In 1998, after reading an inspirational travelogue, Ben Kane set out to travel along the Silk Road through Asia on the trail of Alexander the Great. Armed with only a basic grasp of Russian and enough cash to see him through his trip, he set out first for Iran, then moved on to Turkmenistan where he came across something quite remarkable. Set in the middle of the Turkmen desert, way off the usual tourist routes, were the remains of the ancient city of Merv. The city was reputedly founded by Alexander’s army, and thrived for centuries until the entire population of a million people was killed by the Mongols in the 1220s (the biggest single massacre of people until the 20th century, I might add). Almost forgotten in the West today, this was one of the largest cities in the ancient world and was intriguing enough without Kane’s guidebook recording that it had seen the arrival of 10,000 Roman soldiers in 53BC. So far from Italy and any other province of the Republic, it seemed distinctly unlikely to Ben that legionaries would have been there then – but further research demonstrated that this was indeed the case. And so the seed of inspiration for a trilogy of books was sown, the first being The Forgotten Legion, published in 2008.
Set in the first century BC, the central characters in The Forgotten Legion are all outsiders in the Roman world: Tarquinius, an Etruscan haruspex (soothsayer); Brennus, a fearsome Gaulish warrior captured for the gladiatorial arena following the destruction of his tribe, and the twins Romulus and Fabiola, born to a slave who has been raped by a noble. At the outset of the book the characters are scattered and seemingly unconnected, but as we are introduced to their lives and worlds, they gradually move together. Tarquinius travels away from the northern Italian lands that were once part of Etruria to learn of the origins of his people to the East. Brennus’ capture brings him from Gaul to Rome. The twins, born into slavery in Rome are separated at age thirteen, when their master decides to sell them: Romulus to the local ludus (gladiator school) and Fabiola to a brothel. Romulus and Brennus thus quickly meet and set about surviving the brutality of the Roman world, first in the arena, and then as legionaries in Crassus’ grand army, put together to invade Parthia in the Middle East. Fabiola, meanwhile, sets about using her position to elicit information that might help her find her brother from the men who visit her, most notably a handsome staff officer by the name of Brutus. We are therefore set up for an interesting adventure through the world of the late Roman Republic.
As someone was has read quite a lot of fiction set in the Roman world, Kane’s story stands out as being something a little bit different. Rome is not romanticised here. This is a book that looks at Rome through the eyes of slaves, prostitutes and conquered people, and we get to see the seedy underbelly of the civilisation in all its Technicolor goriness and brutality. The world is pretty well researched (although not perfectly – I spotted a couple of things that weren’t quite right) and is brought to life vividly for the reader. A lot of the author’s research seemed to be in getting the Latin name for every little thing we encounter, which is perhaps done to excess; parts of the text read more like information dumps that productive parts of the story. However, this is Kane’s first novel and he seems to get away from this tendency to over-explain things as the book progresses, which bodes well for the rest of the trilogy.
The characters in The Forgotten Legion are likeable, although hardly subtle, and it is apparent very early on that the story is only interested in virtuosos in their respective fields: the best mystic, the best fighters, the most successful high-class prostitute. While the story and the writing are good enough to carry these slightly cardboard geniuses through the plot, it would have been nice if they were a bit more rounded and imperfect. However this may strain my suspension of disbelief, it is not enough to prevent me seeking out the rest of the trilogy to see what happens next. The set up of having one set of characters travel the ancient world, and in particular the less written about aspects of it, while another keeps you in touch with the city of Rome and the important politics that influence the plot provides a lot of potential for the reader. If you are a fan of historical fiction and are interested in ancient Rome, you could certainly do a lot worse that try The Forgotten Legion.
The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane
Published by Arrow
(hardcover 2008, paperback 2011, also available in Kindle)
I read the paperback edition: 672pp
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