Book Review: Spartacus: Morituri

Spartacus is a popular TV series that depicts ancient Rome and gladiators in all their gory, violent glory. Now fans of the franchise can enjoy more of the Spartacus world as Titan Books is releasing novels based off the show, one of which is Spartacus: Morituri.

Back Cover Blurb

Batiatus and Solonius vie with each other for the favor of one Marcus Licinius Crassus, an Equites who aims at the Praetorship. Thrilled by the bloody violence of the fights, Crassus decides to set up his own gladiatorial school. In the arena, the Batiati are ground down by injury and death, while Crassus’ numbers never seem to shrink. Can the ludus survive against such odds?

The Review

Spartacus: Morituri is based off the Starz TV series, but familiarity with the show is not necessary to read the novel. I haven’t watched any TV episodes, but the bits of backstory in the narrative were sufficient for me to grasp the larger Spartacus arc. What did trip me up was some of the terminology and dialogue. It being a Roman period piece, Morris uses Roman terms for everything from rooms to gladiator weapons. While this should please enthusiasts of that era, not all the terms can be figured out from context, and the book provides no glossary. In addition, the characters speak in a kind of dialect. For example, this interchange takes place before a party between Lucretia and Ilithyia:

“Gods smile upon husband this day. He responds with raised voice in gratitude.”

“Spirits raise to hear the gods show generous heart,” Ilithyia said with a tinkling laugh. “But such bleating calls to mind sacrificial pig awaiting slaughter!”

I assume their speech is meant to reflect Latin sentence structure, but it does take some getting used to.

As to Morituri’s plot, it’s not so much an epic adventure as it is a tale of intrigue. The novel begins shortly after Spartacus has defeated Theokoles and become Champion of Capua and Batiatus’ ludus. But the focus, especially for the first half of the novel, is not so much on Spartacus and his fighting prowess, but the wheelings and dealings of his owner Batiatus, whose household is sliding into debt. The new lanista Hieronymus has come to Capua to debut his gladiators, the Morituri, and once Batiatus learns Hieronymus’ patron is the wealthy Roman nobleman Crassus, he’s desperate to curry Crassus’ favor. Batiatus comes off as a vulgar politician as he kisses up to his betters (often with little finesse); treats his lessers with contempt; and spews profanity within his home.

The intrigue ramps up once Batiatus and Hieronymus agree to a match with Batiatus’ fortunes weighing in the balance. A strange malaise falls upon Batiatus’ gladiators, affecting not only their bodies, but their minds. Nightmares afflict them, and the stable scenes are less about men training (though there are a couple passages about Spartacus perfecting his new two-sword technique) and more about the discord caused by their hallucinations. Making things worse is Mantilus, Hieronymus’ gladiator trainer, who exudes a demonic aura. With the ludus in disarray and the Morituri’s white-eyed, tattooed overseer lurking around, rumors of witchcraft run rampant, terrifying gladiators and Batiatus’ household alike.

Spartacus, though, is the notable exception. Despite his own eerie visions and sapped strength, he refuses to believe Mantilus possesses magic powers, with seemingly superhuman stubbornness. Therefore, it is not surprising that he is the one with enough presence of mind to figure out the truth behind Mantilus and the plague affecting the ludus.

Once the mystery is solved, what follows is a predictable plot for revenge. It is interesting though to see Solonius, Batiatus, Oenamus, and Spartacus working together, the lanistae to crush the one who’d nearly ruined them and the gladiators to avenge their fallen brethren. The three-way match in which they exact retribution turns the spotlight on the gladiator arena with intense, if harrowingly graphic, fight descriptions. For those wanting to read about blood on the sand, they will find it in those pages.

By the way, the cover blurb advertises Morituri as a “tale of blood, sex and politics.” There’s definitely politics with all of Capua trying to cozy up to nobleman Crassus. Morituri also delivers blood, though much of it comes in the form of nightmares and gladiators having crazed episodes in their stable. Regarding sex, there is sex aplenty with an orgy scene and Batiatus availing himself of his slaves, but it never comes into play as a tool for love or power. It just serves as part of the tawdry Roman background.

In Summary

Morituri is not epic but does provide a glimpse of Capua at its depraved worst with its citizenry vying for wealth and power on the backs of slaves, gladiators included. Pages abound with the machinations of Batiatus and his rivals, and although there are only two major gladiator tournaments, the story grips readers in a different way by besetting the city’s fiercest fighters with an enemy they cannot cut or even pinpoint.

First published at the Fandom Post.

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