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By Arthur Koestler, 1939 (translated by Edith Simon)

An Excerpt From the Novel "The Gladiators"

This is Part Five of a Five-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

The Slave Leader, the gladiator Spartacus, fell some time around noon, a few moments before the sun stood vertically. At the head of his Thracians, he had led the attack against Crassus’ Fifth Cohort; very tall and conspicuous in his shaggy fur-skin, he hewed his way through the Roman lines with his gladiator’s sword. The last two of Fannius’ servants in their rusty helmets kept close behind him, even when he put more and more distance between himself and the others. On a small hillock not a hundred paces from him, the man with the fur-skin had caught a glimpse of a Roman officer in smart riding habit, with stern, regular features, the riding crop in his hand; and he was his object. He had already cut down two Roman Centurions who barred his way; the turmoil around him had decreased in intensity, the two bull-necks were no longer behind him either; only about thirty paces separated him from the officer, who had also recognized him and watched his approach with slightly raised eyebrows.

The ring around Spartacus closed in again; only twenty paces were between him and the officer, when the spear pierced his hip and a short, hard, terrible blow fell between his eyes. Once more, in falling, he beheld the officer, who had not moved at all, gazing over at him and slowly slapping his thigh with the riding crop; but he felt nothing towards him any longer, felt only the clayey earth on his cheeks, and shut his eyes.

Far away, in deaf distance, behind misty veils, the clamoring went on, men stabbed one another and crashed to the ground. Stampeding feet with hard, angular shoes pushed into his body like battering rams, every part of him hurt and seemed brittle; but even pain came from far away, toned down and overshadowed by clouds.

“Is that all?” he thought, and rolled on his belly, pressing his teeth into the clay which yielded and scratched palate and lips with a pungent, bitter taste. “Is that all?” he had just time to think, and with a short, sharp snapping of his jaws he bit into the clay. Thus they found the leader of the Italian revolution toward evening, covered by his shaggy fur-skin, which was still with blood; his mouth full of earth, his fingers burrowed, claw like, in clay and stubbles.


The Italian insurrection was over. Fifteen thousand corpses lay strewn about the hilly land by the river Silarus; four thousand women, and the old and infirm who had not taken part in the battle and failed to kill themselves in time, were taken alive by the Romans. Rome breathed with relief, the weight off her chest; and a manhunt chased through the whole land, unequalled in the annals of Italy.

The herdsmen of the Lucanian highlands, the farms and petty tenants of Apulia, were quarry and prey for Crassus’ Legions. Whosoever owned less than one acre or two cows was suspect of revolutionary sympathies, was killed or kidnapped; a quarter of the Italian slave population was extirpated. The rebels had squirted blood over the country, the conquerors turned it into a slaughterhouse. In small troops they marched through villages, singing patriotic songs, erected the crosses in the market place, raped the women, hamstrung the cattle; at night the huts and slave barracks blazed in flames, torches of victory. The drunkenness of the black juices had taken hold of Italy, she extolled the generalissimo who had helped legitimate right to conquer the might of Darkness – General Pompeius.

Pompeius and his army had returned from Spain just in time to encounter a small band of fugitives by the Apennines. He destroyed them and allowed his Legions to participate in the manhunt of their native country, in order to reward them for the hardships they had undergone in Spain; whereupon he reported to the Senate that, although Crassus had defeated the Slaves, he, Pompeius, had stamped out the very roots of revolution.

Pompeius got his triumphal entry; he arrived in Rome on a chariot drawn by four white palfreys. He displayed the laurels in his right, the ebony mace in his left hand; his inane face was rouged, the people roared, and the only thing that jarred his smugness was the fact that the State-slave behind him who held the golden crown of Jove above his head reiterated a bit too often the due, traditional phrase: “remember that you are a mortal.”

All Crassus got was an ovation, the entry on foot, followed by a few soldiers; the only special favor granted him was the permission to wear a laurel wreath instead of the ordinary myrtle wreath. And yet the banker Crassus’ march was a spectacle which sent a tremor through the world, and the like of which it had never seen before. Pompeius’ parade began on the Campus Martius and ended, two miles farther, before the Capitol; Crassus had caused two rows of wooden crosses to hem the two hundred miles’ of Appian Way of his homeward march. Six thousand captive slaves, their hands and feet pierced by nails, hung, at regular intervals of fifty meters, on both sides of the highway, in uninterrupted sequence from Capua to Rome.

