The Forgotten Legion is a first in a series of Roman historical fiction by veterinarian and researcher Ben Kane. Although there are a number of (skilled) info dumps as is common in first in series, it lacks the awkwardness common to first novels. Characters are introduced and become sympathetic, but it’s the settings that draw the reader and the story line motivates him to finish the 500 pages quickly and then wait in irritated anticipation for the second in the series.
So much so good. Ben Kane has done an admirable job of researching. His descriptions of battle are detailed, visualizable, sometimes gory, but not over-the-top like those found in the prose of a certain other ancient historical fiction author specializing in military events. I’m probably unfair, so I won’t say who.
The bad part and the part that makes a review so hard to write is that The Forgotten Legion should have had a fact checker. Published by St. Martin’s Press in the U.S., I’m surprised that such an error as pax romanum wasn’t caught. The other errors that I noticed (there are probably others) run from possible alternative readings that should serve as the necessary reminder that historical fiction is fiction to the baffling. Unfortunately, most of the points that bothered me weren’t ones in either camp, but those that sounded wrong to me. They could be right. That said, I will list the alternatives, errors, and those I’m unsure about. If you would, tell me where he nailed it and I’m wrong.
Kane uses is as a plot point that a cloaked young man reveals his slave status by calling an aristocrat “master,” since the slaves, including the gladiators, call the aristocrats and their masters “master” or “mistress”. My memory of Plautus includes the slaves referring to people by name. I’d have to review too much to satisfy myself that the slaves never called their masters “lord”, but I don’t think that justifies calling someone not their master “master”.
Kane says it was common for slaves to go out on errands wearing manacles. Slavery and Rebellion says that slaves only sometimes wore manacles, especially those who had attempted to escape. Slaves in a triumphal parade probably wore them too, but again, the manacles enabled a slave to be identified as a slave. The accessories of a citizen would have worked as well without stretching a point.
The slaves live together in family units. Not impossible, but that would have required extra room in the domus and seems to be used to present the scene of a daily rape more poignantly.
The children of a female slave witness their mother’s daily rape by their master even though their mother tells them to look away. The attitude towards sex seems far more 21st century than 1st century B.C. They resolve to get revenge against their master for his having sex with their mother and they vow to get revenge on the man who raped their mother and fathered them. Also odd the mother is so sure of who fathered her children
While a slave was less than a citizen, a slave was part of his familia, under the pater. To have another citizen rape one’s slave should have been a property violation. I don’t know enough to say it wasn’t common for slaves on errand to be raped by passers-by in the streets, but this sounds odd, whereas the sexual assault in the home, by the master or any of the household males, seems ordinary for the 1st century B.C.
Here there is just confusion. For Kane there are two classes, the Equestrians and the Plebeians. The equestrians are the nobles. The plebeians are all poor and downtrodden. Equestrians and plebeians are on the verge of class warfare in the middle of the first century B.C. Clodius appears not to be a plebeian.
Another point I haven’t researched. Before Caesar runs for the office of quaestor, Kane has him heavily in debt to Crassus. I thought the debt was from the campaign and term in office, not the years before.
I also thought Caesar was close to abstemious. In The Forgotten Legion, he goes bar-hopping with the other young men. Presumably it’s the Dutch courage that leads him to rape Gemellus’ slave woman.
Etruscans and Gladiators
There are issues there, but Kane acknowledges that he’s retold history for the sake of color.
Dormouse: Page 202.