Look Up

History is not prayer. To pray is to aim for spiritual elevation while studying the past is more like plodding along. Yet perhaps history prepares the soul, even so, by teaching a simple lesson: we are not the first to pass this way.

 Take, for example, the current mood of crisis in much of the world. The economy rumbles; corporations and stock exchanges shake; governments plan dramatic changes. It seems frightening, perhaps even apocalyptic, until things are put into perspective.

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Sun-Worship, Spartacus Style

With the season for pilgrimages of a sort upon us – Spring Break road trips for college students, more tony treks for the Palm Beach set – I can’t help but reflect on a detail of Spartacus’s revolt. Most of the rebels were Northerners: Celts, Germans or Thracians (roughly, Bulgarians). The rebellion, however, was almost entirely a southern affair. It began in south-central Italy at Capua (near Naples), almost reached Sicily, and found its center in Thurii, sited on a lush plain in the “sole” of the Italian “boot.”Read More

Slavedog Millionaire

amphitheatre-entrance_sm1If the movie Slumdog Millionaire wins the Oscar for Best Motion Picture on Sunday, it will owe some of its success to the same appeal as Spartacus’s story. Both tales feature an improbable rise from rags to riches – “rags to rajah,” as the film says, so make it “rags to regnum” for Spartacus. Both expose injustice and bigotry. Both reveal the plight of the poorest and most wretched members of society. Both offer revenge against oppression. Each has a love story at its heart.

The two stories both went from novel to the big screen, while each is rooted in historical truth. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the 1960 film Spartacus won a Golden Globe for Best Drama. But fans of Slumdog Millionaire will hope that the analogy between the two stories breaks down in at least one way: the 1960 film Spartacus was not even nominated for Best Picture by the Academy. 

A Valentine from Spartacus

Anything can be the stuff of romance when Hollywood gets its hands on it. Take Spartacus’s revolt, the slave uprising that shook Rome. The 1960 film classic Spartacus gave the rebel gladiator (Kirk Douglas) a love interest, Varinia (Jean Simmons), invented in turn by Howard Fast in his 1951 novel of the same name. Aram Khachaturian’s 1952 ballet, Spartacus also gave Spartacus a girlfriend, this time named Phrygia. Varinia and Phrygia are both fiction but the story doesn’t end there. Spartacus really did have a wife or at least a female companion. Her name does not survive but her nationality does. Like Spartacus, she came from Thrace (roughly, modern Bulgaria), not Phrygia (in modern Turkey) or Germany (Varinia’s supposed homeland in the novel; the film makes her a native of Britain). I call her the Thracian Lady.Read More

Spartacus, Entrepreneur

baiae-portico_sm1“What would Spartacus do if he were starting a small business today?” My wife, the businesswoman, asked me that at the breakfast table this morning and it got me thinking.

In today’s tough times, you have to take your business advice where you can get it, even from the ancient past. Like today’s business leaders, yesteryear’s warriors such as Spartacus knew a thing or two about winning.
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