michael mack poem "spartacus speaks"

The gladiator Spartacus led the largest slave uprising in the history of the Roman Empire. After his revolt was brutally crushed in 71 BC, over six thousand rebel slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. The poem "Spartacus Speaks" is a meditation in the voice of the gladiator after his death on the cross.

spartacus speaks

I see much from this height.

Grape leaves wave like nailed palms

and my toes are sprouting flies.


Here on the road from Rome to Capua,

rock-propped crosses tilt

every hundred feet.


My comrades and I sag on their arms,

sun-blackened sacks

dragging a foul southern wind.


Crassus and his legions

marched down these cobbles months ago,

leaving trash at the roadside, and us.


Now only merchants pass in groaning carts,

no longer pinching their noses.

Hands over bellies, they snore.


Again this wind, the sky

wiping its greasy face.

My tatters flap like rotten flags


and I almost hear the shouts

of thousands, thunder as my hands

shred on the nails.


I drop face first into Roman dust.


Do not misunderstand me:

I have no regrets.

A gladiator's days are whittled on a stick.


But dreams, they rattle in the skull

like dice. Even now they return:

bony old men shaking the gate,


nowhere else to spend the night.

– michael mack

Spartacus, by sculptor Denis Foyatier, 1830

Spartacus by sculptor Denis Foyatier, 1830
(detail from the Louvre, Paris)




First published in the Mississippi Valley Review, "Spartacus Speaks" appears in the anthology Legendary: Stories We Tell Today, Stories Our Children Will Tell Tomorrow.