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James Leslie Mitchell’s Spartacus

Ian Campbell, University of Edinburgh

References are given at the end of the document.

[DIGEST OF A PAPER GIVEN TO THE ASLS GENERAL MEETING CONFERENCE, KING'S COLLEGE, ABERDEEN ON 9 JUNE 2001. Much of the material will be found expanded in the introduction to the forthcoming reprint of the novel to be published by Polygon on 31 July 2001. Some of the material from the discussion following the paper has been included.]

It has taken a long time for James Leslie Mitchell to come in from the cold, even here in Aberdeen, where his books were regarded with suspicion (and downright hostility in Arbuthnott) even in the 1950s, before Penguin were in the dock for printing Lady Chatterley, before the kind of discourse which passes without comment in the world of Welsh and Kelman was familiar in Scottish literature. While A Scots Quair (Sunset Song, 1932; Cloud Howe, 1933; and Grey Granite, 1934) is his single most remembered work, now famous through repeated republication, television serialisation and teaching at school and university, Spartacus (1933) was to take longer to catch fire in the public imagination, and though it is repeatedly mentioned by Mitchell's critics in respectful tones it has been largely out of print since the author's death and has been overcast by Howard Fast's better-known recreation of the Spartacist slave rebellion chosen by Hollywood for the celebrated film Spartacus. The forthcoming reprint by Polygon (31 July), one of several in the last decade, is part of the process of correcting the picture of a 'one-book' author, for few so little fit that description as the astonishingly prolific Mitchell. Under his Scottish pseudonym of 'Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ he made A Scots Quair public property and established it as a Scottish classic: under his own name, which he reserved for a different kind of publication (and for the pleasure of reviewing his own work – often favourably) he published history, archaeology, accounts of exploration. A committed Marxist and implacably hostile observer of the Scottish and British social and political scene, he found a natural attraction in the story of the Spartacist rebellion.

When I hear or read of a dog tortured to death, very vilely and foully, or some old horse driven to a broken back down a hill with an overloaded cart of corn, of rats captured and tormented with red-hot pokers in bothies, I have a shudder of disgust. But these things do not move me too deeply, not as the fate of the old-time Cameronian prisoners over there, three miles away in Dunnottar; not as the face of that ragged tramp who went by this afternoon; not as the crucifixion of the Spartacist slaves along the Appian Way. To me it is inconceivable that sincere and honest men should go outside the range of their own species with gifts of pity and angry compassion and rage when there is horror and dread among humankind. (ScS 304) 1.

As ‘blasphemer and reformer’ (his own terms, skilfully used by W.K. Malcolm in his analysis of Mitchell) he was to produce in Spartacus a telling indictment of men’s inhumanity to those over whom they had total control – and the authorial disgust at such inhumanity pulses through every page of Spartacus.

The novel is revealing of many features of Mitchell's life; his vivid imaginary power to recreate scenes he could not possibly have visualised from real life; his sympathy with the oppressed; his deep antipathy to people who abused power. Above all, Spartacus is a vivid insight into the critique of society which spurred him (particularly in Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, which still await full critical study) to write again and again a diffusionist attack on civilisation run to fat, exploitative, uncaring, inhuman.

‘Diffusionism’ in Mitchell is a clumsily-titled but not really difficult system which needs to be grasped to make sense of Sunset Song’s standing stones and the decadent Aberdeen of Grey Granite, the pre-lapsarian society of Three Go Back – and the Roman civilisation of Spartacus. To the Diffusionist civilisation is a slow curse, overtaking originally free and happy humanity from the Egyptian pyramid-builders on, bringing settlement, culture – property, compulsion, war, tyranny, religion, mental enslavement. To Mitchell (and to his contemporary and friend MacDiarmid) civilisation was a blight and a curse, and its nadir the Depression they saw around them, and Mitchell remembered vividly from his Glasgow years in the slums. Ewan in Grey Granite embodies a lot of his author’s fastidious distaste at the depression and its horrors, wandering the streets of Aberdeen in the summer heat, taking refuge in the clean marble halls of the Art Gallery.

There was a cast of Trajan, good head; Caesar – the Caesar they said wasn’t Caesar. Why not a head of Spartacus? Or a plaque of the dripping line of crosses that manned the Appian Way with slaves – dripping and falling to bits through long months, they took days to die, torn by wild beasts. Or a statuary group of a Roman slave being fed to fishes, alive in a pool ... (SQ 406-7)

If this was civilisation, plainly Mitchell wanted little to do with it. Yet his creative imagination, uncomfortably enough (for much of his work is uncomfortably full of pain and suffering), could not leave it alone. The Spartacist rebellion was plainly a subject for a historical novel he could use as a trenchant commentary on his times 2.

