Okay, so this ain’t exactly great literature. Howard Fast’s 1951 Spartacus remains the high-water mark of literary treatments for this story, and Ben Kane isn’t about to defeat him in a literary gladitorial death match. (See what I did there?)
But for readers who have already read Fast’s novel—or, more likely, who are looking for something a little racier, a little less highbrow—Spartacus the Gladiator might appeal. Despite its many flaws, it’s a big, fat book with big, rousing battle scenes, obvious heroes (Thracians! Slaves! Priestesses of Dionysus!) and even more obvious villains (Romans, eww! Especially the fat greedy ones!) and characterization done in the literary equivalent of wax crayon. Not a lot of subtlety here, in other words. Not a bucketload of nuance.
Some readers won’t care. The appeal of the Spartacus story is striking; many people with only the faintest grasp of Roman history still know about the gladiator-slave-turned-rebel-with-a-cause. In part, this is due to previous treatments of the story, but then again, those treatments are testament to the power that it exerts on our collective imaginations. Whether it Stanley Kubrick’s film (written by Dalton Trumbo no less, and starring Kirk Douglas), or the more recent Starz TV series (starring a whole lot of well-oiled, largely naked studs ‘n’ babes), the various permutations of the Spartacus story loom so compellingly large because, perhaps, the ethical lines are so clearly drawn.
Romans had slaves; some of those slaves trained as gladiators to fight in the arena for the amusement of their masters. Spartacus was a Thracian who had previously fought in the Roman army but who somehow fell afoul of the authorites and found himself in chains in the Roman city of Capua. Through a combination of skill, guile and apparently limitless charisma, he led an uprising that saw 70 trained gladiators escape bondage and take refuge on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. There, their ranks swelled with runaway slaves inspired by the stories that were spreading across the countryside.
Roman authorities couldn’t take this lying down, of course, so they sent out troops to quell the uprising. Three thousand troops were sent to exterminate the rebels, and instead got their well-armed Roman butts kicked. Startled, the Senate sent a stronger force, which was also routed, as was the one after that. With each success, Spartacus grew more acclaimed, his legend grew more powerful, and his army of the dispossessed increased in size. Within a year, he was commanding tens of thousands of slaves-turned-soldiers, putting them through the same training as he himself had received.
Anyone who knows the story will know how it turns out (spoiler: not good), but that part isn’t covered in this book. Instead, Ben Kane has divided the Spartacus legend into halves—something which is not clear to the reader until s/he reaches the end of this book, only to discover events are still trundling along swimmingly. Kane is clearly interested in whipping the reader into a frenzy of admiration for his hero, which he does relentlessly.
This novel takes its cues from the Starz series: there are not many shades of gray. Crixus, leader of the Gauls, is surly and suspicious of Spartacus from day one, and continues to be so till the end. The Romans are supercilious and disdainful of everyone else. Spartacus is a good guy in a tough position, who worries about stuff like, y’know, the rape and pillage of innocent villagers, and he worries just enough to let us know that he’s a hero we can root for, but not enough to slow down any of the full-throttle raping and pillaging that goes on. Ariadne, his priestess-cum-lover, is a fiesty woman with a mind of her own who stands by her man when the going gets tough. It’s that sort of book.
The writing is… well, the writing is there. At times it’s competent and serviceable and moves the action along clearly. Nothing wrong with that, right? If you’re looking for an immersion into another world, you won’t find it here, not will you find any sort of sparkle or linguistic zing in the sentences. You will, however, find a lot of sentences like this one: “Sparks flew as Spartcus met the blow with his metal pan.” Or: “Spartacus watched Phortis sourly.” (Remember what George Orwell said about adverbs? Avoid them.) Or: “Brooding, he approached the fire by his tent, where Ariadne stood.” These sentences are as vanilla as you are ever likely to read, but hell, it’s Spartacus, so the story manages to hold the reader simply by virtue of its riveting subject matter.
When the author gets excited, he frequently slips into cliché: “Spartacus saw a golden opportunity”, he fights “with unbridled fury”, “their fates hung by the slimmest of threads.” People get chilled to the bone, they stop dead in their tracks, and so forth. This is lazy writing that can’t be forgiven for any reason—Spartacus deserves better.
In the end, then, this novel adds little to the legend, and the promised second volume is likely to induce shrugs, rather than shivers of anticipation. It’s too bad, but don’t worry: before long, someone else will try yet another take on the story. In the meantime, there’s always Howard Fast.