Gladiators Arthur Koestler
Book Review, Historical, Recently Posted

Gladiators written by Arthur Koestler


‘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




‘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.’


Hugo Chavez Revolution will not be televised
Documentary, English Movies

This revolution will not be televised directed by Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain

The_Revolution_will_not_be_Televised In an age of 24 hours television, when we have the whole world beamed to us by an almost inexhaustible array of channels, "This revolution will not be televised" poses some very uncomfortable questions about what we are fed everyday from the newsrooms of the world
A paranoid's favourite statement is – "We are being lied to". This being an affront to our superior intelligence, we choose to deny, even though we realize the kernel of truth in it. Or as Kurt Cobain put it succinctly – "Just Because You're Paranoid, Don't Mean They're Not After You"
When you see something like "This Revolution will not be televised", you realize that the paranoid is probably much saner than we thought. And you wonder what else is here that you think you knew, but probably don't know s**t
The setting of the documentary is the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela in which western influenced and financed groups and army elements tried to oust Hugo Chavez, the charismatic rebel president who had come to power on the back of a popular upsurge. Chavez was intended to become another bloody statistic in the long history of popular presidents in Latin America removed by force, the United States always being the alleged culprit. Look at what happened to Allende
Filmed by Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain, what was originally intended as a biographical sketch of the Hugo Chavez, turned into a fascinating look into the coup events as situations changed rapidly and drastically around them.

The filmmakers trace the whole coup attempt – from the inflammatory buildup by the private media, to street demonstrations in which mercenary snipers shot unarmed civilians to the chaotic events in which a section of the army backed by a US funded businessman took control of the government. It almost seemed like deja vu. images
It mirrored innumerable such events that has happened in the past – from Arbenz to Allende. The coup masters very smugly proclaimed that they have regained the control of the country that was theirs by right, which the upstart revolutionary Chavez had taken from them for a short time. All seemed according to script.
Then incredibly, completely against the tide of history, the coup was defeated. The South American continent, so used to being beaten down by its big neighbour north, saw something so unprecedented that it has become an example of hope for millions of people. The rebel army generals and the businessman put up as the puppet President were ousted from their new posts within just 2 days. Not by any armed insurrection or any military or armed intervention.
But by the common man on the street, who just refused to give up hope and just bscap0025cz5refused to give up on the president who had given them so much hope. Joining them was the common soldier, who had more in common with the population demonstrating for Chavez than with the generals leading them. The soldier, who  refused to obey orders and the common man, who refused to lie down again. These led to one of the most unprecedented moments in history
As to why Hugo Chavez inspired so much loyalty among the rank and file of the population and why he inspired such an abiding hatred in the elite which had ruled Venezuela for most of its history, is beyond the scope of this review. But just to give an idea, Chavez was the first non-white president in Venezuela since probably the Spaniards overran South America 500 years ago. And then refused to kow-tow to the elites, instead preferring to reach out to the impoverished mass. Chavez instituted a huge program of education and literacy along with a program to raise the political consciousness of the people. For the first time, the people were encourage to read the constitution and understand their rights. In short, Chavez gave to the 99% of the population a hope that they never thought existed.
And for this, he was hated (and still is) passionately by the ones he had ousted. Their power on the country was slipping. Hence the time-honoured tradition was resorted to – remove the elected president in the name of democracy or human rights, depending on the flavour of the season. In this case, both reasons werebscap0022rq3 used….
What this documentary does show starkly is this. It is so easy to subvert the media and what it shows us and 'educates' us that it is frightening. So much depends on the way the camera angle is shown – a crowd of 100 can be made to show 1000 and vice versa. People being shot on the streets – by the government or the mercenaries outside the view of the camera?
Chavez never banned the media, and even then was accused of muzzling free speech.This documentary shows what a sham "free speech" can be, when that term is used to slander and turn an event into what the media owners want. After months of calling Chavez to be everything from a tyrant to a dog on the street, after the illegal coup attempt was done, the media celebrated the event as a "Victory for Democracy" and more hypocritically "Victory of the people", without ever consulting the people
"This Revolution will not be televised" is unique because it was bang in the middle of the unfolding events and we are able to get an unique glimpse into the event from both sides. The events as reported in the private media and how it was actually happening.
revnot2 After the people revolted and refused to be cowed down. And then, when the soldier refused to fire on the crowd, the game was up. Chavez was rescued from the jaws of death by the paratroopers who remained loyal to him and brought back to a deliriously cheering crowd. And what does he do to the people who had him nearly killed in cold blood? Nothing. He lets them go."Victory for people" and "Victory for Democracy" indeed.
It is not only a fascinating watch that moves like a thriller. It is also a peek into how our "Free media" works. How a group's agenda is projected as the will of the nation. Its a stark pointer to the fallibility of the notion that a free enterprise is necessarily a free of bias enterprise.
And you wonder what else we have not been told and not shown
And you wonder, how many revolutions were not televised?









