Book Review: Spartacus: Swords and Ashes
Titan Books, 2012
An overheard wisecrack about Jonathan Clements’ new novel Spartacus: Swords and Ashes, delivered dripping in sarcasm: “Some guy just re-wrote Spartacus? What’s next, some chick just re-writing Gone with the Wind?”
The confusion is arguably understandable. After all, most common readers out there tend to forget that novelist Howard Fast wasn’t wholesale inventing things when he wrote his 1951 massive best-seller Spartacus – he was working with a kernel of actual ancient history, an utterly irresistible story from Plutarch about a doomed slave-uprising on Italian soil in 73 B.C. – a plucky, scrappy band of some 75 gladiators from the gladiator-school of one Batiatus in Capua who overcame their guards, overran their barracks, and used the very arena skills they’d been taught in order to fight their way to freedom. Fast wasn’t even the first modern novelist to seize on the story’s dramatic potential – Arthur Koestler did it before him, and of course there was Stanley Kubrick’s wooden, incredibly effective 1960 movie. More to our present point, in 2010 the Starz TV network produced a stylish, extrovertly gory series called “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” which purported to dramatize the early formative years of its title character.
The show’s star, the statuesque Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with cancer, and the show temporarily halted production. It resumed when he was declared cancer-free, then halted again when the prognosis proved premature and he grew ill again and died. He was replaced in the title role by Australian actor Liam McIntyre (not statuesque – much slighter and rather embarrassingly pretty) for the show’s second season, “Spartacus: Vengeance.”
Which brings us to Spartacus: Swords and Ashes, since that’s McIntyre glowering on the front cover, doing his best with fake dirt and fake blood to look like he’s never been served breakfast in bed on 1200 thread count sheets of Egyptian cotton. And that in turn brings us to the other part of that overheard wisecrack, since the “some guy” who’s writing this new Spartacus novel is J.M. Clements, an indefatigable and very talented hack who always delivers more than he needs to. This novel is a perfect example: surely all his contract called for him to do was produce a companion book the marketing arm of Starz could ship to bookstores – work in the names of Spartacus, his fellow-gladiators Crixus and Oenomaus, some of the other characters from the series (including the requisite femme fatale Lucretia, played to the hilt by the luminous Lucy Lawless), fill every other chapter with breathless action scenes, then wrap things up and collect your paycheck. Our author does a good deal more than that, which makes the book easy to recommend. Indeed, Clements’ main problem is the one shared by the TV show’s producers: how to slow things down.
In reality, Spartacus flashed like a comet across the Roman scene. He and his followers camped in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius (having first stolen armor and weapons) and proceeded to maul every Roman force sent against them. First the oafish praetor C. Claudius Glaber, then the praetors L. Cossinius and the idiot P. Varinius and his legate Furius and his quaestor C. Thorianus. Thanks to slave defections from the nearby countryside, Spartacus soon had tens of thousands of men at his command – and those kinds of numbers brought an official response from Rome itself: the year’s two consuls, vain L. Puplicola and worthy, out-of-his-depth Lentulus Clodianus, were sent out at the head of their legions to restore order. They were defeated too, as was proconsul C. Cassius Longinus and praetor Cn. Manlius.
Rome won by brute attrition, as it always did: in the end, it was simply a matter of out-spending Spartacus in expendable lives. The Senate recalled its bumbling consuls and gave proconsular imperium to the grim millionaire Marcus Crassus, and despite disasters some of his subordinates brought on themselves, Crassus was able to grind the Spartacus rebellion into the ground (and more importantly, he was able to do it before the hastily-recalled glory-hound Pompey Magnus could swoop in and do it for him). He famously crucified all 6000 of the survivors – a roadside row of crosses stretching from Capua all the way to Rome, the sky black with a whirlwind of carrion-birds.
The whole Spartacus story was over in a little more than two years.
