Spartacus is famed as a warrior, a Thracian who led a band of rebellious gladiators against the might of the Roman republic. Ben Kane has taken this story, only the bare bones of which exist in historical record, and crafted a duology of fiction novels around those bones. This, the first, covers the story of Spartacus’s rise from a trapped and betrayed gladiator to the leader of an army capable of striking fear into the heart of the experienced Roman legions.
Spartacus: The Gladiator isn’t the first book Ben Kane has written about Rome, but it is the first of his that I’ve read so far. In the tradition of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow, this is a book about the darker side of historical fiction, full of battles, rough men, and treachery. Amongst all this is Spartacus, a man who clearly stands apart due to his natural sense of leadership and his stringent moral code, which extends completely outside the battlefield.
Like many choosing to read a book like this, I was seeking an active and exciting plot, and in this respect, Spartacus: The Gladiator delivers handily. Even though we know the lead character must survive – how else would there be a second book about him? – that doesn’t mean everyone else will. Several of the other characters have viewpoints, namely Ariadne, Spartacus’s wife, and Carbo, a Roman who becomes a gladiator after falling deeply into debt. We also sometimes witness events from the other side, usually through the eyes of Roman consuls and generals who are about to get massacred by Spartacus’s ever-growing army.
I liked both Ariadne and Carbo; each served a different purpose for seeing Spartacus through other eyes, albeit adoring ones. The great warrior wins their loyalties differently, by treating Ariadne with respect she’s never received from other men, and by believing in Carbo despite his Roman origins. In this way, we can see just why Spartacus was a natural leader, and start to believe why his rebellion started to meet with success.
This is not a book for those who actively dislike battle scenes. It may also contain triggers because there is more than one rape scene – I wouldn’t call any of them gratuitous, as each furthers the plot and causes significant reactions in different characters – but I could easily imagine them becoming upsetting. This is the Roman world, however, and when you’re reading a book about a war fought by deprived and vengeful men, it’s unfortunately to be expected.
I’m not particularly familiar with the legend of Spartacus, but Kane fills us in with a handy endnote, explaining what exists and what he extrapolated from the evidence. It’s fantastic when authors do this. Naturally, some of the characters are fictional, and no one is even sure Spartacus actually came from Thrace, because he might have been assigned that once he’d become a gladiator. But his battles and his comrades are recorded enough that the story follows the timeline as it happened.
If you’re seeking more historical fiction set in Rome in the days of the Republic, from the viewpoint of the oppressed, Spartacus: The Gladiator is a good choice.
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