Clearly, Mitchell chose to write about a rebellion. Already we have seen his hostility towards a conspiracy which would make of history a cosy and unchallenging account of the past, and there is nothing at all about his version of the events of 73-71 B.C. which is relaxing. The inspiration of the novel is the enormous impetus given to the pent-up rebellious instincts of the slave class in Italy by the towering and charismatic leader in Spartacus the historical personality.

The plot starts with rebellion, if not with its ultimate leader; the plot has little to do with the events after Spartacus’ own death, except to record in its sickening detail Rome’s public revenge. The emphasis in the original historical sources is simply omitted; strict concentration on the rebellion itself is clearly the artistic intention of Spartacus.

The narrowness of Mitchell's treatment is extraordinary when the novel is finished and the reader reflects. By the invention and retention of the character of Kleon throughout the narrative – Kleon anticipates Spartacus and survives him, narrowly – Mitchell is released from any obligations to provide a wider contextual framework in order to make sense of the rebellion. Kleon makes sense, sense enough for his own narrow intentions and sense enough to interpret a savage, over-simplified society to the reader. The unimpassioned account of a mutilated former slave is the ideal narrative vehicle for the passionate and often repulsive material of the story. Not for Mitchell any sentimental glossing-over of detail or building-up of false heroics: though the novel does make room (and this came up in the discussion) for exploration of the tensions in a predominantly all-male society, the relation between powerful men, even the possibility of a sexually-driven relation between a castratus and a Roman female captive. As in much of his work, Mitchell is pushing back the boundaries of what can be said and read about (and discussion also touched on his liberal use of cruelty and blood in his fiction): Spartacus is about a fiercely unnatural world, and Mitchell does not shy from suggestions of unnatural behaviour in it.

One really significant omission is the Romans – the Masters, as they are universally called here. Masters they are to the slaves, and Masters they are to the reader who never approaches them closer than the understanding of the slave army or the superior intelligence. of Kleon. Glimpsed in the gathering dusk or in the distant dust-cloud, occasionally eavesdropped on in council or Senate discussion, the Romans remain in Mitchell's novel a satisfactory enigma, not understood and therefore totally hated. In isolating the reader from the Roman lifestyle, which might encourage identification (and worse still, sympathy) in the modern reader, Mitchell compels sympathy with the barbarous and alien lifestyle of the slave army.

Barbarous the action certainly is. When Crassus the Lean finds his orders disobeyed, the Cambridge Ancient History wryly notes he found his relief in

... decimating an unsteady cohort – with the most beneficent results to the morale of the remainder 3.

Mitchell's account of the episode laconically conveys not only the punishment but the complete lack of surprise or sympathy such a punishment might arouse.

When Crassus heard this, the face of the Dives went livid with anger. He commanded that the hundred men of the velites he decimated. Then the whole army stirred at the shouted orders of the tribunes and marched north on the slave-camp. (S 209)

It was the norm of life in the army. The death of one man in ten was hardly worth commenting on, ordinary army discipline. This calculated tight-lipped description of cruelty cumulatively does much to transmit the horror Mitchell obviously felt at the circumstances surrounding the rebellion, and the society which bred it. 'Bring Cossinus’ head', orders Spartacus at one point, ‘and Itul the Iberian hewed it from the trunk which his club had mangled, and brought it dripping'(S 93). No comment is required for an emotion doubtless no one felt.

The slaves implored the Gauls to free them. They were manacled one to the other, and when they were discovered with their overseer slain they would undoubtedly be crucified, as a warning to other slaves.

The Gauls listened and were moved a little. But they had no time to unmanacle the gang, and the slaves of it would encumber the scouts. So they left them, hearing their cries for long as they rode round the shoulder of the hill. (S 204-5)

Laconically, Mitchell tidies up the episode a few pages later.

