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The writer of historical novels has to step carefully on the thin ledge between being arcanely accurate in portraying the times and in writing a modern book in superficial historical dress. In upholding this delicate balance, Lindsey Davis does a good job, especially in THE COURSE OF HONOR, which is a departure from her ancient Rome mystery series featuring Marcus Didius Falco.
The ancient historian Suetonius in THE TWELVE CAESARS tells us that Roman Emperor Vespasian (9-79 a.d.), following the death of his wife Flavia, "took up with Caenis, his former mistress and one of Antonia's freedwomen secretaries, who remained his wife in all but name even when he became emperor." On this one line, Davis has created a most interesting novel of romantic suspense. (I know of one other reference to Caenia, in Tactitus, and there may be a few others, but Suetonius's one line seems to be the seed of this story.) As Davis mentions following the end, "The political events in this story are true." Much of the rest is a fictitious re-creation of the possible career of Caenis, the novel's main character, and her love affair with the man who eventually became emperor.
Antonia was the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, who was the sister of the Emperor Augustus. Antonia married Germanicus, the son of Augustus's wife Livia, brother of the Emperor Tiberius, grandfather of the Emperor Caligula, father of the Emperor Claudius, and great grandfather of the Emperor Nero. Thus in the story, due to her connections with Antonia, the slave-secretary Caenis had associations with all of the Julio-Claudian emperors. In this story the House of Livia, next door to the imperial palace on Rome's Palatine Hill, is a significant part of the setting, for this was where Antonia lived until she died, and where Caenia, who knows nothing about her birth or age, spent many of her early years.
The House of Livia, which is a real dwelling place and may still be visited on the Palatine Hill, is also where she meets the young country gentleman Vespasian and his older brother Sabinus just as they start their progression through the "Course of Honor," where a well-born Roman passes through various prescribed civilian ranks in his ambition toward becoming a consul in Rome and later a proconsul in complete charge of a large foreign part of the Roman Empire.
Caenia is an intelligent, prudent woman whose competence and pleasant personality endear her to Antonia to the point where Antonia gives her her freedom through the process of manumission, so she becomes a freedwoman. The same traits endear her to Vespasian and help her become a confidant to various palace officials, giving her access to the highest ranks. However, though she is now free, her classification as a freedwoman still subjects her to restrictions of law. She becomes Vespasian's mistress and they fall in love, but Vespasian cannot marry her because marriage to a freedwoman would prevent him from continuing along the "Course of Honor."
Note that the title of the book not only refers to Vespasian's successive career, but also implies a self-chosen "course of honor" for Caenia, who always does the honorable thing, even if it involves sacrifice. Through her eyes we see some of the history of the early Roman emperors, and also, more than in the "Falco" stories, we see and feel a lot of the customs and everyday life, as well as the paraphernalia, of the people, high and low, of the time, reflecting Davis's education and research into the area she writes about. Such as, "Once again it became her special place -- the great screw-down clothespress in one corner smoothing her own tunics and cloaks, the long Egyptian chest, the wicker chair, her dressing table, which was set with her jumble of knickknack boxes, half-empty cream pots, pin trays, combs, and perfume jars ... her silver scarfcase, her sandalwood trinket drawers, her pottery lamps, that ancient rug in warm stripes of cinnbar red and umber ..."
These items do not represent taking objects from modern times and placing them indiscrimnatingly in the past, but are obviously based on extant contemporary literature and archeological findings. There is a solid sense that Davis knows her subject matter. When she refers twice to "black-figured" bowls, which in Greece had long been superceded by "red-figured" ceramics and then by metal, it is not an anachronism; in the second reference she also mentions the age of some objects in a house filled with Greek artifacts as being 500 years old, illustrating the fact that the house's owner was an antique collector. Davis also has a keen feeling for the apt expression, such as "In all cultures being old-fashioned means denying women any fun."
As Vespasian moves on and up in his career, he and Caenia are occasionally separated for long periods, and sometimes Caenia stoically believes that their relationship has necessarily come to an end. His political path is not unimpeded, rather at times he finds himself opposed by various rivals and even by Nero's wife. Of course, as we know from history his eventual position in the world comes following the fall of Nero as we go into the "Year of the Four Emperors," with Vespasian the final of the four, the one who rules until his death and then passes the throne peacefully on to his son, Titus. It was Vespasian who started the Colosseum and did much to rebuilt Rome. His other path, the "romantic suspense" in this book, involves the question of whether the love of Vespasian and Caenia can endure not only opposition, but the problems brought about by Vespasian's very success.
There are to be sure some minor technical problems in the writing, such as an expression reflecting our modern times creeping in, but not often or significantly. I have a problem involving the "Year of the Four Emperors"; that is, 69 A.D. when Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian were successively emperor, for it seems ambiguous in the novel, yet this too is a very minor fault. The beauty of the book is the intricate weaving of authentic history into a "faction" novel and keeping it almost error free as well as mighty interesting. This book is every bit as good as the "Falco" series, perhaps even better. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, March 2003
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