Book Review: The Risen
by David Anthony Durham
When it comes to historical novels about the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, the scourge of one Roman army after another during the Second Punic War, you’re required by statute to have three speeches: the boyhood vow against the vicious Romans, the confident discussion of new realities during the years of triumph, usually with some gobsmacked Roman soldier, and the world-weary reflections offered to the victorious Scipio Africanus once it’s all over. About the rest of it – the elephants, the swamps, the other Carthaginian generals, the pining for quality couscous while on campaign rampaging through Roman territory, and what have you – you can exercise all the writerly creativity you can muster. But if you neglect the three speeches, you might as well be writing in cuneiform for all that you’re readers will stick with you.
This is equally true for Spartacus, the brave and resourceful Thracian gladiator who led a revolt in 73 BC against his Roman overseers and then against the Roman state itself, defeating a string of unprepared armies until he himself was defeated and killed along with his followers two years later. As in the case of Hannibal, there are three required speeches, and just as David Anthony Durham played by the rules in his excellent Hannibal novel The Pride of Carthage, so he keeps things orderly in his fantastic new Spartacus novel, The Risen, which first gives us the realization on Spartacus’s part that he and his fellow gladiators might risk becoming the active arbiters of their fate:
“I came to ask myself what are kinsmen but those who know you and who you know as well? Men whom you can trust. Some will betray you. Some elevate you. Others covet what you have and wish to tear it down. Still, kin do this … All these things were true in Thrace. They have been true here as well. You must understand that we have many, many kinsfolk in this land. All we need do – and it will not be easy – is unite them.”
And since the quickly-growing mob of rebelling gladiators, disaffected small-farmers, and shiftless layabouts had field successes far out of proportion with what anybody would have expected, we need a speech that explains that, a speech about cold realities, this time delivered by a disgraced and enslaved Roman military man named Baebia who’s only too happy to provide Spartacus with some tactical insights into standard operations of a Roman legion – after setting the stage with a little sour bragging, that is:
“You haven’t fought a real Roman legion yet. In the new year you will. Believe it. You think your army of slaves and shepherds will be ready to stand before the ordered ranks of a legion? You people like to shout and bang your shields and urinate and do whatever you like. Quite a show, but nothing compared to the blood-freezing, silent order of a Roman legion. The maniples space in their orderly squares. The velites hurling their javelins in waves. Shields tight. Swords darting. Troops rotating so that they’re ever fresh. The veterans held, always, in reserve, for when they’re needed most. We Romans know how to kill. Most of your troops will have faced nothing like it.”
And since the story needs a villain and it can’t very well be Spartacus and his band of freebooting, farm-looting thugs and killers, authors need to give readers the third speech, in which the bored indolence of the mean, evil Romans is the theme. The prime candidate here is the Roman plutocrat and junk real estate tycoon Marcus Licinius Crassus, a self-funding swindler with a bad comb-over and an arrogance that ought to prove his undoing – as in the scene where he’s reminded that gladiators can be efficient killers and predictably laughs it off:
“In the arena, yes,” Crassus is saying. “For our amusement, yes. Because they fear death and want every morsel we’re willing to throw at them, yes. Theirs is a sad lot, but it’s their lot. That’s all there is to it.” Crassus warms to his discourse. Kaleb knew he would. He’s heard this lecture already. He could recite it himself. “The true men among them know the only honorable course is to see through their fate. Not to run from it as these fugitives have. You give them too much credit, Varro. Their actions prove it. I’m just surprised they’ve yet to disband and run into hiding. I’m not complaining. Better for us that they stay together in one place. Easier for us to slaughter them.”
Once you’ve got those three speeches in place, you’re free to spin whatever Spartacus tale you want, and Durham delivers a fuller, grittier, and more satisfying one even than the standard-bearer, Howard Fast’s 1951 blockbuster Spartacus. This is a near-perfect thinking-person’s dramatization of the Spartacus story, and Durham would be a must-read historical novelist in any case – even if he were writing about the good guys for a change.