The Soul of a Leader

In Spartacus by Barry Strauss

I’m reading Waller “Randy” Newell’s new book, The Soul of a Leader: Character, Conviction, and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness (New York: Harper Collins, 2009). It’s a wise and thoughtful study of leaders from Pericles to Obama (up through the election). Newell has the erudition of a professor, which he is, but he writes with a conciseness and understated elegance that draws the reader in.

After thumbing through a page or two each of my favorite historical characters, I went to the ten secrets of leadership in the book’s last chapter. They struck some of my favorite chords, such as common sense over glamour, limited goals over grand ambition, the need for both moral conviction and pragmatism, and the role of plain, old luck. I found myself, wondering, as you might guess, how Spartacus stacks up.

On the one hand, with all the holes in the ancient evidence, we can hardly say. On the other hand, after immersing myself in Spartacus’s story for several years, I feel like living dangerously. Here goes: Spartacus is certainly a case of Newell’s rule that character trumps formal education. Whatever he had done as a Roman auxiliary, Spartacus had not commanded a military campaign. Yet, when he broke out of the gladiatorial barracks, he took the reins with the touch of a master. Likewise, he illustrates Newell’s warning to leaders not to try to do too much. Spartacus wanted to build an army and take it home, not conquer Rome.

Spartacus falls short, I suspect, when measured against Newell’s dictum that inspiring rhetoric and moral conviction are necessary but only in moderation. Spartacus, it seems to me, was immoderately good. He was the chosen of Dionysus; the humanitarian who tried to stop rape and pillage; the man called “noble,” “prudent,” “mindful of his homeland,” and “innocent” by Roman sources. In short, the Spartacus we know and love was insufficiently ruthless. Had he been crueler, Spartacus might have been able to drive out or execute the Celtic and German commanders in his army. His frightened men might have then followed him out of Italy when they still had time to do so. But Spartacus, I suspect, loved justice and honor more than he loved winning.

Obviously, this is speculation. One thing, however, is certain. Spartacus exemplifies Newell’s sixth rule: “Time will run out.”

Barry StraussThe Soul of a Leader