Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review: THE RISEN

I've mentioned this numerous times before, but I am usually very reluctant to read any novel that is set in late Republican Rome, because Colleen McCullough covered the subject and the era so well in her "Masters of Rome" series that it is almost pointless for anyone else to try to work the same characters and material. I ended up picking up David Anthony Durham's The Risen because he has a decent reputation as a good historical novelist, and because the subject matter, the slave revolt led by Spartacus, was handled in less detail by McCullough than Durham's book-length treatment. And it helps that I have not seen any Spartacus movie, whether the Kirk Douglas classic or the more recent remakes.
This novel is good--not fantastic, maybe not even excellent, but good. Durham differs from McCullough's version in only two significant ways: one, he depicts Spartacus as an actual native of Thrace  (a region in what is now northern Greece), whereas McCullough depicted him as an Italian that was trained to be a Thracian type of gladiator. McCullough made a case that all gladiators of the time were trained to be either Thracian or Gauls; Durham seems to have made use of different source material. The decision materially affects the direction of the novel and plot development, but it actually didn't detract from the narrative at all; if anything, it made for a more interesting story than McCullough's arc within Forutne's Favorites did. Two, Caesar was an integral part of the story, as an aide to Crassus, in McCullough's book, and Caesar is completely absent from this book. McCullough's series of books portrayed Crassus as a complex, reasonably likable (for a Roman aristocrat) man; Durham portrays Crassus as much more of a hard, flinty asshole. Crassus is one of the few Romans of the late Republic that we do not have a wealth of source material regarding, and the odd thing while reading this book was realizing that both depictions were plausible. While McCullough's Crassus lingered in the background of my mind while I was reading this book, I had to admit that the Crassus of this book, while drawn so differently, also fit what we know about him and his actions (from a distance of 2100 years) just as well,
The story itself is familiar to a lot of people, from the movies. The idea that the book emphasizes time and again is that Spartacus led a nation more than an army; Roman society was very much divided into ruled and rulers, and there were more slaves than Romans and Italians in the peninsula by the time of this novel. And the revolt of Spartacus is one of history's great what-if scenarios, and through the eyes of Crassus' scribe-slave, this aspect is poignantly explored. Ultimately, I got lost and bored in some sections of the book, mainly the mysticism that fills the last couple hundred pages through the eyes of one of the female characters. But if there is an overriding virtue to the book, it is the portrayal of just how rotten and precarious life could be as a slave in the ancient world, especially for women.

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