An Epic of Rome, Tyranny and Love
I discovered this novel tucked away near the back of our little lending-library shelf at work. I’m not all that familiar with Lindsey Davis’s Falco books, but I’ve read the one where he goes to Alexandria and remembered enjoying it, so I decided to give this standalone novel a try. Like the Falco series it’s set in ancient Rome, this time roughly covering the period of the emperor Domitian, from 80-96 AD. However it isn’t a mystery and, as far as I know, the characters are entirely different from those in Falco. From the very first line (‘It was a quiet afternoon on the Via Flaminia‘) I was drawn into Davis’s world, and can honestly say that this has been one of the most heartwarming, lovable books I’ve read in a long time.
Thanks to a rather crazy few months, however, it’s also the one I’ve had to restart the most: I probably began it four times before I finally managed to get through to the end without being interrupted, but that tenacity in itself proves how determined I was to find out what happened to the characters.
The day that Gaius Vinius Clodianus meets Flavia Lucilla is memorable for all the wrong reasons. She is a young freedwoman, an apprentice to her hairdresser mother, while he is an investigator in the vigiles, Rome’s proto-police force and fire service. She turns up at his office to report a robbery on what seems to be an unremarkable summer afternoon, but by that evening her complaint will have been forgotten. It is 80 AD. Titus is emperor and is down in Naples dealing with the aftermath of one tragedy: the horrific eruption of Vesuvius. But another disaster is about to happen: in his absence, Rome catches fire.* Fighting the blaze with his colleagues, Vinius is dragged into days of waking nightmare. When it is over, he inadvertently comes to the attention of Titus’s younger brother, who is representing the imperial family in Rome: a quiet, introverted, thoughtful type called Domitian. This will have remarkable (and unwanted) consequences for his career, as Vinius finds himself promoted into the ranks of the Praetorian Guard, but he finds that he can never quite forget the skinny, indignant girl he’d met on the afternoon of the fire.
For her own part, Flavia Lucilla barely thinks of him: she’s too busy establishing a career, developing her skills and building a client base among the imperial ladies, who value her deft fingers and imagination (Davis playfully suggests that Lucilla and her mother Lachne were responsible for the absurd crescent of curls that was high fashion among the Flavian aristocracy). But, years later, the two cross paths again when, by pure coincidence, they end up sharing a smart, newly-renovated and overpriced apartment. The result is a complex relationship founded on territorial negotiation, friendship, confidences, squabbles, discretion and goodwill. Vinius finds a kindly ear to listen to his woes, as a man cursed with serial monogamy. Lucilla finds a protector, a valuable asset in a world where a single woman is all too easily seen as prey. Both of them, now and then, find themselves wondering whether this couldn’t all work in a slightly different way. But it’s no time to fall in love. With their connections to the imperial court, both of them can see all too plainly what is happening. Domitian, who has succeeded Titus as emperor, is becoming steadily more dangerous: unpredictable, impulsive and paranoid.
Davis knows her period so well, and has enough confidence in her own storytelling, that she can get away with some lovely irreverent touches. This is a novel that is firmly placed in the past, but which recognises that its readers come from the future (a difficult thing to pull off). Take for example this digression on the dramatic name of the Dacian capital:
Any Dacian might well believe that all roads led to Sarmizegetusa.
Though not snappy in any language, it had a certain portentous
quality, whereas ‘all roads lead to Rome’ can sound by comparison
like a line in a comedy musical.
That’s an accurate flavour of the style as a whole. It isn’t earnest or heavy at all. It’s written with lightness and flair, with an awareness of the intrinsic absurdity of life, and the foibles of human nature. Davis has sympathy even for the devil: she shows Domitian in a reasonably fair light, highlighting his hard work to renovate and restore Rome to its former glories, and celebrating his administrative flair. He may be a monster of sorts in the end, but he’s also a man oppressed by the knowledge that he can never match the charisma of his much-beloved brother. Everyone in this book has their strengths and their weaknesses, and that’s what makes them feel so real. The characters pulse with life, showing humanity in all its petty, generous, sullen and admirable aspects. They’re so easy to warm to because they are so endearingly, unselfconsciously ridiculous. Some of the scenes I enjoyed most are the everyday interactions between Lucilla and Vinius as they face the challenges of flatsharing. Anyone who’s ever flounced out of a room and then hung around outside to listen to the reaction, or avoided doing something ‘stupid’ only to spend the rest of the day beating themselves up for having no courage, or taken a violent and irrational dislike to someone based on some sartorial foible, will find something familiar here.
I can’t quite bring myself to give this five stars because, despite my enormous fondness for it, there are points when one feels the research being laid on slightly too heavily. The story stops moving with its usual cantering freshness, and sags slightly beneath historical context. There are also some bits that felt unnecessary and slightly laboured: I didn’t understand the point of having a chapter from Musca’s point of view, for example. But for the most part this is an absolutely delightful book. I’m even considering buying my own copy, because I know I’m going to want to read it again; it might well join that pantheon of my comfort books, which I turn to when in need of a boost of happiness. I simply loved the gentle humour, the lovely characters and the way that Davis writes about Rome as if it were a modern, vibrant, up-and-coming city, which is exactly what it was at this date. And I loved spending time with both Lucilla and Vinius, both of whom had vivid, rounded personalities. (In defiance of the description given in the novel, I can’t help imagining Vinius being rather like Tito Pullo in Rome, though with slightly more brains. It’s not even the way he looks but his mannerisms and the way he sounds.)
Despite the romantic element heralded in the title there’s nothing cutesy or sugary about it: those who shudder at the thought of reading ‘romance’ don’t have to fear. This is a witty, down-to-earth book about two adults who try to be mature and sensible (and occasionally fail), pushing on with life in the vague hope they won’t screw everything up too badly; while trying to survive in a political climate which sprouts more thorns day by day. It’s also refreshing to read a novel about a less familiar period of Roman history, which looks beyond the well-worn territory of the Julio-Claudians. Definitely something to try if you enjoy historical fiction. And it probably bodes ill for my own future domestic comfort, but I’m fondest of stories in which the couples are witty, sharp and fiercely independent: as Benedick says, ‘too wise to woo peaceably’.
* Presumably the fire that dominates Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito.