Swords and sandals. Political intrigue. Betrayal. Each of these describes some quality of the common perception of the Roman Empire. Whether you buy into this popular perception or prefer the drier, more factual approach to nearly a millennium of history, Rome’s influence can be felt to the present day. Just ask the producers at Starz. Spartacus: Blood and Sand started in January 2010 on their pay cable network and was watched by an estimated 3 million viewers its premiere weekend. Since then it has aired two more seasons — a prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena in 2011, and Spartacus: Vengeance in 2012.
The success of the Spartacus series has spawned a new series of novels based in the hero’s world of Rome — Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements is the first — which brings Spartacus to the funereal games in Neapolis for a friend of Batiatus named Pelorus. Pelorus was murdered by a slave in his own house, the tattooed Getae witch named Medea who must pay for her crimes. Batiatus soon finds himself in the middle of a political bout between Gaius Verres, the soon-to-be governor of Sicily and a young Cicero from home hot on the trail of new prophecies of Rome.
Honestly I wasn’t sure what to think of the book at first. I watched the first episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and quickly decided that the stylized blood and combat was not my cup of tea back in 2010. I was sad to hear of star Andy Whitfield’s battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the fact that he eventually lost the battle. The series has lived on however with Liam McIntyre in the lead role along with the rest of the cast — John Hannah (The Mummy) as Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, Lucy Lawless (TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess) as Lucretia his wife, Viva Bianca as Ilithyia, and many more.
Swords and Ashes captures some of the backhanded double-dealing I would expect in the Rome of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — “Et tu, Brute?” and all — as well as the foul treatment of slaves and the quickly-changing-fortunes of competitors in the arena. And once the second half of the book takes off, it’s sprint to the finish. The first half is a bit of a slog for me, considering my lack of experience with the TV series itself, but Clements manages to keep things moving enough that even non-fans like myself can enjoy the book.
And it was really Clements’ imagery that kept me reading throughout:
“The snow-covered ground became a clash of pinks and crimsons, darkening with the death of the day, not from the sunset, but from life-blood splashed in torrents. Warm steam rose from the ground, creating an unearthly mist, as if the surviving warriors were surrounded by the departed souls of their fellows.”
If you are a fan of Spartacus, the series, or simply looking to add a bit more swords-and-sandals to your reading pile, Spartacus: Swords and Ashes manages to capture a bit of the glory of Rome and the spectacle of the arena with words!