen of their kilts crunched with every step they took, an odor of pomatum and ointments floated round them. Spartacus in his shaggy fur-skin walked between them; he was taller than they, but his back was hunched and his chin hairy; at first he took pains to keep his head up, but he left off soon, and let it droop.

They walked for some time. The Guards escorted him and said nothing and looked straight ahead.

They passed many soldiers, singly and in cohorts. With curiosity they looked at the approaching Guards with the tall, shaggy man in their midst, but made no move to line their way. They all looked clean, sprightly and contented. As the small troop strode past them, the soldiers kept silent, at most they nudged one another. Their clear eyes held no hostility, only quizzical bewilderment.

It was a long way. As they approached the camp, they passed three chatting officers. All three veered round to watch them coming. One of the officers wore smart riding habit, he was nearly as tall as Spartacus and had stern, regular features. The Guards who escorted Spartacus saluted. The officer did not return salute; he looked at the fur-clad man. He raised his eyebrows; his cool glance slowly traveled down the fur-skin to the torn footwear; in rhythm with the Guards’ footsteps he slapped his thigh with the riding crop.

It was a long way. At last they could see the first tents.

When they turned into the main street of the camp, a battalion in marching order came towards them. The mailed legs of the column beat down on the road so precisely and simultaneously, that every time only one short sharp clap was heard. When the captain of the regiment saw the group with the man in the fur-skin coming to meet him, he turned into a side street. The column wheeled with sharp thunderclaps; Spartacus could see only their armor-plated backs; not one of the soldiers turned his head.

Finally the Guards stopped in front of the generalissimo’s tent. A sentry took the man with the fur-skin in his charge; the guards turned and marched off. They had not exchanged one word with the sentry. Nor did the sentry say anything to the man in the fur-skin. Dumb, he led him over soft carpets into the wide, spacious tent, turned on his heel and fastened the tent flap from outside.

Inside the tent, the carpet on the floor was so thick as to stun the sounds of Spartacus’ footsteps. When he entered, Crassus sat at his desk in the center of the tent, writing. He did not rise and he did not look up. He had flung back the sleeves of his purple-edged toga; his short, bare arms, covered with gooseflesh, were propped on the table. Spartacus noticed immediately that the expression in the Roman generalissimo’s face reminded him of Crixus. True, his gross face was clean-shaven, and so was his skull. But the heavy, dismal, unmoved glance below the padded lids was perplexingly like that of the dead Crixus.

The generalissimo clapped his hands, a dumb cuirassier side-de-camp appeared, saluted, received the document and departed, after having brushed the man in the fur-skin with a rapid glance. Spartacus had sat down on the sofa opposite the desk, and waited.

At last the generalissimo raised his eyes to him. “A wounded beast,” thought Crassus. “You wish to negotiate the conditions of surrender,” he said. He propped his stumpy bare arms on the desk. “There are no conditions.”

His petulant glance did not waver from the sitting man. If you put him in a decent uniform, thought Crassus, and took the animal sadness out of his eyes, he would cut a better figure than Pompeius. He waited for an answer, put a hand to his ear. “Did you say anything?” he asked.

Spartacus marveled at the beautifully clear, almost dainty Latin which came from the lips of the fat generalissimo. On his desk stood a small, cubic inkwell of cut glass; it had a hole in each side without the ink running out. The carpets on floor and walls obliterated every sound from outside. The complete quiet in the tent was different from the nightly silence of the mountains that he knew; it was a soft, cushiony silence, like the sofa on which he was sitting. He had difficulty in calling to mind that the words spoken here would decide the fate of twenty thousand human beings, and of the Italian revolt.

“I am slightly deaf in my right ear,” said the generalissimo in the same clear, glossy accents. “Please speak distinctly if you have anything to say.”

Spartacus kept silent and contemplated the desk. The clouds of Mount Vesuvius, the prophetic babble of the aged masseur, the hoarse lectures of the little lawyer – all of that had no reality inside this tent, in the face of the cut, polished inkwell; it was blotted out by the stuffed silence. When you looked at the generalissimo’s plump hand curving round his deaf ear, everything said or thought down there beyond the earthwork seemed absurdly unreal and indigent.