Crassus’ progress was slow; he rested often. He had sent on his engineer troops to construct the posts before he arrived; he himself carried the prisoners with him, bundled in groups and tied together with long ropes. Before his army stretched the road, endless and hemmed with empty crosses; behind his army, every cross bore a hanging man. Crassus took his time. He approached the capital at a leisurely rate, interrupting his march three times a day. During the rest periods lots were drawn to decide the succession of prisoners to be crucified from here to their next station. The army marched fifteen miles per day, and left behind five hundred crucified per day as their living milestones.

His progress caused sensation in the capital. The entire aristocratic youth, and whoever could afford it by hook or by crook, rode to meet Crassus’ army in order to see for themselves; a ceaseless stream of tourists, in showy state carriages or hired coaches, on horseback or borne in sedan chairs, drifted south along the Appian Way. Crassus would receive the more eminent among them in his tent during the rest periods, chew candied dates, look sulkily at his visitors and ask them whether they had enjoyed Pompeius’ triumphal entry as much. And only then did the ingenuity of Crassus’ idea dawn on the visitors, an ingenuity greater than that which had produced his building trust and his fire brigade; Rome had denied Crassus a triumphal entry; now Crassus forced Rome to meet him in homage on the very road.

It was getting on toward spring. The sun diffused some heat already, but no enough as yet to grant the mercy of a quick death to the people on the crosses left behind Crassus’ army. Only a few of them succeeded in bribing a soldier of the a soldier of the rearguard to come back at night and kill them. For Crassus had forbidden any initiative in that direction; although he had no particular inclination to cruelty, he liked an idea to be carried out meticulously, without anything to mar the purity of its effect. But, as he was by no means devoid of human considerations, he had chosen the method of nailing which tended to hasten death, rather than the customary stringing up.

The army’s march from Capua to Rome took twelve days; and on every one of them it left behind five hundred crucified at regular, tape-measured intervals. The feebler delinquents lived for a few hours only, the more tenacious for several days. If a man was lucky a nail pierced an artery, and he quickly bled to death, but usually only the bones of hands and feet were splintered, and if he fainted in the process, he came to again when they raised the cross, to curse the lords of creation. Many tore at their nails, some to break loose, some to bleed more rapidly; but they realized that torment puts a limit to even the strongest of wills. Many attempted to shatter their skulls against the posts; but they had to realize that of all living creatures it is yourself that is most difficult to kill.

It was getting on toward spring. Day relieved night and night relieved day; and still they lived on, imprisoned by their torment and pain; and gangrene made their flesh rot away, and their tongues swelled, and the beasts and birds of earth and air came close to them, growling, spitting, and flapping their wings. Day relieved night and night relieved day, and the earth would not open up and the sun would not cease traveling the skies. And that which was happening to them was inflicted beyond measure and guilt; and it was not happening as in mirage of fever, but in that reality from which one cannot wake; and they did not suffer in remembrance nor in anticipation, but suffered it in the present, here and now.

Chance had spared the chronicler Fulvius and the man with the bullet-head until the army had reached the river Liris. They were the last two of the Old Horde; Hermios the shepherd had been felled by a spear in Apulia, the two Vibiuses, father and son, had died together in the battle by the Silarus; Spartacus’ dark, slender woman had drowned herself during the battle when no one as yet knew of his death. Only the two of them were left, and old Nicos besides, almost blind now, led by the rope which bound them all, stammering incoherently.

They sat down for the last time, by the river Liris. They were sitting on the bank, in line with the others whom the lot had selected for this day; their hands were bound by the rope and armored men guarded them. The river Liris was greatly swollen. It carried shrubs and rotting vegetables, cat and pig-carrion, circling incessantly on its slimy whirls. At times the bodies of slain men swam past; they had traveled a long way and did not look much like humans, now.

Upstream, by the camp of the vanguard behind the river’s next bend, tapped the sounds of mallets. The posts for the next station were not ready yet; the one hundred and fifty men chosen by the lot had to wait. They were sitting along the bank in one long row, tied together by the rope, and waited to be fetched; they did not look much like humans either. They gazed into the yellow waters of the river Liris. Some swayed back and forth and moaned, some were singing, some law with their faces on the ground, some had bared the body to coax a last bliss out of it and weaken its vitality.

Old Nicos stammered disconnected phrases. He was the only one in their row whose fate was still postponed, but as he was almost blind the soldiers had left him with the other two who had been guiding him all along. “Blessed are those who renounce and die at the hands of evil and wicked,” stammered old Nicos.

