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By Arthur Koestler, 1939 (translated by Edith Simon)

An Excerpt From the Novel "The Gladiators"

This is Part Four of a Five-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

The Essene vigorously shook his head in protest. “No man can live without enthusiasm,” he said, “for otherwise he would wither away like a tree without roots. But there are two kinds of enthusiasm: a merry one, derived from Life, and a gloomy one which stealthily draws its sap from Death. To be sure, the second kind is far more frequent. For, from the beginning the gods deprived man of serene merriment and taught him to obey prohibitions and renounce his desires. And the fatal gift of renunciation, which makes him different from all other creatures, has become so much the second nature of men, that they use it like a weapon which they direct against one another, as a means of the few oppressing the many, as a means of oppression in every respect. The necessity of renunciations has been instilled into their blood from the beginning of time, so that they can only regard as truly noble that enthusiasm in which they may abnegate themselves and their very own interests. But does not really all negation fall into the domain of Death, by acting against and opposing Life? This might be the explanation of how it came about that humanity has always been more susceptible to the enthusiasm of the black Death sap, to foolish and hostile-to-life mass mentality, rather than to the other kind.”

The lawyer had sat down on the mat and poured himself some wine. His fear of the red torches abated slightly; immediately on entering the tent he had begun to feel well and warm.

Old Nicos visibly disliked the Essene’s talk. His speech had already grown a trifle indistinct. “Blessed are the meek who serve and do not resist,” he said. “You spoke of an evil enthusiasm as though there were another sort. What kind of another sort might that be? All passion is evil.”

“The other sort,” said the lawyer, and stroked his bumpy pate, “is that enthusiasm which does not aim at renunciation but at the heightened enjoyment of life. True, through the habit of observing prohibitions, which likens virtue to self-negation and lauds Death as the loftiest sacrifice – true, in this intoxication of the black juices any other sort of enthusiasm appears low and vulgar. Does not the foolish order of things force us to seek the satisfaction of all our desires in the lowest and most vulgar ways? The shopkeeper must use false weights in order to live. The slave must scheme and rob his master in order to life; the farmer must be hard and mean, for else he cannot live. Is, therefore, not everything that serves Life and one’s own interest, low and vulgar? Is it now so, that only the opposites, renunciation, sacrifice and death, are exalted and deemed worthy of enthusiasm? The petty misery of their existence has made man and women unreceptive for the serene, merrymaking enthusiasm, and spurs them on towards the drunkenness of the black-sap. That is what induces mankind to act contrary to the interests of others when isolated, and to act contrary to their own interests when associated in groups or crowds.”

Behold, he had again arrived at the heading of his treatise. Perhaps, if they had left him time, he might have completed it after all – but now it was too late.

The lawyer coughed gently and rubbed his bald pate. O that he might sit at his desk, with the good old wooden beam over his head! Those fools over there sang and rattled their spears into the night, and got themselves ready to act against their own interests and kill him, the chronicler Fulvius. Why on earth should a chronicler dive into adventures, climb over walls and commit himself to mortal perils, instead of staying with his desk and beam?

The lawyer Fulvius hastily emptied his cup. "To be sure,” he went on, “the serene sort of enthusiasm, affirmative of Life, must also be prepared for sacrifices and often assign itself to Death. But the difference lies in what way you die, whether you push Life into thralldom to Death. True, it is easier to live for Death, like the soldiers who rattle their spears, than to die for Life and serene merriment, as the law of detours will sometimes demand.”

Old Nicos nodded in his corner, asleep; but the Essene was still awake and circumspectly wagged his head.

“Well, well,” he said, “this may be our last night, the Sun City was burned to the ground, humanity is the prey of the black-sap, and God is dissatisfied with Himself. He started it all, and behold, everything went all wrong from the start. For, hardly had He populated heaven, earth and waters, when all and sundry began to eat up each other. Naturally He was annoyed by this; but in order to save His face He announced that it was His law which decreed that all living creatures should eat up each other, and in fact the big should always be eating up the small. Anyone, of course, can order things in such a way, there’s nothing to it – the other way around, that would be something.”

“But that’s impossible, isn’t it?” said old Nicos, who had started up from the light slumber of the aged.

What is He a God for, then? asked the Essene and wagged his head disapprovingly. “Anybody could work it in that way, you don’t need to be a god to do it. Things didn’t go so well with the animals, but they only went properly wrong when He came to the humans; right in the first few days He started to wrangle with them. I might add that He was really very much in the wrong in that affair about the tree. If He didn’t want man and woman to have a certain apple, why did He dangle it right above their noses? It just isn’t done.”

“So that they might learn to renounce,” said old Nicos, “and get used to the existence of forbidden fruit.”

“That’s just it. Can you understand why He invents a world full of forbidden things if He could just as easily invent one with any? Can you understand that? I can’t.”

“Yes, I can,” said old Nicos. “man must renounce, serve and suffer. Blessed are the meek who die in the hands of the wicked and evil.”

“But that was not provided for in the program of creation,” said the Essene and crinkled his faun’s nose. “And if it was provided for – in that case it just was a bad program, and it would have been much better if He had kept His hands off it.” He wagged disapprovingly; then he went down on his knees and performed his morning prayer.

