The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus

Written by David Anthony Durham
Review by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi

In David Anthony Durham’s novels of ancient Rome, Rome plays the villain. Pride of Carthage mapped Hannibal’s attempt to overthrow that seat of world power, and now The Risen traces the great slave uprising led by the gladiator Spartacus. Credit the power of Durham’s storytelling that it doesn’t matter that readers already know the outcome of both ill-fated campaigns; the journey to get there is absolutely worth the trip.

Durham’s approach to the story is both inventive and well-suited to the task. He’s broken the book into three sections, each made up of chapters told from the point of view of the same set of characters. Thus, readers get to know and follow a handful of characters through the shifting tides of the story, including a hapless Roman soldier, an old woman whose early servitude taught her routes up and down the length of Italy, a Greek medic, a Roman general’s slave scribe, several of Spartacus’s most trusted lieutenants, and Spartacus himself.

Spartacus is a born leader, able to think both strategically and tactically, helped also by a priestess’s visions of triumph. The gladiators’ escape, early sorties, and first two engagements against the Roman armies sent against them are thrilling in their planning and execution. Spartacus takes the long view of his eventual objectives, though not everyone in his expansive following agrees with his plans.

Halfway through the book, the tide starts to turn against The Risen, slowly at first with small setbacks, but soon in wave after wave of bad luck, betrayal, and strategic miscalculations. As one character says, Spartacus was so strong he could only be brought down through betrayal, but it may be that Spartacus simply didn’t understand that, however much Rome was hated, an army of slaves could never command the respect necessary to gain true allies.