Clash of Empires by Ben Kane has many of the attributes I look for in a novel: lots of disparate characters whose paths collide, historical accuracy, great dialogue, etc., but it conspicuously didn’t have one thing that is always high atop my list: a villain.
The book starts out with three main characters, Demetrios, a rower who wants to become a soldier in King Philip of Macedon’s army, Felix, a sort of drunken infantry man in the Roman legion, and Flamininus, a corrupt Senator whose greed knows no bound. Later, King Philip himself becomes a main character as well.
Looking at that lineup, one might immediately expect the senator to be the villain, as he is imbued with villain-like qualities, but reaching that conclusion would be a stretch. He has a clear goal and struggles against the opposition right up until the end. Even Joseph Campbell would agree that the Senator is more hero than villain.
But then, neither is King Philip a villain, who is carefully portrayed as following his divine right to conquer in the vein of Alexander.
That leaves the two foot soldiers, one Roman and one Macedonian, who are clearly at the mercy of forces greater than themselves. The Roman, Felix, is drummed out of the legions via a fustuarium (a deadly punishment akin today’s curb stomping) after falling asleep on guard duty. Faced with little financial opportunity in Rome’s caste system, he and his brother decide to do the unthinkable–they re-enlist despite the fact that if anyone recognizes them, they will be crucified. Other than being unsavory, they are both certainly likable characters and their stories follow the hero’s journey.
The rower who becomes a Macedon soldier is even more likable, saving King Philip’s life from an assassination attempt as he rises in favor.
So, as I was left pondering this villain-less novel, I realized that Kane succeeded in creating something many writers could only aspire to: a love song to ancient warfare. The characters simply try to eek out an existence (with the exception of Flamininus, who, despite being rich, is no less typical of a Roman senator of the period than his peers) during a period where it seems the whole world was at war. In fact, Kane depicts a time in history where war WAS the economy. He drives this point home by showing his main characters, when they get a moment away from the action, going hunting. Conquering was the only way to acquire resources–food included. Armies had to stay on the move or starve.
Kane’s characters are merely witnesses to the time, clinging to their piece of a brutal world to survive. It was beautiful and moving and I highly recommend anyone interested in ancient warfare take a look.
And yet, I longed for a villain. It’s EASY to understand why saving kids from evil super villains and donning a cape to save your neighbors is ALWAYS the choice. I knew from the day my life started over after a suicide attempt at 17 that I wanted to spend my life helping others. For me, helping is such a natural desire that it leaves no questions which must be answered and, as we all know, good fiction asks questions.
So, why was there no villain?
Maybe the takeaway from Kane’s book isn’t that people are evil, just that society and the world we inhabit–whether 2,200 years ago or today’s harsh political climate–demands sacrifice and evil has far too many ways to express itself.
Evil lurked in this novel. In the brutal, dictator-like superior officers, in the other senators nipping at Flamininus’ heels, in the soldiers raping young girls in their pillaging, or in the brigands waiting to kill anyone unlucky enough to fall in their grasp–even a wayward king.
Evil then, is everywhere, and Ben Kane wrote an elegy for the small people just trying to exist alongside it and a love song for the military traditions that guided the era.
Categories: Book Reviews