After reading Ben Kane’s first Spartacus novel, I couldn’t read its follow up Spartacus: Rebellion fast enough. Luckily for us, then, the wait has been a short one. At the close of the first novel, Spartacus appears, in his own eyes and in those of his vast slave army, invincible. Having disgraced the most senior of Rome’s generals in the battlefield, the myth of Spartacus is unchallenged, by Rome at least. But Rome is relentless. It never gives up. We are reminded that Rome salted the soil of Carthage so that it would never yield crops, so resolute was it in its determination to eradicate Hannibal from the face of the earth. How, then, could Rome allow a slave army, a mass of sub-humans, to march free across Italy, turning slave against master? While we all must know the final fate of Spartacus and his revolt, this doesn’t make its depiction by Ben Kane any less powerful and poignant.
In this second novel, the tide shifts. Spartacus is matched against Crassus, the richest of Romans, who is aided by Julius Caesar, the most ambitious. Crixus the Gaul, who escaped from the gladiator ludus with Spartacus, has left but further divisions between Gauls and the Thracian Spartacus still threaten. Spartacus’ wife Ariadne, the priestess of Dionysus, has terrible dreams that she keeps from her husband. As Rebellion begins, the Alps loom over the army, the gateway to freedom that the slaves have worked so hard to reach. But now that they see this exit from Italy, will they make that break or will they instead turn and march, taking on Rome yet again, ever hopeful that they win freedom in their own homeland? The revolt may not be as controllable as Spartacus would claim.
The prowess as a military strategist of Spartacus is in no doubt and so in this book there are fewer battles than in the first. Instead we read reports, see shamed generals admit defeat in the forum in Rome, witness towns prepare for assault and hear of their fate. The emphasis instead is on the build-up to the inevitable – the entrapment of Spartacus in the toe of Italy – and its affect on Spartacus, his wife, his followers and his enemies.
A figure we think we may know, thanks to Hollywood and more recent TV dramas, has been rewritten by Ben Kane. Spartacus is far more complicated than I was expecting and even more so in this second novel. The public figure is very different from the private man. Although his followers, such as the wonderful rogue Roman Carbo (so often our eyes and ears), love him and are in awe of him, they are also afraid of Spartacus. Very afraid. Any sign of weakness or treachery is dealt with brutally. Spartacus may lament his inability to stop his army from committing acts of rape and murder but he makes little effort, accepting it as an inevitable consequence of warfare. Roman generals decimate their men. Spartacus beats and threatens his. Romans and the slave army compete in cruelty to their captives – it’s a close contest.
Spartacus is a warrior first, his thirst for vengeance drives him on. How this tallies with his other role as husband and father is something he and especially Ariadne has to deal with.
Spartacus: Rebellion is a remarkable achievement. Building on the character and drama of the first novel, Ben Kane has turned this legendary figure into a living, breathing and rounded man – charismatic, fearsome, brave. Not always likeable, but a hero many risked everything for. But, in the end, this is a terrible human tragedy and Ben Kane doesn’t let us forget the horrors faced by everyone involved, whether they be Spartacus and his men, Roman legionaries, or innocent slaves murdered in the fields they didn’t own. Spartacus: Rebellion is most definitely far more than a book of battles.
Ben Kane’s research is meticulous and he presents his knowledge at a pace and with a heart. This novel presents a terrific conclusion to the series and I can’t recommend it enough.