Gladiators Arthur Koestler
Book Review, Historical, Recently Posted

Gladiators written by Arthur Koestler

gladiators

‘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.’

 

Gladiators by Arthur Koestler is a retelling of the Spartacus story that will leave cringing those who lapped up Kirk Douglas in the role of the slave revolutionary and those who have read Howard Fast's "Spartacus".

This is a story not particularly of Spartacus as it is about his revolution. And the fate of any revolution as envisioned by Arthur Koestler

Spartacus is a completely historical figure who is shrouded in a mythical aura.

One of the most well known rebel in history, the word Spartacus has come to define defiance in the face of oppression and freedom in the face of tyranny. Little is known about him factually since his history was written by the ones who vanquished him, the Roman republic.

The legend of Spartacus has lived down to the present day and has continued to inspire revolutionaries. Any slave rebellion, before slavery went out of fashion, was compared to the Spartacus revolution. Toussaint L Overture, who found a slave republic in Haiti, was known as the "Black Spartacus". The long shadow of the insurrection by the gladiators 2000 years ago…

It is easy to romanticize Spartacus and the slave rebellion. It has all the ingredients of a modern day Hollywood hit – complete with a square jawed hero standing upto the might of the Roman empire. A slave, a gladiator, a trained killer who kills for the crowds pleasure turning on his master and attempts to change the course of history single-handedly.

A Spartacus that gives stirring speech – of the equality of man and right to freedom and then inspires his fellow slaves to start a rebellion that shook the Roman Empire to its core. The tragic end, the underdog going down fighting, crushed by treachery and bad luck but preserving his honour till the end.

The "I am Spartacus" at the end of the Kirk Douglas movie was stirring but probably untrue.

Almost seems formulaic and scripted.

Except that it really happened…

Not the melodrama.

But the rebellion was a unique aberration in the long history of empire building of the Romans. It did shake the empire and Spartacus did inspire awe and fear among his enemies. Hannibal and Spartacus were the favourite bogeymen of Roman mothers – Hannibal a decorated enemy prince and Spartacus a mere arena gladiator.

The memory of Spartacus in Roman society, completely dependent on submissive slave force, was immense and deep…

Although what he spoke and thought or even what he looked like has not been recorded. If he ever wrote a memoir, it has been lost to posterity. So Spartacus is an open field for interpretation. And since everyone likes a dashing hero, people have forged him in their own imagination

Gladiators Arthur Koestler Where Koestler's book "Gladiators" differs from tellings is that it looks at the Spartacus revolution as a whole and does not dwell on the man himself. Koestler's Spartacus is not a superman but an extraordinary man thrust into greatness in an environment not of his choosing. Koestler's Spartacus is not a man who has a great vision of history or of his rebellion but is willing to learn along the way. He is an able leader, a brilliant tactician and a man who is willing to lead his people. He is not without his doubts but is willing to find answers and experiment

"Gladiators" is more about is the rebellion itself with Spartacus just a character. Koestler's telling of the story is about how the rebellion, and by extension all the rebellions before and after, exists outside of the characters.

Spartacus is not above the rebellion. In fact it is the rebellion which controls him. Inexorably, history pulls Spartacus and Crixus and the other slaves into an iconic rebellion they themselves had not planned. It does not start with any stirring speech but with an act of defiance.

The nature of man takes care of the next part and history at its time completes the story. The yearning for freedom is the most innate feeling of man. Spartacus just follows it and then acts according to what is thrown at him.

“Gladiators” is about the inevitable failure of a mass revolutionary movement that is based on ideals alone. The utopia that exists in the dreams of man is doomed to failure, 2000 years ago or a century ago. One man’s search for utopia is different from other’s search for utopia. Inevitably, good actions for the greater good ends up doing the same damage that the revolution originally intended to abolish. Spartacus had to crucify his own men to uphold his dream, the same way that the Cheka (the early secret police of the Soviets) imprisoned their own people to uphold the common man’s utopia.

"Gladiators" is also about two men of the revolution – Spartacus and Crixus, two faces of the same rebellion. Spartacus is the idealized hero, looking to find cosmic answers to his endeavors. Crixus only knows one dictum – "Eat or be eaten". Spartacus realizes the truth of Crixus at the end and Crixus,in the end appreciates what Spartacus represented about the revolution.

Koestler throws open the question to the reader – who was the real hero? Spartacus who toiled for the ideal "Sun State" only to demolish it himself or dour faced Crixus, who knew that nothing is worth the effort and one should just live for themselves.

And that is the real thrust of the book – Can a revolution actually succeed without compromising on its lofty ideals? Can a revolution against oppression survive without oppressing its own children? Can a revolution exist outside of human nature? Can valour and sacrifice justify the dictum of – for the greater good? Can a revolution succeed when promising a paradise tomorrow and giving hell today?

This being the first of Koestler's trilogy, next being "Darkness at Noon" and ………, you can see Koestler developing hisArthur koestler- theory of revolutions which he sharpens with his "Darkness at Noon", the most famous of his work. But even if "Darkness at Noon" was about the Russian Revolution and "Gladiators" is set in ancient Rome, the same theme recurs.

Koestler is saying that nothing changes, even after 2000 years.

