Writing My Novel ‘Spartacus: Rebellion’, by Ben Kane
Spartacus: Rebellion is the second of two novels that follow the story of the man who led the greatest slave rebellion in history. While Spartacus is still widely remembered, little more than 4,000 words survive about him in ancient texts. That corresponds to about ten pages of a paperback, which is little compared to men such as Julius Caesar or some of the other Emperors. We know tantalising snippets about him: he was probably from Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria); he fought for the Romans; he was wrongly enslaved and forced to fight as a gladiator; he was strong and resourceful, a good leader and a good fighter; and he had a wife, who was a priestess. That’s about it as far as personal details go. This must frustrating for the novelist, you might think, and you’d be right. However, such a dearth of information bestowed huge freedom on me as well. It allowed me to fill in the gaps.
Fortunately, my first three books (a trilogy) are also set in the first century BC. Most of the events in those novels take place around fifteen years after Spartacus’s rebellion. This meant that the huge amount of information on Rome, its armies, social norms, etc that I had amassed while researching could be used again. That saved me months of reading textbooks. The reason I mention this is that such information provides the accurate, in as far as is possible and excluding any unforeseen errors, framework upon which Spartacus’s story is built. For those who are unfamiliar with his amazing exploits, the four thousand words make astonishing reading. Practically every single event mentioned became a ‘must use’ in my novels. How could they not have?
Spartacus broke out of a gladiator school, unarmed, with about seventy companions. Made his camp on Vesuvius, where he and his companions were besieged by a force of three thousand Roman soldiers. Undeterred, they descended a cliff face at night on homemade vine ropes and attacked the enemy camp, putting the Romans to flight. After this unexpected and stunning victory, tens of thousands of slaves flocked to join Spartacus. From that point, his breakout became a rebellion. Victory after victory over the Romans followed. So too did a march north to the Alps and the landmark decision known by many, when Spartacus chose not to leave Italy to escape pursuit by the legions. After that, his fate was assured. Rome was not a state which accepted defeat (think Pyrrhus or Hannibal), least of all from that lowest form of life – a slave. Spartacus marched south again, and was followed to the bitter end by Marcus Licinius Crassus and ten legions. Most know what happened to Spartacus at the end, and to his six thousand followers along the Via Appia from Capua to Rome. All striking images and scenes that had to feature in my novels.
Yet, lots of battles and dramatic scenes do not in themselves make a novel. At least not a very interesting one. That’s where the artistic license came in. I had to introduce Spartacus in a plausible way, make him a living, breathing man who immediately engaged readers’ interest and who continued to do so. I had to do the same for his wife, Ariadne (my name for her), and the other characters, the most prominent (and fictional) of whom was Carbo, a young Roman who enlists in the gladiator school to help pay off his family’s debts. Basically, I had to invent so many things about Spartacus’s story, from the reason he left the Roman auxiliaries to how he became a slave, to the reason he befriended Carbo, how he rallied the other fighters to his cause in the gladiator school and so on. In my opinion, none of these artifices matter, because I believe that they were all plausible. If it can’t be proven otherwise, then it’s fair game as far as I’m concerned. I know that I am not alone in holding that belief, both among readers and other writers.
Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net
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