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By Arthur Koestler, 1939 (translated by Edith Simon)

An Excerpt From the Novel "The Gladiators"

This is Part Two of a Five-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Crassus sat watching the man in the fur-skin, just as he was accustomed to watch Cato during their mealtime discourses. He felt stimulated. “In fact, what do you know of this our time?” he went on. “You are the dilettanti of revolution. You want to abolish slavery and have not even considered that if you did so, you would have to close down all the quarries and mines, would have to forego the benefits of road-making, bridge-construction, aqueducts; that you would cripple the shipping business and traffic, and generally reduce the world to a state of barbarism. For the word 'liberty' means to every present-day man and woman solely this: not to have to work. If your intentions were serious, you should have invented a new religion which should have raised labor to the station of a creed and cult, and declared sweat to be ambrosia. You should have brazenly claimed that only digging and road-mending, the sawing of planks and rowing of galleys, manifest the destiny and nobility of mankind, whereas serene idleness and leisurely contemplation are contemptible and bestial. Contrary to every experience ever made, you should have assured the world that poverty holds blessing and distinction, while wealth is but a curse. You should have dethroned the lazy and licentious gods of Olympus, and invented new gods corresponding to your aims and interests. All this you neglected to do. Your Sun City perished because you failed to invent a new god and priests to serve him.”

Spartacus shook his head.

“All priests and prophets are swindlers,” he said. “We didn’t need any, and thousands of people came to join us. And they weren’t only slaves, you know, we had farmers, too, who had been hounded off their fields by the big landowners. The farmers and small tenants don’t need a new religion, what they need is land.”

“Pardon me,” said Crasssus, “again you only visualize part of the connection between cause and effect. Why, in your opinion, does the Italian peasantry suffer itself to be bought up by the oligarchy and to be chased off the soil? Surely not because the farmers are innocent lambs, as you keep on telling us, but because the import of overseas wheat lowers the price of corn to such an extent that only the big landowners can keep their heads above water. Following all this to its logical conclusion, you should demand that Rome resign her colonies, that world commerce be stopped, the earth contracted to its old size, and all progress cancelled. All your amateurish attempts at reform, beginning with those of the Gracchi, were actually ultra-reactionary. As long as no one comes along and invents a new god who declares the Barbarian peoples to be on equal footing with us and forces them to produce at the same price as we, as long as that has not been attended to, the real champions of progress are and remain, in spite of everything, those two thousand Roman aristocrats and idlers who let the rest of the world work for them and yet enforce progress, without knowing how they are doing it. Until one day the inflated belly of our State will burst asunder, and the devil get us all.”

Crassus wheezed contentedly and held his hand up to his ear to catch possible objections. But Spartacus was at a loss for a reply, and he doubted whether the pious masseur or the little pettifogger would have fared any better. Suddenly he realized that his conditions had been declined, that there was no escape for his people, and impotent hatred rose up inside him. Why in hell’s name had he let himself in for this entire discourse in which he played such a poor part, instead of rejoining the horde at once, after the negotiations had failed?

Hate and grief welled up in his throat and effaced all his embarrassment. “If you know it all so well,” he said hoarsely and so loudly as to make the generalissimo arch his eyebrows, “if you know so much about it all and yourself say that the devil will carry off that State of yours – how then can you ask for our unconditional surrender and make the injustice even worse?”

He was going to say more, but Crassus cut him short with a gesture of his burly arm.

“Pardon me,” said Crassus. “Have you ever stopped to consider that a human being lives only for approximately fifteen thousand days? Quite a lot more than that will pass before Rome goes to the dogs. Since I do not have the honor of knowing my great-grandchildren, I see no occasion to humor them in my actions.”

He sipped his wine and looked gloomily at Spartacus. Spartacus’ wrath had vanished as quickly as it had come; he thought the generalissimo looked particularly like Crixus at this moment. “Eat, or be eaten,” Crixus had said; and if you came to think of it, the Roman with his cultured pronunciation really said the sense. Only a fool cares a straw for the Will-be.

He drank his third cupful; it tasted even more aromatic and strange than the first two.

Crassus sat watching him. If he succeeded after all in inducing these people to surrender, his Consulship was assured, even before Pompeius returned from Spain. True, he had reckoned with the failure of the parley from the beginning, but there was one last possibility which he had not lost sight of.

“....Fifteen thousand days,” Crassus repeated and leaned heavily on his propped-up arms. “I have approximately five thousand left, which posterity could never refund to me. As things are, the amount left to you is about ten or twenty. From whatever angle you look at it, there is a considerably difference; and posterity won’t pay you back the subtracted remainder either. I, on the other hand, might be in a position to do so. In the case of surrender the Senate decides the fate of your people, but for yourself there might be different possibilities. Such as, for instance, a passport with an arch-Roman name and a ship to Alexandria.” He stopped and looked gloomily at Spartacus.

Spartacus was not surprised; ever since he had entered this queerly silent tent, he had felt that this would come, or rather, that something he had once before experienced would repeat itself. Where was it he had experienced it? Long ago, at the inn by the Appian Way. “If you and me went off now," Crixus had said, “no skipper would ask for our passports.” That had been ages ago, in the days when all of this was just beginning; and now when the end was approaching, Crixus, through the mouth of this naked-skulled generalissimo, spoke to him a last time. And Crixus had always been right in the end.

They were probably right, the two fat ones with the dismal eyes. Eat or be eaten – who ever knew of anything better? Ten thousand days – where was the deity who would refund it to you? And the horde, those men and women on the other side of the trench – they could not escape their fate, must perish, with him or without. Whom would he serve by returning beyond the trench?

He had never been to Alexandria. But he knew that was where the light, wide avenues were, and women, and the ten times thousand days.... “What shall we eat in Alexandria, Fieldfare with bacon, that’s what we’ll eat in Alexandria. What shall we drink in Alexandria? Wine from Vesuvius, wine from Carmel, that’s what we’ll drink in Alexandria. What will the girls be like in Alexandria? Like opened oranges – that’s what they will be like....” He had never been to Alexandria. But he knew all the same that at night a wind rustled through the leaves in the avenues, and he knew of the homesickness that lives in unknown women. No, it did not look as though he would ever come to Alexandria, now.

Crassus sat behind his desk, looked at him, chewed his dates and waited. Spartacus shook his head. Crassus spat out the date-stones, rose and clapped his hands. Spartacus rose too. The tent flap was flung back; outside stood the Guards who had escorted him across the trench.

“I did rather expect this turn of proceedings,” said Crassus. “Nevertheless I should be interested to know what sort of reasons induced you to refuse my proposal, which would after all, have been of considerable advantage to you, without altering the fate of your companions in any way.”

Spartacus stood in the middle of the tent; now as they were both standing, he was almost a whole head taller than the generalissimo. He smiled, vaguely and faintly embarrassed; how could you explain it to the fat man in his toga? Then he remembered the aged Essene:

“One must keep on the road to the end,” said Spartacus in that tone of voice in which one explains to children something they refuse to understand. “One must keep on walking to the end, else the chain is broken. That is what it must be like, and one may not ask the reason.”

But as he saw that the fat man still did not understand him, he took up the wine cup from the little low table. “One must not leave any dregs,” he said and smilingly drank the last drop out of the cup. “So that one may hand it in a clean slate to the Next One who will come.”

After that he joined the armor-plated Guards; without a word, as they had come, they walked back to the trench.

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