TV series don’t like to be over in two years. They dream of the magic seven seasons, of syndication, of residuals and DVD deals. Since nobody cares a fig about Spartacus before he was a gladiator (indeed, seldom have a name and a profession been so synonymous), you can’t get away with that kind of dodge for too long before viewers go elsewhere for their blood. So producers of a Spartacus TV series have to plan carefully – because once you get the gladiators into open opposition with Rome, things start to happen in rapid order. Likewise any editor of tie-in novels must be careful – the books can’t outstrip the show, but neither can they simply repeat what viewers have already seen.
Clements steps into this gap with the grace of a born ‘content provider’ – and he’s full of tricks right from the start, as when Spartacus is dreaming of his previous life:
He shouted at her to get down, to drop to the forest floor, but instead she held out her arms toward the oncoming swarm. He saw her pierced in a thousand places, bloodied in a forest of fletchings as she screamed and called out his name –
“Spartacus!” Varro’s voice pierced his dream.
“I am not …” he began, groggy, Autumn sunlight scattered through the trees that moved overhead. He lay on wood … on a cart, on a moving cart, in chains. The other slaves stared at him in some irritation.
“You dreamed,” Varro said. “Loudly, of terrible things.”
Spartacus shook his head and wiped his eyes.
“I dreamed,” he said. “I was free.”
Notice how clever that is? Notice how smoothly Clements works in the fact that we don’t know the real name of this man history will know by his gladiator name of Spartacus? The dream stops before his poor wife can call him by it, and upon waking he stops himself before he can blurt it out. With Clements, little tricks like that are everywhere – and he provides bigger entertainments here as well. In the story of Spartacus: Swords and Ashes, the wealthy games promoter Pelorus is murdered on the eve of the departure of his friend Gaius Verres for the governorship of Sicily. Classicists will recognize Verres as the unfortunate subject of several of Cicero’s finest denunciations, written years later when Cicero was prosecuting Verres for rapacious mis-governing of Sicily. Clements has the bright idea to show us how the two men first came to hate each other: they’re both drawn into the complications arising from Pelorus’ death.
Verres is a roundly hissable villain, as is his cohort in crime, the freedman Timarchides (who has his way with one of Spartacus’ gladiator friends in a scene every bit as frank as anything in Deliverance, or in the high parody of Fast’s novel from the 1970s, Spartacum), and when young Cicero makes his appearance, Clements finds a dozen different ways to let us know how well he’s researched the man without beating us over the head with that research (including a reference to chick-peas that’s for insiders only). It’s delightfully done, and it marks Spartacus: Swords and Ashes as more than a simple dashed-off tie-in novel. The Cicero sitting stiffly at the Capuan games is a true early version of the games-disapproving older man we’ll meet in his letters to Atticus. Clements’ dialogue could almost come from those letters:
“I fail to see how any civilized man can derive pleasure from the sight of a defenceless human being torn to pieces by a wild animal. I see little ‘magnificence’ in a beast under display, if I am also expected to watch it die for my entertainment.”
“Aha! You are one of those Romans,” Batiatus cried.
“One of what Romans?”
“One who denies the blood and pain upon which our Republic has been built. You talk of ‘civilized’ Romans. Do you mean people who dwell in cities? If so, look around at the very rabble you despise. See how they exult at the bloodshed before them. See how they take simple pleasure from the sight of nature in all its raw intensity.”
And of course simmering underneath all this is the central tension that informs not only every Spartacus novel but also the story of Spartacus itself. Again, it’s Cicero who puts his finger on it:
Rome is not founded on bricks and cement. Whisper it, that only your inner circle may hear. Rome is founded on the blood and sweat of slaves. Our border must be expanded ever outward to bring in new slaves to till the fields, rear children, wash clothes … And we sit at our tables, and cheer each other with tales of nobility and virtue. But cast eyes around you. One in every three people in this house, in this town, in this land, is a slave!
Even the physical dimension of the novel is better than it needs to be: it turns out Titan Books makes a good product, with very flexible binding and high-quality paper stock. Unlike most mass market paperbacks produced today, this is a book that can be re-read without falling apart. And thanks to Clements, you might very well want to re-read it.