They passed by the field where the ten chained slaves had watched the Gauls of Titul slay the overseer. Ten shapes lay very quiet there now: already the spot was a-caw and a-crow with ravens. Gershom glanced at it indifferently. (S 212)

In catching hardened indifference to suffering, torture and death Mitchell cleverly implants in the reader's mind the ability to see the events of the novel, people and places, with the artificiality of a narrow slave perspective. Excitement is possible, no doubt, the excitement of personal loyalty to Spartacus, excitement of winning a battle over the Masters, even the thrill of seeing Rome,

at noon, from the Campagna, from the Sabine Hills, shining below them, Mons Cispius crowned with trees and the longroofed Doric temples, Mons Oppius shelving tenement-laden into the sunrise's place, Mons Palatinus splendid with villas, fading into a sun-haze mist where the land fell ... Aventine lay south, and north, high-crowned, the Capitoline Hill. Rome! (S194)

Yet the greater part of the book is calculatedly barren of excitement, barren of emotion, whether in the reactions of the mutilated Kleon, the enigmatic Spartacus, or the hardened slaves themselves.

The extent of Mitchell's calculatedly narrowed vision is seen easily enough in a comparison with Howard Fast's Spartacus of 1951 (source of Rank's 1959 film starring Kirk Douglas). Fast implants the story within the Roman society of the time, with flashback and forward through the experience of Crassus, Gracchus, Cicero and a young pleasure-seeking aristocratic Roman circle. Fast’s narrative has its own harrowing moments, a vivid insight into his early years as a slave in the Egyptian mines which Spartacus was lucky to survive, a dreadful description of the crucifixion scenes on the Appian Way. Perhaps Fast's most vivid achievement is to realise, in a low-key way, the full horror of being a slave in scenes underplayed skilfully as follows:

The litter-bearers, weary from all the miles they had come, sweating, crouched beside their burdens and shivered in the' evening coolness. Now their lean bodies were animal-like in weariness, and their muscles quivered with the pain of exhaustion, even as an animal's does. No one looked at them, no one noticed them, no one attended them. The five men, the three women and the two children went into the house, and still the litter-bearers crouched by the litters, waiting. Now one of them, a lad of no more than twenty, began to sob, more and more uncontrollably; but the others paid no attention to him. They remained there at least twenty minutes before a slave came to them and led them off to the barracks where they would have food and shelter for the night 4.

To describe reality with as little emotion as this is to suggest powerfully the Romans’ contempt for the slaves as human beings, and their simple indifference to them. Indifference is something Mitchell and Fast both attribute to the Romans, Fast in a splendid aside attributed to Brutus waving a hand at the slave-crosses on the Appian Way, their troops’ handiwork.

Did you want it to be genteel? That's their work. My manciple crucified eight hundred of them. They're not nice; they're tough and hard and murderous 5.

Spartacus is told with Mitchell's characteristic verve and economy, for he was a writer who experimented through the short story to find a mature and very recognisable narrative style early in his career. There is indeed a place for good narrative style, since the novel contains very few female characters, little straightforward love interest, and a great deal of unpleasant violence. To counter the violence, to distract the reader's attention from the relatively narrow spectrum of character and incident, Mitchell fortunately has at his command a flexible and arresting prose. The basic narrative medium is well-written narrative English, the language of Stained Radiance and The Thirteenth Disciple. As everywhere in Mitchell's work, the reader is drawn without preamble into the fully-active plot.

When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master's body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast. (S 15)

The style is arresting; it raises expectations; it provides essential background unobtrusively. Above all, it intimates the general scene of violence, mutilation and death we can expect from the rebellion.

Two interesting points in Mitchell's narrative strategy are the references to the Masters by the slaves' name (rather than ’Roman'), setting the tone for the narrative stance throughout, and the very early setting up of a stylistic device which Mitchell exploits to excellent effect throughout. Kleon is described in the first sentence as a literatus without explanation: it is soon clear from context that a literatus is one who can read, but already the reader is immersed in some variety of Roman experience, the Roman term used without gloss or explanation. Latin-derived words are used exactly: ‘the Way', 'casqued', 'slave-market', 'to compute' appear early in the narrative; Kleon unwinds, does not open a book; the perverse sexual tastes of Kleon’s master are hardly explained, and certainly not illuminated by references to the tales of Baalim, Ashtaroth or Ataretos. The East is the 'Utmost Lands', the supreme deity 'Serapis'. All this functions without delay to put the reader in the position of a reader of the time.

Mitchell is doing no more here than adapting the triumphantly successful technique of his earlier success in Sunset Song where he had re-shaped the narrative English to the ‘rhythms and cadences of Scots spoken speech' while adding a minimum number of Scots vocabulary items to produce a narrative medium which gives a warm impression of participation in a Scottish
community 6. In Spartacus the words and cadences are not from Scots, but from Latin, and share the same comforting feature that they operate independently of the reader's knowledge of Latin.