The signal blasts of the Romans sounded closer and clearer. It was still dark outside, but day was not far off.


The night progressed, and Spartacus lay on his rug. He had not wanted to be alone this last night either. Beside him breathed the woman, dark and slender, little more than a child. He had neglected her for a long time; she had never entered the tent with the purple velum in the Sun City. She had frequently been seen with Crixus, more often on her own. Far from the City, quite alone, she had roamed the woods for days, sleeping underneath tree-trunks, or below the white rocks of the chalky land of Lucania. A shepherd from the Brotherhood, searching for a stray ram, had surprised her once; she was lying on a projecting ledge of rock, talked aloud although no one else was there, and showed the whites of her eyes. The shepherd hailed her. She was much scared, and looked at him as though he were the weirdest apparition. But then she said that he would find the animal he was looking for at a certain spot behind that distant hill, near a hamlet in a valley not visible from here; and that was where he did find it. Similar incidents occurred quite often, and helped to strengthen her reputation as a seer of the hidden and obscure, and a herald of things as yet concealed by the future.

For she had gained this reputation earlier, being a former priestess of Bacchos of Thrace, initiate of the Orphic cult; had she not announced to Spartacus the terrible power in store for him, when he was a mere common circus-gladiator? He had been lying on the floor, asleep, but the woman watched a serpent sneaking towards him and coiling round his head without harming him in any way; and thus she had known of all that was to be.

Spartacus had been neglecting her for a long time; and people said he shunned her to avoid meeting and touching the dark and allusive powers she bore within her. It was said he wanted to have nothing to do with these powers of twilight and obscurity, ever since he went about with ambassadors and Asiatic diplomats and had for his chief counselor a bald-headed lawyer. But when the Sun City crumpled in ruins, he took her with him again; and now as the night progressed, she breathed beside him on the rug, slim, girlish and frail, and alien still in his embrace.

Before he had shunned her for the sake of her eerie powers; but now he wanted her because of them. For he too had seen the red torches move about and heard the Romans sing through the night, drunken with the certainty of their victory; and he too knew that this night was his last, and he would have liked to hear about what happened afterward, when the sun rose no more and breath was still. He had long forgotten the ill-boding gods of Thrace, and he had been ashamed to ask the aged Essene; and also it seemed to him that a woman’s embrace might bring you closer to the answer than the company of all the priests and magi of this world.

So now she lay beside him again, her breath still labored and heavy; and had withheld the answer and was a stranger more than ever. He lay still, and longed to know the answer to his question. He had searched for it in the touch of her body, and now he looked for it within her eyes, until she began to feel uncomfortable and averted her head. So he let her go, disappointed, and knew that here there was no answer either.

He rose and stepped outside the tent. He walked through the dark camp, inspected the sentries, heard the hoarse cry of the cocks and the hoarse signal blast of the Romans, and returned to his tent, tired and chilled. The woman had gone but her odor lingered still about the tent, and the warmth of her body was still on the rug. He lay down in the hollow she had made on the rug, and closed his eyes; and knew that he would never find the answer to his quest, now, and fell asleep.

He did not find it on the next day either, in the battle by the river Silarus, during which his Army was destroyed and he himself killed.

The battle started shortly before sunrise. The Slaves were the attackers. Their African drums, wooden boxes covered with hide, droned like subterranean thunder in the morning twilight. The district was hilly and barren. The Lucanian sling-shooters on their lean, half-starved nags rode in front; they were received by a rain of arrows; the superior flexibility and range of the Roman bows made their slings appear like toys. The Lucanian lines spread out, scattered, performed acrobatic tricks as they wielded their slings, flitting like swarms of gnats in front of the Celtic infantry which advanced with raucous cries. Light increased rapidly. The Roman lines did not budge; but the cavalry at their flanks began to move.

Spartacus knew that he had not enough cavalry to prevent the Romans closing in on his flanks. He had no choice but to concentrate attack on the enemy center, to break the triple line of Roman infantry before they encircled his Army completely. The Celts in their clattering tin armor, with wooden spears, axes and sickles, advanced, roaring; the African drums thundered. The Roman front line gave way; the heavy javelins of the second line broke through the Celts’ tin armor and hurled them back. The third Roman line, the steel wall of the veterans, did not go into action until hours later, after the Slaves had carried on wave after wave of attack, and wave after wave had been shattered against them.

When the sun stood almost vertically in the sky, half of the Slave Army had been annihilated; the rest fought, barefooted, against the mailed men, with wood against iron, flesh against steel. It was a massacre rather than a battle; and the victims, driven by despair and fascinated by death, voluntarily rushed into their executioners’ arms. When the sun had passed his zenith, the Romans had accomplished the surrounding of the Slaves, and their mailed cohorts advanced concentrically in counterattack, marching over hills and corpses.

The battle had begun shortly before sunrise; shortly before sunset it was over. The Slave Army was non-existent; fifteen thousand corpses in malodorous rags, unworthy of plunder and disgusting to the victors, lay strewn about the hilly area by the river Silarus.

Go to Part Five

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