“I’m Spartacus.” “No, I’m Spartacus.” No such shenanigans in this rousing historical novel, where there’s no mistaking who the Thracian slave hero is.
If everyone of a certain age carries in their heads the ideal of a ripped Kirk Douglas as the proletarian hero of the first century B.C.E., fantasy maven Durham (The Sacred Band, 2011, etc.) turns in a portrait perhaps more suited to, say, Brad Pitt or Channing Tatum: “A hulk of a man, muscled as only gladiators ever are, taller than a Roman, than a Greek. His longish hair and even his eyebrows shimmer like gold in the lamplight.” Yep. He’s Spartacus, all right, and as Durham’s novel opens, in full-tilt medias res, he’s down in the gladiators’ pen plotting the first move in what will become a widespread slave revolt. By Durham’s account—and in this there’s no significant departure from what Plutarch said 19 centuries ago—Spartacus is a steely-willed but generous fellow with a secret weapon: namely, a wife with the gift of prophecy, a subject of some learned discussion as Spartacus and associates gather round the fire for strategy talks: “It seems revolts need mystics,” says the Sicilian Philon, while his ascetic leader sits far enough away from the fire to enjoy the bracing cold and think good thoughts about killing Romans with a short sword. The conversation is occasionally a little too breezy to seem period-appropriate, but that lightness of touch keeps the story moving at a steady pace toward its inevitable end—and, since those readers of a certain age will have another vision of how things will wind up, Durham wisely closes at a different moment that still embraces the horror. The set-piece battles are especially well-done, fitting given Durham’s sword-and-sorcery background.
If the message is a little circular (“He looked free because he was free”), the yarn adds up to a competent piece of historical fiction.