A Journey Through
Ancient Italy

By Peter Stothard

Overlook. 353 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

Most Americans, if they think of Spartacus at all, remember him as the hero of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic film, starring Kirk Douglas as the leader of a major slave revolt against the Roman Republic that took place between 73 and 71 B.C.

The Spartacus Road is the route along which the slaves fought their masters. It stretches through 2,000 miles of Italian countryside, from the Alps to Sicily.

Peter Stothard's account of his journey along that road makes for an extraordinary book, though one might not suspect this from the modest preview that Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, provides in the prologue:

It is, in part, a journalist's notebook because I have been a journalist . . . for most of my life. It is a classicist's notebook, written with half-remembered classical books for company, because while reporting politics in our own time I have so often felt the beat of ancient feet. It is also the notebook of a grateful survivor: ten years ago I was given no chance of living to make this trip and, on the Spartacus Road, the memory of a fatal cancer and its fortuitous cure shone stronger, and stranger, than I ever thought it could.

It is indeed "a classicist's notebook," and it is this, more than anything, that makes it so extraordinary. Time, for Stothard, is less a linear continuum than a palimpsest.

In Capua, the town where Spartacus and his cohorts escaped from their gladiatorial school, he meets a Korean couple traveling the Spartacus Road for reasons of their own. The maps they have are Korean atlases of Italy. Stothard's is a page out of the Barrington Classical Atlas, "which shows only what its editors know was there in ancient times." We shortly learn that Orkney was known to the ancients only from reports by a fellow named Pytheas, who hailed from what is now Marseilles. Paris, we discover, didn't exist. It was just a place called Lutetia, which later became a favorite home of the Emperor Julian, who tried to turn the clock back and make Rome pagan again. Within a page we have touched base with Martial, author of saucy epigrams, and are traveling with Horace along the Appian Way to Brindisi.

None of this is digressive. Every detail is integrated into an elaborate counterpoint that reminds one of nothing so much as a well-made fugue, with voices entering and leaving, mixing and matching.

A good example of how this works occurs toward the end of the book when Stothard recounts a phase of his cancer treatment. This had become, he explains, "an accelerating cycle of normality, semi-madness, delirium and normality again. . . . By my fifth cycle the useful time that I had called my 'lucidity hours' was reduced to a few mornings a month."

As it happened, his nurses "had plans for those mornings. I was to imagine scenes from my past, the happier the better." The idea was that the memories would contribute to his getting well.

We learn later on that the philosopher Epicurus, "unable to urinate and collapsing from kidney stones," had used an identical technique to ease his final days. We also learn that the young Peter Stothard, studying classics at Oxford, had come to fancy himself something of an Epicurean (in the classical, not the vulgar sense).

The most persistent memory that visited Stothard was of a plump, 60-year-old yogurt salesman in 1969, when Stothard, on his way to study at the University of Perugia, spent some time working for a hotel near Como. "It did not take us long to negotiate appropriate discounts for naturale, fragola and frutta di bosco. The rest of our time, which, like the man himself, was never less than ample, was spent spiriting personalities from the past."

The yogurt salesman's all-time favorite was Pliny the Younger, a Como native who told of a philosopher who bought a house in the area that was said to be haunted. When the ghost appeared to him and beckoned to him to follow, he told it to wait and went on with his work. Eventually, he followed it to a spot where it disappeared. There, the next day, bones with chains attached were found. These were taken away, and the apparition never was seen again.

Sitting in his garden with a battery of chemicals flowing through his veins, what Stothard found himself looking at was his younger self "on the shores of Lake Como - and with him the ghost-finder and, with them both, another figure, unnamed, dressed in Roman style. . . . It was the younger Pliny."

He adds that "there was no sound from the image but Pliny was speaking to the yogurt man and the yogurt man was speaking to me. I never saw Pliny back in 1969. I did not see him in my chemo-fueled rose garden three decades later. But I did see myself in Como seeing Pliny in Como."

By the time one has finished Spartacus Road, one has learned just about all there is to know about the slave leader, his victories, and his final defeat - his body was never found. One also has learned about a good deal else besides, from Frontinus the aqueduct maker to the poet Statius and his epic Thebaid to the word latifundia, "first used in the time of Pliny for giant sparsely populated tracts."

But what one learns of most of all is a sensibility, all too rare these days, that enables someone like Peter Stothard to sense how, at least in certain locales, the distant past interpenetrates the present and immeasurably enriches it.

"Returning to old books," Stothard says in his prologue, "is like returning to old friends." Anyone who becomes acquainted with this book is bound to find himself making one return visit after another.