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Theodora DuBois

Captive of Rome
Crown, 1962


Honorius has been Emperor of the West for 8 years when Marcus Lentulus Fabatus, a Roman Briton trader, master of the trim ship Thetis, tells King Niall-of-the Nine-Hostages that he wants to marry the king’s beautiful and spirited daughter, Ethnea of Erin. Niall says that Ethnea is too young & too free to endure the restrictions of Roman law or transplantation away from her native land. She is also promised for another year of fosterage at the convent-like school run by Mor-of-the Journeyings near Dublin, where she will both complete her education and teach the younger girls. When a crazed Druid priestess comes into the king’s hall and starts to cast a curse on everyone present because they have thwarted her in her attempt to sacrifice a baby to Cromm Cruach, only 3 people step forward to oppose her: Marcus, Ethnea & a young thrall herdsman, Patrick. In the ensuing confrontation, the priestess casts her curse, Patrick invokes the protection of his Christian god and Marcus has his face seriously torn by the woman’s nails (but sewed up by Ethnea). This confrontation has various results: ill-fortune attends Ethnea and Marcus, though Marcus’ bravery convinces Niall that Marcus should be allowed to marry Ethnea after she finishes her year with Mor, and Patrick becomes a particular friend of both Marcus & Ethnea. Not long after Marcus has dropped off Ethnea at Mor’s, marauding Goths attack the school, kill the attendants and nuns and carry off in their ship the girls, including Ethnea, who is spared some of the rougher treatment of the others because of her spirit and the desire of Igor the Soft (incorrectly named), the chief of the band, to get the highest price for her in the slave market as a virgin and with her great beauty unmarked. Ethnea is bought by the Nobilissima (consistently misspelled as Noblissima) Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius, and Marcus’s novel-long attempt to find and rescue her is marked by one early success, which is then frustrated by his grandfather, a Roman senator who does not want his grandson involved with a foreign slave. Numerous near-reunions are prevented by chance and by the belief by each of the lovers that the other has died. (And the cover illustration is completely misleading.) The story is rousingly told, with lots of adventure and good character depictions, but a large part of the fun is in seeing how close Ethnea and Marcus come time and again to reuniting, but they always just miss. Much of the non-historical part of the plot seems taken from various Greek novels. The historical parts come directly from the sources, but seen up closer and with more personal involvement. Alaric and, even more so, his brother-in-law Ataulf are important characters, as is Stilicho and his 2 daughters. It may take an few appearances of the young slave, Patrick, for the reader to realize this is THE St Patrick. Probably the longest historical section is Alaric’s siege of Rome, in which Marcus plays a spirited part for the defenders. This is good battle writing, but character interaction is as important as action. There is a very small bit of low-key sex, not enough to cause a problem for younger readers. The 2 lovers do finally wind up as Christians (Marcus had been a Roman pagan and Ethnea a Druidic follower) and there is a recurring Christian message about the proper way to live, but this is certainly no religious tract. I enjoyed the novel, though the period is a bit late for my expertise, so I’m not the best judge of detail. However, nothing jumped out at me as inaccurate or impossible for fiction. Lots of coincidences, sure, but not impossible and certainly enlivening. -Fred Mench 7/99

- Fred Mench, 7/1/1999

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