Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Review: SPARTACUS by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

23 June 2014

Book Review: SPARTACUS by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The classic tale of a true hero.

The slaves of Rome are launching a revolt against their cruel Roman masters and there is only one man capable of
leading them into battle.

The Spartacus legend has been re-told many times by everyone from Stanley Kubrick (in 1960, with Kirk Douglas as the unlikely Thracian hero) to more recent accounts by Ben Kane (2012) and the strangely compelling ‘Starz’ cable TV version (with Australian actor Liam McIntyre, on 'location' in New Zealand). It is refreshing, therefore, to return to the original 1933 novel by Scottish author James Leslie Mitchell under his pen name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Fast-paced, the original Spartacus novel recreates a real sense of how Roman decadence was almost overthrown by an army of over 90,000 former slaves, led by what must have been an exceptional man. Mitchell pulls no punches in the brutal fighting scenes and a surprisingly modern recognition of the role and influence of women on the slave army shows he was ahead of his time. I can imagine this book must have raised a few eyebrows in 1933, as it tackles topics that are often avoided even today. 

The charismatic central character of Spartacus remains mysterious, rarely speaking and seen mostly through the eyes of those around him. It is no spoiler to note that Spartacus does not have a happy ending - and the final scenes on the Appian Way (the main road into Rome) are more harrowing than anything Hollywood has so far represented. Nevertheless, Mitchell is a great storyteller and I highly recommend this original tale of courage and loyalty, love and death in one of the all-time great historical fiction novels. 

Tony Riches
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About the Author

Lewis Grassic Gibbon was born James Leslie Mitchell in 1901 in Aberdeenshire. Spending most of his childhood in Arbuthnott, a farming community south of Aberdeen in Scotland. Mitchell left school early after arguments with the school authorities to work as a journalist in Aberdeen and Glasgow. He joined the army, which enabled him to travel to the Middle East and Egypt, which fuelled his interest in ancient civilisations and inspired his first short stories. From 1930 to 1934, Mitchell wrote eleven novels, two books of short stories and three anthropological books before his untimely death in 1935. 

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