Friday, April 03, 2009

Review: The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane

James Rollins, author of “The Last Oracle” exclaims, “What Wilbur Smith did for Egypt, Kane does for Rome!”. I’ve only read two of Wilbur Smith’s novels, “The Seventh Scroll” and “River God” but the narrative style of these two novels is quite similar to the storytelling technique used by Ben Kane in this first of a projected series of novels featuring heroes developed in this work.

Kane introduces each character in their own unique context within the boundaries of the Late Roman Republic. We first meet Tarquinius, one of the last of the Etruscan haruspices (soothsayers), raised as a poor freedman on a large latifundia owned by a politically ambitious patron with ties to the richest man in Rome at the time, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Warned by his tutor to escape to the east where he will find his destiny, Tarquinius abandons his home and joins the forces of Lucullus fighting Mithradates in Asia Minor.

Next we meet Brennus, a towering Gallic warrior whose people are crushed by the legions of Julius Caesar. The only survivor of his village, he is taken in chains to Rome where he is sold to the largest gladiatorial school in the capital.

Then we meet the twin brother and sister slaves, Romulus and Fabiola, the spawn of Julius Caesar and a slave girl he ravaged on the streets of Rome when coming home from an evening of revelry with his friends. The twins’ cruel owner, a less-than-profitable merchant in debt to the greedy Crassus, sells the 14-year-old twins, sending Romulus to the gladiator school and Fabiola to the Lupanar – the most prestigious brothel in Rome.

Romulus has fortunately received some earlier training with a sword from his former owner’s steward and is taken under the wing of the brawny Brennus. Fabiola, of course irresistibly beautiful, is tutored by the madame and fellow prostitutes at the Lupanar and becomes the most sought after “companion” in the establishment as well as the regular lover of Caesar’s lieutenant Decimus Brutus.

Romulus swears one day to free his sister and take revenge on his former owner who sold their worn out mother to the salt mines, ensuring her death.

At this point I’m sure you’re thinking this is beginning to sound like a melodramatic made-for-television movie and I would probably agree with that assessment.

Brennus and Romulus sneak out of the gladiator school for an evening’s entertainment and are implicated in the death of a Roman nobleman who just happens to be the hated former patron of Tarquinius. To escape crucifixion, the two flee south where they hear Crassus is assembling an army to invade Parthia. In Brundisium, they meet Tarquinius and our ensemble cast is finally ready to get into some serious trouble in the deserts of Syria where Crassus will meet his inevitable fate at the battle of Carrhae, the climax of this first installment.

Kane obviously knows the rudimentary history of the late Roman Republic and its key players and his characters have some depth. I like the way he interjects the occasional Latin term into the narrative in a context that clearly reveals its meaning without delivering a specific definition. This is the natural way that people learn another language and his use of the technique is appreciated.

However, some background details of Roman culture and some of the scenarios developed in his narrative were grating to me because of my previous studies. As an admirer of Julius Caesar and someone who has read a number of biographies about him, I could not swallow the premise that Caesar would demean himself in public by raping a passing slave girl. First of all, Caesar was abstemious in his dining and drinking habits and meticulous about his personal hygiene so was not the type to participate in public drunken revelries – even as a young man. Second, Caesar prided himself on being a sought after lover. His sexual appetites were well satisfied by his numerous paramours with other men’s wives, whether his own wife was ill or not.

Then Romulus narrowly escapes being run over by an ox cart in the streets of Rome in the middle of the day. I had previously read that wagons and carts were forbidden by law to enter Rome until after dark. I mentioned this to my friend Pat Hunter, author of “Immortal Caesar,” and she told me that she thought the legislation was passed after Caesar returned from Gaul so this criticism may be unjustified.

Later, Romulus defeats an experienced and successful gladiator in a “duel” at the gladiator school. It is hard for me to believe that a 14-year-old boy with occasional training with a sword could defeat a veteran gladiator in single combat on his first outing. Gladiators were burly, barley-fed brutes (how’s that for alliteration!) whose body mass alone would have nearly guaranteed victory in such an encounter. Perhaps Kane was trying to appeal to a younger demographic with that one.

Then, I seriously doubt that a Roman noble, irregardless of how besotted he was with a beautiful prostitute, would have taken her to a formal Roman dinner party. I realize Rome had become Hellenized to some extent since the second Punic War but prostitutes from a brothel were not treated as Greek heitera in Roman social circles. He also would not have taken her to Roman gladiatorial contests or at least not sat with her and discussed combat tactics. Women were relegated to the uppermost seats, totally segregated from the men at Roman games, or at least they were less than a century later when the Flavian amphitheater (Colosseum) was built.

Kane also explained that only the most blood-thirsty Romans stayed for the gladiator bouts late in the afternoon, after watching the beast hunts and executions. This was laughable, as the gladiator contests were viewed as the climax of the entire experience. If anyone left, it was to grab a bite to eat at lunch during the criminal executions.

But, despite these perceived historical missteps, Kane spun a good yarn. I would agree with Rollins that the story was engaging, although “visceral”, no, not after reading one of Bernard Cornwell’s battle sequences in which his protagonist slashes wildly with a battle ax, wiping the spray of blood from a severed artery out of his eyes and flicking a fragment of bone and brain from his cheek – I was listening to Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt” during my morning workout at the same time I was reading the hard copy of “The Forgotten Legion” in the evening. Now that is my idea of visceral!
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