I've left my original review (started with 2 stars then promoted to 3 when I returned to it, now 4 as I have finished it). I struggled to enjoy initially but, as I said in an update, I found that I couldn't leave it aside and had to return. The further I read, the more I came to enjoy. Still have to say modern writers have a more exciting style but I actually came to appreciate this classic.
Original review Has not stood the test of time and is made to look miserable by the quality of today's historical fiction writers. Does not inhabit the skin of his characters, does not convey battle and fighting scenes well. Regretting the expense of purchase which could have gone on another book, and the time to read half the novel before I admitted I have better things to do with my time. Update: But I found myself returning to the book to finish it, so I have upgraded from 2 to 3 stars. Not a disaster then, but outshone by today's writers.
This is a historical novel written in the 1930s by a Scottish author, real name James Leslie Mitchell, about the famous slave rebellion against Roman rule in Italy in the late 70s BC. As a marxist, the author was concerned to present Spartacus's rebellion from the inside, and minimise his descriptions of the more familiar Roman scenes and imagery, or presenting the outlook from the point of view of Crassus and other leading Roman figures; this therefore reads differently from almost any other novel set in ancient Rome. This style befits the dramatic, tragic and elemental events the author is describing, though it can also make the narrative read rather narrowly and matter-of-factly (as per the introduction: "By deliberately depriving the reader of extensive areas of alternative information – Roman strategy, psychological insight into character, flashback or forward – Mitchell keeps the reader on edge for the information of the moment, which is all the reader possesses."). This is often rather a claustrophobic and relatively unstirring read, despite the episodes of great drama, tension and horror. Despite these factors, it's a 4/5 for the quality of the author's writing and the strength of his passion for justice.
When I bought this I was under the mistaken impression that it was the novel upon which the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name was based; it isn't - that was Howard Fast's 1950s version of the story, which I have not (yet) read. But I would be very surprised if it is anywhere as good as this.
This is simply a superb piece of writing that takes the reader right back to the Italy of 73 BC. Other reviewers have remarked on the unusual prose style, and I agree. It very much reads as though it was translated from Latin - it wasn't, but Gibbon/Mitchell will certainly have read the classics and it shows.
Interestingly, there is no gladiatoral combat here - the story takes up where Spartacus and his followers are already in the field in southern Italy, with the breakout from the camp at Capua alluded to only in flashback. And the tale from there on is INCREDIBLY violent; I can't believe it wasn't controversial in 1933 - not the sort of thing you'd have allowed children to read.
I have just finished this book. I found myself crushed by it, elated, horrified and overjoyed. The style of prose is elegiac and truly phenomenal. A true story of sacrifice, valour, loss and betrayal, of hope, 100 years even before the birth of Christ. A wonderful read.
This book really got to me ...It is about reconciling war and violence and brutality with its causes. A terrifying examination of human nature - albeit with the historical events somewhat manipulated to make the authors point. I don't generally subscribe to the Marxist viewpoint but that didn't take away from the power of the writing or the implications of the story. The time of its writing was pre-WWII with the figure of Nazi germany loomong over Europe. A great, thought provoking read, that stays with you for weeks afterwards.
It is really interesting to read a variation on the tale which eventually was filmed as Spartacus [Blu-ray] by Stanley Kubrick, based on the later novel Spartacus by Howard Fast. This book was written by James Leslie Mitchell who was better known for his works published under the pen-name Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It is firmly based on historical documents of the time, although Gibbon/Mitchell takes some artistic licence as the foreword makes clear.
The style is almost that of a detached observer, and characterisation is kept to a minimum. This is perhaps appropriate for a legendary figure such as Spartacus, allowing us to create a picture in our own heads. It did not take long for the association of Kirk Douglas' face to disappear as I read further into the book. It is hard to imagine him speaking the dialogue given to Spartacus here. Conversely, I was hearing Laurence Olivier in my head as Marcus Licinius Crassus when reading Robert Harris' fine novels Imperium and Lustrum - perhaps he had this characterisation in his head as he wrote. The events of the Harris novels follow directly on from the tale of the slave revolt as described here.
Gibbon/Mitchell also gives us a very clear idea of the brutality of the times and the author does not shrink from giving us detailed descriptions of killings, crucifixions and other violent incidents. It is not a book for the faint-hearted, or those put off by a somewhat archaic writing style, but is well worth the effort of tracking down and reading.
Looks like this one has been re-issued under the author's better known nom de plume. I read it 15 years ago and it was my favourite novel for many many years. It is beautifully written, and the author was of course a scholar of the classics and it shows in this little masterpiece! Only Mann's Death in Venice and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited impressed me as greatly as Mitchell's 'Spartacus'! A fantastic version of the famous slaves' revolt against the might of the Roman Empire! Mitchell is arguably Aberdeen's greatest son! Viri et Animo! JP :)
Their vision was a society without master or slave, just equals: surely a goal worth fighting for. They took on the mighty Roman Empire and paid a heavy price. Did they do so in vain? Spartacus and his fellow slaves have inspired many generations to rise up against oppression and for equality. Today's generation of "wage slaves" would do well to note just how lucky we are by comparison to the slaves of 73 BC. But with growing inequality in our societies, should we sit back and accept our lot, or should we take inspiration from the Spartacists and struggle for a more meaningful existence? Rumsfeld, Berlosconi, Wolfowitz, Murdoch etc. beware! Lewis Grassic Gibbon presents a complex history within the most gripping narrative. He forces us to deliberate moral, religious, and political dilemmas (amongst others) of the period, and in so doing, reminds us that, two millennia later, we still falter on many of these issues. Much of this is done through highly intelligent and realistic character development that promotes empathy and sympathy, admiration and anger, but, like Kleon, a move away from hatred and towards understanding. Even the most villainous amongst the Roman elite are explained to some extent, and in so doing, the author makes it clear that the Empire itself must fall if the revolution should succeed. In this current era of US imperialism, we should consider some of the lessons of the Spartacists, and the US elite should recall that all empires crumble eventually.
First a word on the author. A prolific period in his early thirties writing and then dead at 35. And from Spartacus you get a sense of what we have missed. Not written in a conventional way, there is a style to the writing that is quite hard to explain, but clearly imposes you into the settings, makes you understand the characters and is possibly a better tale than the one we all expect after seeing the 1962 film. Clinically researched. Breathtaking stuff
It's hard to believe this well researched fast paced novel was written in the 1930's by an author who died young ( 34 years old). Like the tale itself it has not dated and is as fresh as the day it was written and frank in the brutality of the ancient time it is set. This is a Spartacus who develops as the story goes on and is seen through the eyes of his comrades. There are frictions and sub plots as thousands of slaves from differing nations and ideals obviously would in reality have occurred. This novel grips from the start and is one that is hard to put down. If a remake of the classic 1960 Kirk Douglas film is ever remade for the big screen, this book should at least be the basis for it, if only used in conjunction with Howard Fasts interpretation. If you have read Fast's novel of the same title read this too, and compare the idealism of his novel to the grittiness of Gibbons account.