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Lindsey Davis

Course of honour, The
Century, 1997
Barnes & Noble


Surprise! This is not the newest escapade of Rome's Hercule Poirot, the private investigator M. Didius Falco, and not a sequel to A Dying Light in Corduba. There are no mysteries, no crimes, no Falco in his slummy Aventine apartment, and none of the colorful residents of Fountain Court. Indeed, there is neither a real plot nor suspense, only the narrative of the intertwined lives of the senator Vespasian and the slave become freedwoman Caenis. The title is significant: we are meant to realize that "the course of honors" is the technical term for the Roman political career, cursus honorum. With Caenis, we follow Vespasian up the political ladder: in as much as he becomes emperor, he climbs one rung more than anyone else. Caenis' course of honors is a different one, but ultimately as successful as his. as in the end she is wife and empress of Vespasian in all but name. Observe that the title is in the singular: Course of Honour. Senator and freedwoman are one. Davis has written a chronicle of the period from 31 to 70, told from the perspective of an observer of Caenis. This approach is similar to, but not quite that of because not autobiographical, I, Claudius and The Memoirs of Hadrian. The Course of Honour is on the whole better history than Graves' reinterpretation of imperial reigns and an easier read than Yourcenar's examination of an emperor's inner self. The central characters are not some obscure senator and an anonymous freedwoman but historical figures of importance and interest. Vespasian is of course quite well known. Davis enlivens the small-town, plain-living, blunt-spoken, witty, and stingy but basically likeable figure of Suetonius. As the story progresses, Vespasian becomes a great military hero, but we do not see the qualities which made him a successful commander. Maybe Caenis could not have appreciated them anyway, but this absence is unfortunate because the novel is almost as much about him as about her. We may also doubt that Vespasian was as impoverished as Davis makes him. The story concludes just as he becomes emperor, but we''re confident that he will be a good one. We catch glimpses of what's in store for Rome when Vespasian's sons follow him on the throne ten and twelve years later, as Titus loves Caenis (she saves him when poisoned at the same time as Britannicus) but the young brat Domitian crudely snubs her. Tantalizing bits of information survive about Caenis. In Suetonius she is a freedwoman of Antonia the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, and mother of the last decent emperor, Claudius. A Roman lady of the old sort, Antonia is said to have committed suicide rather than endure the reign of Caligula. Suetonius also says that after the death of his wife and when emperor Vespasian took Caenis back as his mistress when was the first time? Dio Cassius tells us that Antonia dictated to the loyal Caenis the letter to Tiberius in which she denounced Sejanus in 31. Archaeology has turned up evidence for her villa outside the Porta Nomentana (a piece of lead pipe bearing her name), for a nearby bath-building named for her, and a tombstone erected to her as "best patron" by her freedman Aglaus. In terms of modern Rome, Caenis's villa is just beyond the Porta Pia where the Via XX Settembre becomes the Via Nomentana, across the wall from the British embassy on the grounds of the Ministry of Public Works, and two stones' throws from the villa where Pauline Bonaparte lived out her days after splitting from Prince Camillo Borghese. Working with these scanty references Davis gives Caenis a fascinating life, a cursus honorum evidently not far from the truth. While there is no evidence for a meeting so early, Davis concocts an entertaining story for Caenis' and Vespasian's first encounter. Vespasian and his brother bump into her while she's cooking a sausage and they're wandering through the maze of corridors in the imperial residence. When she offers him a bite and he accepts, we sense that something more than a snack is underway. If it's not true, it should be: it fits. A few chapters later they're hooked and Vespasian gives her an inscribed gold bangle as sign of his affection. The novel could carry the subtitle, "a story of sausages and a bangle," as cold-cuts and the jewelry run throughout. For example, in a scene set in 47 we witness the triumphal procession for the conquest of Britain, in which Vespasian had commanded legion II Augusta. Thousands of cheering spectators scatter flowers on the victorious troops, but Caenis, out of petals, from her balcony tosses Vespasian a salami which he tucks under his parade armor ... and later eats. Caenis knows her man and to me, so does Davis: this is vintage Vespasian, perfectly in character with the Suetonian version. It's too bad that Caenis is said to have died in 74, for this reviewer at least would like to see Davis write sequels and link The Course of Honour to the Falco series, the first of which is set within a few months of Vespasian's accession. The blunt, gruff emperor carries over readily. The Domitian of Silver Pigs was implicated in a devious plot. Titus, a ladies' man in Course of Honour, repeatedly casts his eyes upon Falco's girl Helena. A sequel to The Course of Honour could easily have Falco undertaking some mission for Caenis. Helena would hit if off wonderfully, and Caenis would make a loving godmother for the baby which was just born at the end of Dying Light in Corduba. Thomas H. Watkins, Department of History: Western Illinois University, Macomb, IL 61455

- Thomas H. Watkins, 11/25/2005

The Course of Honour is an account of a bittersweet relationship that spans nearly fifty years encompassing within it the turbulent, decadent and often terrifying reigns of the Emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. We are first introduced to Antonia Caenis, who is known to history only marginally through the work of Roman writers of the time, when she is a slave working as a secretary for the ruling family. Her first prickly encounter with the young nobleman Titus Flavius Vespasianus (eventually to become Emperor and founder of the Flavian dynasty) sets the scene for a life-long love that finds itself bent but never quite broken by the laws, politics and expected social behavior of the time. But this is no bland romantic novel. It is rather a vivid portrayal of the men and women behind the vast and constantly expanding empire of first century Rome. The author certainly knows her history. Roman life, customs and attitudes are depicted with strength and certainty. The painful course of honour and duty followed by both Caenis and Vespasian is set as a sharp contrast to the treachery and debauchery of some of their supposed social betters. The writing is crisp and concise, the style flowing and consistent. A highly recommended read on a period that is either little known and understood or so badly depicted by Hollywood. -Towse Harrison From The Historical Novel Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Towse Harrison, 11/25/2005

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