“You know how things are with us,” said Spartacus. “It can’t be in anybody’s interest to have twenty thousand people go to ruin.”

Crassus shrugged imperceptibly; he was still thinking of what Pompeius would look and act like in the place of this creature. Probably even more pitiably. This Barbarian at least did not pretend; he probably talked just as measuredly, in the same harsh, guttural Thracian tones, when issuing martial commands from his horse. Crassus could easily imagine him at a triumphal entry, striking through underneath the arch, acclaimed by the frenzied, queuing people, with an unmoved face. Really, everything depended on the period in which such a man was born, thought Crassus, whether time threw him on the rubbish heap or allowed him to make history. Born one century earlier or later, this wounded animal would have turned the world inside-out more thoroughly than Alexander and Hannibal. “In other words, you surrender unconditionally,” said Crassus.

He leaned forward slightly and waited.

“That would depend on what would happen to my people,” said Spartacus.

“The Senate of Rome will decide that,” said Crassus.

After a brief pause Spartacus said:

“I’m not talking of the leaders, but of the men and the women.”

“Pardon me,” said Crassus. “We were talking of unconditional surrender. Everything else will be decided by the Senate.”

Spartacus was silent. He looked at the glass inkwell; he still could not bring himself to believe in the reality of what they were saying. He could not understand why the ink did not run out although the glass cube had holes for dipping in on every one of its six sides. Then he saw that within the cubic glass case a small bowl was suspended from two hoop-links: whatever way you placed the cube, the little bowl would always swing horizontally on its hoops. He felt pleased to have seen through this bit of mechanism; for an instant a smile hovered on his face.

At that moment two orderlies entered, with wine, cups, candied dates and sweetmeats on a tray, put it down on a three-legged, low table and vanished soundlessly.

Crassus had followed Spartacus’ glance, he took up the inkwell and tilted it, unsmiling.

“Have you ever seen anything like that?” he asked.

“No, I haven’t,” said Spartacus. Crassus handed him the glass cube, he took it in his hand, tilted it too and put it back on the table.

“Our conditions,” said Spartacus, “are: the serfs can go back to where they used to be in service without fear of punishment, and the rest are enrolled in your army.”

Crassus shrugged his shoulders. “You are pleased to jest,” he said. “You don’t seem to have much of an idea of Roman martial law. Besides, the decision lies with the Senate. All that is in my power to do would be to recommend the utmost leniency.”

Spartacus shook his head.

“In that case I must go back,” he said. “Our conditions would be that we disband and everything becomes as it used to be; but before we could do that, you would have to withdraw your army, so that there is no possibility of a trap.”

Crassus shrugged, took a small draught of wine and shoved a handful of sweetmeats in his mouth. He had foreseen that this parley would have no result, and had agreed to the meeting mainly from curiosity. He could, of course, have the man detained and strung up here and now, but as his victory was certain anyway, there seemed no point in marring it and laying oneself open to the Opposition Tribunes’ reproaches. His short, bare arm pointed to the second cup, “Are you afraid it is poisoned?” he asked, unsmiling.

Spartacus shook his head; he was thirsty and drained the cup in one go. It was filled with rich, sweet, oily wine such as he had never drunk before. The silence that filled the tent became still more perceptible.

“The conditions would apply only to the men and women,” he said after a while. “Our chiefs and leaders need no conditions.”

“I understand,” said Crassus and chewed his dates. “It is a touching idea of yours: the leaders sacrifice themselves to save their people and presumably expect that the Senate erects tombstones to them, with moving inscriptions. You have a curious conception of the times we live in.”

Spartacus drained his second cup and wondered at this fat war-lord talking to him without annoyance in his beautiful Latin, chewing sweetmeats all the while. Decidedly the little lawyer of Capua had described him far too spitefully.

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