The Gladiators (1939) by Arthur Koestler: From rebellion to ruin

The first book in a trilogy exploring whether the revolutionary end justifies the means

 

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.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.