Action, Classics, English Movies

Spartacus directed by Stanley Kubrick

spartacus-DVDcoverFor me, the best Roman era epic to come out of Hollywood. For me, Spartacus beats hollow Ten Commandments and its ilk. For me, this is mainly because firstly this has a historical element to it (and I am fascinated by the history of slave rebellions – and the most famous name in that history always goes to Spartacus), which makes it real and believable. Secondly there is no preaching a la Moses et al which can make you cringe…

The story is about Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas – the better of the two Douglas according to me!!!) and his doomed slave rebellion (the Third Servile war). It was the most successful slave rebellion in the history of the Roman empire, a rebellion which threatened Rome itself. It was a rebellion which had in its army some gladiators (Spartacus and his generals were all gladiators) while the majority were hastily trained slaves who seemed magically to destroy almost any legions that the Romans threw at them and which reached a point when Rome did not have legions to defend itself and had to recall legions fighting abroad to come to their rescue. It was a rebellion that took three whole veteran armies to destroy though by this point Spartacus’ army was very muchspartacus weakened.

Spartacus has been an inspiration to centuries of rebels fighting oppression, most notably Toussaint L’Ouverture (he was called the black Spartacus by the French). Indeed his legend has lived on through the centuries as a symbol of uncompromising and heroic defiance of tyranny (and Imperialism).

Of course since the movie is only three hours long, Hollywood simplified the whole rebellion, shortening it and making a linear structure to the whole process (when in fact there were many twists and turns in the actual rebellion). In the process, it also manufactured a somewhat fictionalized account of the life of Spartacus (Very little is known of Spartacus himself historically – his body was never found). But its a beautiful job done since the only the peripheral elements are changed to bring cohesiveness to the story. And Kirk Douglas is sublime as the leader of the rebels where he is projected as a freedom fighter who aims to free all the slaves in the empire and allow them to go back to their homes. Historians agree that his actions did aim for the freeing of the slaves (though not from all the empire – just whatever he could do).

The movie starts with Spartacus as a slave when he is bought by a Gladiator trainer for his Gladiator school. He falls in love with a slave girl, Varinia, there but there is little he can do about except steal glances and long for her silently. However a small rebellion starts when a show is put up for Crassus and his entourage where the four gladiators are spartacus_1960_reference forced to fight to death. Spartacus is defeated but his opponent Draba refuses to kill him, instead charging up the podium towards Crassus, being killed in the attempt. The mood turns ugly in the camp and the spark is lit when Spartacus sees Varinia being taken away to Rome where Crassus had bought her and kills the guard who jeers at him. The other gladiators join in and the rebellion starts…

The story of how the rebellion progresses and how from being dismissed off a gang on a small time rampage, the rebellion is slowly seen as a major threat by the Roman Senate whose armies are decimated systematically by the poorly equipped and semi-trained slave army…Along the way, the story develops Spartacus’ personality, his love for Varinia, his loyalty towards his men (refusing to save himself at the end) and more importantly his growth as a defender of the weak and the oppressed, giving them the strength to fight back, thus creating history.

The best scene in the whole movie is surely the “I am Spartacus” part (and a whole lot of fans of this movie would agree), when his men refused to give him up for a chance at liberty. This is of course not historical but I am sure the kind of man he supposedly was, it would have probably happened if the situation had actually occurred. This64.-I-am-Spartacus._imagelarge part is really the climax for me – the rebels defeated but unbowed. That really makes the movie perfect.

Another good part of the movie is the development of the personality of the main characters in the movie – other than Spartacus and his generals (especially Crixus), Crassus, Gracchus, Julius Caesar, the Gladiator school owner Lentulus Batiatus, Varinia and Antoninus. You understand what each man is fighting for and the movie also makes clear that there are no specific villains in the whole story, only heroes and victors. This, for me, is what makes the movie so compelling and moving.

Spartacus is a movie that should be watched by all…not only is it an epical tale well told but a tale that is told beautifully. It a movie whose scenes and dialogues stay with you for a very very long time…and you begin to understand the legend that is Spartacus…


Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

To make the deaf hear written by S Irfan Habib

30 Books like these are very important for a much more holistic understanding of Indian struggle for independence than what is taught to the children of this country through the official NCERT textbooks…Books like these remind us how much of our history we are unaware of and we also become aware of the fact that ‘rewriting’ of history is not something that BJP attempted during their regime but something that the Congress complete successfully during their uninterrupted rule for almost fifty years…

Today much more questions are being raised about Gandhi’s role in the struggle and there is a start to put his efforts in perspective with other people who had the same goals but differed in their methods and ideology. Gandhi is not considered the demi-god that he was projected for a long time. His flawed ideas, his hypocrisy and his ruthlessness in dealing with people who did not agree with him (He let Bhagat Singh hang, considering him a threat)  is increasingly becoming public knowledge and gaining acceptance. That is indeed a welcome change since it is time that history is retold in a more objective manner. It is also time that other people who have been airbrushed by Congress historians in favour of their own people are given the honour and the place in history that they deserve.

bhagat20For a long time, the establishment considered people like Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen to be a threat to their version of history since they openly spoke against the compromises Congress made with the British and spoke against the weakness in approach and ideology of the Gandhi camp in dealing with the imperial power. For a long time the established view of the manner of India’s getting independence was thrust down the gullible throats of children. That is slowly changing with many books (like this one) proving that quite a different scenario was present and that independence of this country did not come via Gandhi at all.

The title of this book comes from the reason that Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt gave in support of their action in throwing a harmless bomb at the Legislative Assembly. They felt that the Congress and the British Imperial propaganda were disparaging the revolutionaries (relegating them as terrorists – NCERT books still label them as such) and also that their policies were harming the common people. They courted arrest so that their ideas could be more readily disseminated to the people of India.

bkdutt The book is lucidly written and takes an approach of giving the background of the rise of the revolutionary ideals in India and their evolution from a religious nationalism to a completely scientific socialist point of making a revolution. The book is also a testimony to the maturity and the incisiveness of thoughts of the revolutionaries in understanding the situation in India especially in relation to the world scenario and their understanding that unless the core problems in ideology and approach were solved, white masters would be simply replaced by brown masters without causing much change in the ground situation (an observer today would testify to the prescience of these thoughts). Compare this with the fuzzy, hazy, metaphysical ideology of Gandhi which proclaimed the Luddite ideal of pre-industrial village economies and living off nature. chanderShekhar

It is a tragedy that someone like Gandhi gained ascendance in Congress (helped no doubt by the British and the Indian capitalist classes). His rise is naturally due to the fact that the imperial masters found easy to deal with Gandhi who easily compromised and whose actions (purely non-violent) never really threatened the established order. His was a spiritual movement completely out of tune with the requirement of the  hour. But as things stood, the British killed off the people whose ideas could have made the country much more inclusive while Gandhi continued with his fuddy-duddy approach, much to the delight of the Britishers (I mean, he wanted a dominion status late into 1930’s for India – can you imagine India as Wales?).

All of this is explained beautifully in this highly informative book. We are gradually introduced into the world and thoughts of rajguru2Bhagat Singh and his comrades. For someone who does not know, it would come as an incredible the thoughts of someone as young like Bhagat Singh and his friends. His “Why I am an atheist” could not have been written more lucidly by a learned professor of thrice his age. His mature approach to the struggle and his foresight in terms of what the Indian society needs is a refreshing read and is a proof (if any was needed) that the Indian  struggle was not a monotheistic one nor a linear one.

The book is filled with lots of pamphlets and writings by the  revolutionaries themselves which gives us an opportunity to read them without the filter of interpretation. This is one more thing that makes this book a gem…vohrafamily

All in all, a very refreshing and important read not only for a history buff like me but for anyone with an open mind who is interested in understanding our roots…and very importantly, the fact that it is written by Irfan Habib makes it very accessible to even the casual reader of history…


Drama, English Movies, Thriller

And starring Pancho Villa as himself directed by Bruce Beresford

And-Starring-Pancho-Villa-As-Himself.jpg This is a fascinating movie that is steeped in history. But history buffs and non-buffs alike will find this movie engrossing and engaging because it not only portrays an exciting time in early 20th century history but is also a commentary on the role of media in changing the course of history. The fact that ‘Lens is mightier than the sword’ is proved by the movie set at a time when the power of the lens was just being felt on the world.

The story is all the more interesting because its true – Pancho Villa allowed an American movie company (Mutual Film Company) to film battles in real time (because he needed money to finance the revolution) so that it could be made into a movie, which it was – called “Life of General Villa”, a movie that changed the public opinion of Villa and prevented an invasion of Mexico by US army. The story is about the shooting of the movie in the midst of a revolution and the relationships between the people caught up in it, in relation to each other and especially in relation to Villa.

The movie’s another attraction is that it features some fascinating characters from history – other than Pancho Villa himself, there is John Reed, D W Griffith and lots of silent movie actors.

But the main attraction by far is Pancho Villa himself. He was known to486px-Pancho_villa_horseback be a multidimensional man – a military genius whose methods were studies by the US army, a charming man who held whole populations in thrall, an uncle giving candy to children, a ladies man, a Robin Hood who robbed lands to distribute it to the poor, a selfless patriot who wanted to liberate Mexico but not usurp power for himself and a man who can be a ruthless executioner when the time comes. All in all, an engrossingly complex character which the tide of history throws up at times like those…

And Antonio Banderas, I felt, played the role very well. The complexities of the man was brought out well. Both his emotional side and his cold calculating mind were both portrayed perfectly.

Another good thing I liked was that the movie did not take liberties with historical facts except in simplifying it (The revolution was infinitely more complex of course). That is a refreshing change…

I saw a part of the movie when I was working with Cognizant in Kolkata, missing a part of the morning hours due to this!!! And I have been searching for this since then…The full movie did not disappoint me, in fact I would count it among one of my favourite movies…

Viva Villa!!!