The Gladiators (1939) by Arthur Koestler: From rebellion to ruin
The first book in a trilogy exploring whether the revolutionary end justifies the means
Arthur Koestler best-known for his novel ‘Darkness At Noon’. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The life Arthur Koestler recounts in his two amazing volumes of autobiography, The Invisible Writing and Arrow in the Blue, is as full of adventure and suspense as that of James Bond, if only James Bond were a brilliant intellectual, and a member of the Communist Party who took breaks from writing books to fight in the Spanish civil war.
Koestler eventually lost faith in communism, and his superb first novel, The Gladiators, is a dramatisation of that apostasy, though it concerns the slave revolt of Spartacus rather than the Bolshevik revolution. The first book in a trilogy exploring the question of whether the revolutionary end justifies the means – Arrivals and Departures and Darkness at Noon are no less great – it is full of everything one wants from a historical novel. When I read it, it astonished me that a story so dramatic and rich with mythic resonance could really have happened.
In fact the historical record of the slave uprising is rather slim: with gusto Koestler does what any novelist should, filling in the blanks with vividly imagined scenarios. After leading 70 fellow gladiators to fight their way out of captivity, Spartacus is hailed as the Slave Messiah. He directs his bid for emancipation from inside the crater of Mount Vesuvius. Every hero risks becoming a tyrant: Spartacus is faced with terrible choices, and the revolution loses direction. The novel ends with an unforgettable scene of retributive mass crucifixion, the road to Rome lined with the groaning bodies of rebels.
Although Koestler wrote The Gladiators in part to examine the nature of revolutionary failure, and explore his disappointment in the lost utopian dream of communism, as with all good allegorical novels the story stands up on its own. Koestler wrote it in German, having written previously in Hungarian. He would go on to write many more books in English, in prose that is at least the match of most native stylists.