But the Essene beside him smiled and wagged his head: “Blessed are those who take the sword in their hand to end the power of the Beasts; those who build towers of stone to gain the clouds, who climb the ladder to fight with the angel; for they are the true sons of man.”

The mallets upstream were less insistent now, their work was nearly finished. Next to the chronicler Fulvius sat a Calabrian peasant, a sorry little figure of a man with a tangled beard and gentle, slightly protruding eyes. He nibbled a stalk of lettuce, picked up somewhere or other, bore the name of Nicolaos, and hurriedly told Fulvius a muddled story about his cow Juno who had been about to calve when the soldiers came and pounced upon his wife and set the new barn roof on fire. He interrupted his tale to offer the lawyer some leaves of his lettuce, and asked him whether he thought that the soldiers would give them something to eat beforehand.

The lawyer Fulvius cleared his throat. “It will be better not to have anything in one’s bowels,” he said huskily.

He thought of his unfinished treatise and his parchment scrolls, wrested from him by a young officer when they took him prisoner. He felt almost indifferent to death, but he was very frightened indeed of that which would precede it, and he would have liked to know what had become of his parchment scrolls.

The mallets stopped completely; the mail-clad men came and led off the first ten in the row. Soon after, those who remained behind could hear hammering blows again, at regular intervals in ever-receding distance, but they sounded duller now than before and were accompanied by oddly inhuman yells. The hundred and forty roped men sat quietly side by side and listened.

“Blessed are those who die at the hand of evil,” babbled old Nicos. “The man-built towers crash to the ground, and the angel punished the bold one who climbed the ladder by dislocating his hip. Blessed are those who serve and offer no resistance.”

Nobody answered him; after a while the mail-clad men came back and led off the next ten. The lawyer Fulvius, the Essene and the little peasant with his protruding eyes sat near the end of the line now, among the ten whose turn it would be next. The Essene wagged his head: “He who receives the Word had a bad time of it,” he said. “He must carry it on and serve it in many ways, be they good or evil, until he may pass it on.”

The little Calabrian peasant told hurriedly on about Juno his cow, afraid that he might not have time to finish the story. He stopped in the middle of it. “Aren’t you afraid?” he asked the lawyer and went on nibbling his lettuce.

“Every man is afraid of dying,” said the chronicler Fulvius, “only, everyone in a different way. And yet, once the time is come, he forgets about it. For at first he only feels the pain, that means, he thinks of himself only and not of dying; and later, when death is already upon him, he forgets about himself. Nobody can feel both things at once, dying and one’s own self.”

The bearded little peasant nodded violently; he did not understand a single one of Fulvius’ words, but he wanted to believe in them because he imagined them to be comforting. But the chronicler Fulvius’ thoughts were divided between what they were going to do to him, and his lost parchment scrolls. The century of abortive revolutions was completed, the Party of Justice had lost out, its strength was spent and exhausted. Now nothing could impeded the greed for power, nothing barred the way to despotism, no barrier to protect the People was left. He whose grasp is the most brutal can now rise to untold heights;: dictator, emperor, god. Who will be the first to reach the winning post? Pompeius the soldier, Caesar the Tribune, Cethegus the schemer, Crassus the banker, Cato the puritan? Fulvius knows them all from the days of his earlier career, he knows well what the people’s heroes look like, when they bargain for office and position, drag one another before the Blackmail Commission, when they borrow money for games to win popularity, when they address the Senate, white, formal and starchy, every one his own monument. Up above glares the sun, down below flows the river, his hands are tired, the little peasant at his right chatters feverishly of Juno his cow, the next in the line, a black man, sits shamelessly exposed. And the sun will not stand still and no ladder descends from the skies, and there is no escaping from the Now and Here. But the bullet-headed sage smiles and wags his head:

“It is written: the wind comes and the wind goes, and does not leave a trace. Man comes, and man is gone, and knows nothing of the fate of his fathers and has no knowledge of the future of his seed. The rain falls into the river, and the river drowns in the sea, but the sea becomes no greater. All is vanity.”

The black man’s pupils have rolled behind his lids, he has covered up his nakedness; he has thrown himself back on the ground and groans and prays to the dismal gods of his homeland.

“That’s no consolation,” said the chronicler Fulvius, hoarse with fear, for he could see the mail-clad soldiers coming towards them.

-End of Chapter-

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