As the Scottish words in Sunset Song rapidly explain themselves by context, rendering glossary unnecessary so the Latin (and occasionally Greek) words in Spartacus operate in the same way. In a description of the first century B.C. the reader can without difficulty decode references to the 'half a century of cavalry' (S 122), the sacrifices 'to the manes of dead Crixus(S 163), to the decimation of the velites (S 209) already referred to, to Lavinia’s ‘himation'(S 159), to the instrument played by the 'bucinator'(S 189).

So much for vocabulary. Rhythms and cadences are also skilfully imitated from the original Latin. Occasionally Mitchell is content to intrude a single archaism:

Then said Crixus: 'We've come to the feast, but the meat is still uncooked.' Thereat he took a javelin in his hand, rode forward, stood high in his stirrups, and hurled the javelin ... (S97)

Sometimes the effect is denser.

The battle was to Spartacus, as once to Pyrrhus. But of the eighteen thousand Gauls and Germans a bare three thousand survived. With these fell Castus, as has been told, who loved Spartacus, and never knew him; and Gannicus, who hated the Gladiator, and was killed in his sleep. (S 261)

This is compounded of Latin translated directly into English (the battle was to Spartacus), commonplace tags from Latin narrative (as has been told), and a conscious archaism from the Bible (and never knew him) covering the point of Castus' homosexual attraction to Spartacus. Carefully used, the device of direct translation from Latin into English functions powerfully to give the reader a sense of involvement,

The slave horse ... met the circling Roman cavalry, and, armed with clubs, splintered the levelled hastae, and smote down the riders. In a moment the fortune of the battle changed. The Germans turned and the legionaries, caught between two enemies, struggled to reform in double lines. But this, in that marshy ground encumbered with dead, they could by no means achieve. (S 99)

This is an account which clearly draws upon an accumulated reading of Latin or Latin-inspired narrative. Fortuna belli, the fortune of war, is too prominently placed in the paragraph to be mistaken; even if the hastae or spears are not recognised, this they could by no means achieve is recognised for it unfamiliar syntax, even if not recognised as Latin. Retiring to a sleeping-room (S 112), fighting in a slave army which prepared to receive a Roman charge (S 150) – the effect is immersion and participation through words used in a sense slightly or completely unfamiliar.

The weakness of the style is in repetition, occasionally injudicious reliance on one effect. Kleon is too often described as cold; Gershom strokes his beard irritably far too often; the violence and the chilling lack of pity finally can overcome reader squeamishness. On balance, the style works triumphantly. Narrow, brutal, shaped by forces beyond its control, continually threatened by sudden death or agonising retribution by a ruthless army of the Masters, the slave experience which forms the totality of this narrative is caught with unpleasant but accurate focus. It was a desperate time, and Mitchell realistically recreates that desperation.

And this is why the book's imminent republication – in a form accessible to the general reader and those using it for teaching purposes – is a welcome step in establishing the full range of Mitchell's talent. Many of those who have worked to make criticism of Mitchell generally available are in this room, and we owe gratitude both to Mitchell's widow and daughter for the generosity of their help, and to Polygon who are preparing to complete their paperback republication of all Mitchell's books (except the Quair and some of the material in Valentina Bold's recent Smeddum). Mitchell's tragic early death led to the rapid unavailability of most of his books, and they have remained very hard to locate outside specialist libraries. Now, at last, it will be possible to sample the full range of those astonishingly productive last years. And Spartacus will be seen as one of his most enduring achievements, still vivid, still experimental, till burning with the anger he felt at the barbarous events of history. It deserves the compliment of being read.


1 Books are referred to according to the following code:

  • Scottish Scene [with Hugh MacDiarmid] (London, 1934) – ScS
  • A Scots Quair (London, 1978 reprint) – SQ
  • Spartacus (London, 1933) – S
2 The best treatment of Diffusionism will be found in Douglas Young's Beyond the Sunset (Aberdeen, 1973)
3 S.A. Cook, F.E. Adcock and M.P. Charlesworth, Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge, 1932) IX, 331
4 H. Fast, Spartacus (New York, 1951), p. 51; (London, 1952), p. 38
5 Fast p. 23; (London, 1952), p. 31
6 From 'Literary Lights', ScS, 205. For further discussion see "The Grassic Gibbon Style" in eds. J. Schwend and H.W. Drescher, Studies in Scottish Fiction: Twentieth Century (Scottish Studies no. 10) (Frankfurt and Bern, Peter Lang, 1990), 271-87


Copyright © Ian Campbell 2001


Last updated 23 August 2010.