Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in the BBC History Magazine, August 2004

Question: when is a bandit not a bandit? Answer: when he is a literary convention. Grünewald's argument is not quite that simple, but it gets the gist.

The Latin for 'bandit' is latro. Grunëwald identifies the names of eighty latrones in Roman history, and by examining the careers of each he establishes a number of categories into which they all broadly fall: four categories relating to their careers, and two to their personalities.

The four career categories can be summarised as follows: (I) those who practise robbery with violence and other non-political crimes against people; (II) guerrilla leaders, heading native or slave rebellions in the cause of political or social aspirations; (III) men who had become, or had aspirations to become, rulers by illegitimate means, usurping the established authorities; and (IV) self-styled judges, seeking justice for victims of dynastic murder, or using this as an excuse to create their own power-base. The two personality categories are somewhat less complex: good (driven by lofty motives, e.Grunëwald the desire for justice) and bad (violent, criminal, undeserving of respect, driven solely by the desire for booty or power).

Grunëwald's point is that the category into which any latro was placed depended on the agenda of the author concerned. Take, for example, the Thracian Spartacus, that best-known and most vividly drawn leader of a revolt. It began in 73 BC when Spartacus led a break-out from the gladiatorial compound in which he was incarcerated in Capua. He attracted to his side a large number of slaves working on the huge estates in the area, until his army numbered something in the region of 100,000 men. Incredibly, he defeated all the armies that Rome could hurl at him and made his way north to Cisalpine Gaul, where he assumed his followers, now free, would make new lives. But they preferred to stay with him ravaging Italy, and he returned south. Had transports arrived, he might even have crossed to Sicily, but in 71 BC he was caught by Crassus, his army largely destroyed and himself killed; Pompey finished off the surviving remnants. Spartacus quickly became a legend.

The Roman historian Florus (late 2nd C AD) sees him as a rebel against order and therefore a menace to Roman society and paints him in the darkest colours, though even he admits that he died bravely, fighting in the front ranks. But Plutarch, the Greek author of the deeply influential Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans (c. AD 100), finds much to praise in him: he was intelligent, prudent, no ordinary barbarian but highly civilised, a man of skill, vision, leadership and courage, who knew what was and was not possible and returned to Italy after he had reached Gaul only because he was forced to do so by his short-sighted followers; likewise, when his army had won a brief victory against Crassus, he advised against a full confrontation, but his over- confident army ignored him and disaster duly ensued. But why does Plutarch make such a favourable assessment? The answer is that Plutarch wants a contrast with the repugnant Crassus, in his view a corrupt and degenerate member of the Roman oligarchy.

Grunëwald's work is a model of its kind, with the usual strengths and weaknesses associated with any act of categorisation by type. The strength lies in the observation of repeated patterns of historical thought-process; the weakness in that the search for repeated patterns can lead to the omission of details that makes the critical difference (e.g. here are two animals, both with lungs, hearts, ears, eyes, legs, and reproductive organs - but one is a dead vole, the other Robin Cook). Nevertheless, I wish Grunëwald had pursued the question - what is the difference between a literary and a historical interpretation?

No comments:

Post a Comment