It is not a book that would be easily recommended to someone who is about to start Koestler, but I would suggest reading this before reading his other work. Not only can you see the progression of Koestler's ideas but Gladiators is a brilliant book in its own right.

It is surprising that it is not more widely known. Maybe"Darkness at Noon" overshadows this or probably people are happy with the fairy tale telling of the other Spartacus…

End point – this thin book will probably change more than a few beliefs – about history, about idealism, about myths and about rebellions….A must have…

 

Some quotes Gladiators by Arthur Koestler –

 

‘Anyone can live—but dying is an art and takes some learning,’ he kept on admonishing his gladiators

 

‘Truly,’ he said to the slaves, ‘your chains must be dear to your hearts and of great bliss to your bodies. I for one cannot see anything else on this estate that you can call your own and could wish to defend with your lives. Or did they tell me lies, or do those fowls lay eggs for your breakfast, do those cows yearn for the bull to increase your herds,

 

the relatives of Death, such as Honour, Shame and Duty, exist for him only who has no ken of reality. For reality, mucous, unspeakably delicate, with its mesh of thin veins, is not made to be torn to bits by some pointed object. And now Praetor Clodius Glaber knows that dying is unutterably stupid—more stupid still than life itself

 

So there it was again, the Sign on which the gladiator’s fate depended. There was no escape from it. Jewelled, loosely wrinkled, that thumb pointed down, dishonoured life and degraded death to a spectacle, pierced even one’s dreams.

 

It is the same with prophecies as with clothes. There they hang in the tailor’s shop, many men pass them, many a man they would fit. One comes and takes the robe. And so it is made for him—for he has taken it unto him…. What really matters is, that it suits fashion and period. It must fit in with the taste of the time—the wishes of many—the need and longing desire of many…

 

He who aims to plant a garden must start out by weeding

 

He himself had once seen better days: and despite his earnest endeavours to do so he had never been able to imagine the mental make-up of a man who had never seen better days

 

Many a man has strutted the road of tyranny, at the outset solely with the purpose of serving his lofty ideals, and in the end the road alone made him carry on

 

It is the same as with war: everybody discusses it, some are for it, some against, but no one honestly believes that it will eventually materialise; and when it is really upon them, they are astounded that they were right. There is no surprise greater than that of the prophet whose prophecies come true. For there is a great laziness of habit in the thoughts of man, and a smiling voice deeply buried inside him, which whispers that Tomorrow will be just like Today and Yesterday. And, against his better judgment, he believes it. And that is really a mercy, for otherwise he could not live with the knowledge of his certain death

 

and also crosses grew in a corner by the North Gate, on which died those whose lives were forfeited in the interests of common welfare, those who had not been able to submit to the stern laws of freedom

 

In the evenings people told each other stories about the wicked time of slavery, it lay far behind them, and now only half of it was true

 

He means well, you say? Of course he means well, that’s the worst of it

 

For the damage done by the congenitally wicked tyrant is confined to the field of his personal interests and his personal cruelty; but the well-meaning tyrant who has a lofty reason for everything, can do unlimited damage

 

And I tell you, it is dangerous to combine so much power in the fist, and so many lofty reasons in the head, of one single person. In the beginning the head will always order the fist to strike from lofty reasons; later on the fist strikes of its own accord and the head supplies the lofty reasons afterwards

 

But past experience evaporates quickly from the memory of man, and the more tormenting the experience, the quicker it devours every trace of itself

 

But man is not allowed to shape his existence independently of the system, conditions and laws of his time

 

Who cast the die, decided a man’s life before he was born? He gave noses unto all of them, stuck eyeballs into them, guts and sex, without much difference. But he set them apart in their mothers’ wombs already, some were never to smile, nor be smiled at, the others were dragged into the light of day, and for them shone the sun

 

‘Can you hear them, brethren, do you hear them?’ shrieked Zozimos and waved his sleeves like banners. ‘Do you hang well, brethren? Does freedom cut nicely into your limbs? Do its splinters tear your flesh? It’s the Sun State, that stuff which flows red from your mouths. They’ve skewered you like worms, so that every one may see the time of Justice and Goodwill is come

 

As for your returning, I can see quite well why you did it,’ said Hegio. ‘I too have within me those two opposed energies: the desire to depart and the desire to remain. You might also call them the desire to destroy and the desire to preserve. There are only those two whether you search without or within you; and their strife is eternal. For each victory gained by one over the other is but a sham-conquest which cannot last; just as the change from life into death has its vicious circle and is only seemingly final. He who departs remains chained to his memories, and he who stays abandons himself to painful longings. And throughout the ages men and women have crouched on ruins, lamenting they said: the time is not ripe, it is either too young or too old

 

THIS IS THE LAST RESTING PLACE OF HERMIOS, A LUCANIAN SHEPHERD; HE LONGED TO EAT FIELDFARE WITH BACON JUST ONCE BUT WAS PREVENTED. YOU WHO PASS HERE, REMEMBER THAT NO ONE SHOULD EAT FIELDFARE WITH BACON AS LONG AS ONE MAN LIVES ON THIS EARTH WHO MAY NOT TASTE OF THEM

 

‘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.’

 

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