The Forgotten Legion
by Ben Kane
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Forgotten Legion follows four fictional characters, three of whom set out from Rome in 54 B.C. as soldiers in the ill-fated military expedition of Marcus Licinius Crassus against the Parthians. Tarquinius is one of the last full-blooded Etruscans. When he can slip away from his work on an estate owned by a stupid, brutal patrician, he studies the ancient Etruscan art of divination. Brennus is a Gaul forced to become a gladiator after Rome attacks his village. Romulus and Fabiola are twins born to a slave mother raped by a mysterious Roman aristocrat. (Readers familiar with Roman history may guess his identity before the author reveals it.) Their cruel owner sells the beautiful, virginal Fabiola to a brothel and Romulus to the gladiatorial school where Brennus is enslaved.
The novel's first half tells a fairly predictable story about the gladiatorial careers of Brennus and Romulus. They become friends and, despite the risks of their profession and rival gladiators who wish them ill, develop into impressive fighters beloved by the Roman mob. Strong foreshadowing from an author's preface reinforced by divinatory revelations in the story, tell readers the three male characters will fight with Crassus's army in Parthia, and at least two of them will survive the Battle of Carrhae and travel farther east than any Roman has ever traveled.
Relatively few novelists have written about the monumental Roman defeat at Carrhae. Kane ruthlessly exposes Crassus's tactical errors and his stubborn reliance on a dubious ally. The battle seems well-researched, and readers will likely find it the most interesting episode in the story. "Through clouds of sand and grit, Romulus saw Parthians riding rings around the fleeing mercenaries. Arrows scythed through the air, cutting them down. Curved swords flashed in the sunlight, opening gaping wounds in men's backs. Hooves trampled the fallen into the sand facedown."
The Forgotten Legion ends short of many other adventures suggested by Tarquinius's predictions. A sequel, The Silver Eagle continues the story. (2008; 525 pages including an Author's Note on the history and a detailed and informative Glossary)
More about The Forgotten Legion at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels about Roman defeats:
Winter Quarters by Alfred Duggan (1956) , about two Gauls in Crassus's army during the invasion of Parthia and the Battle of Carrhae. More info
Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham (2005), about Hannibal and his victory over Rome at Cannae. More info
Give Me Back My Legions! by Harry Turtledove (2009), about the disastrous Roman defeat to the Germans under Arminius in the Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD. More info
Nonfiction about Crassus and his Parthian campaign:
Marcus Crassus and the Late Roman Republic by Allen Mason Ward (1977). More info
Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C. by Gareth C. Sampson (2008). More info
From the Jaws of Victory: A History of the Character, Causes and Consequences of Military Stupidity from Crassus to Johnson and Westmoreland by Charles Fair (1971). More info
"Roman-Persian Wars: Battle of Carrhae," an article by Bryan Dent in Military History Magazine at the HistoryNet.com website
Battle of Carrhae entry at Wikipedia
Back to Novels of Ancient History
Back to Directory of Book Reviews