Roman History Through a Hundred Novels
The First Century from Tiberius to Domitian
The Claudian emperors provide the most typical backdrop for Roman novels. Tiberius, another autobiography "discovered" by Massie stands in contrast to the monster of Suetonius or Tacitus. A modest military man, Tiberius represents Roman republican values with an overlay of Greek learning. I Loved Tiberius by the Norwegian writer Elizabeth Dored operates on the wild premiss that Augustus's daughter Julia really loved Tiberius in spite of unanimous historical sources which suggest she tromped him with a cross section of Roman society. Dored's Julia's is punished for a misunderstood hallway hug, but this makes for a more sympathetic narrator and a better story. Albert Camus' play "Caligula" presents an amoral emperor, murdering raping, hunting legacies, and humiliating his dinner guests by making love to their wives. Caligula ascribes these actions to his existential love of liberty.
Perhaps the best-known of Roman novels, Graves' I Claudius* and Claudius the God draw from a broad selection of ancient sources, staying faithful in detail while contradicting the main intent. Graves's wise, liberal and valiant Claudius probably would not have been recognized by his contemporaries, including his mother who thought him an idiot, but the reinterpreted character makes for a compelling narrator, although one wishes Livia's libel lawyer were given a chance to present her side. Toward the end of the second novel, Graves' Claudius reveals his plan to have his son escape to Britain, paint himself blue, and come back to restore the republic, making the supposedly wise fictional Claudius even more foolish than his historical counterpart. The Sybilline oracles prophecies are always coming true, taking the story to the border of myth. And yet, the novel captures Roman history intensely with the tabloid fodder of Suetonius, making it, alas, the greatest of the novels discussed set in the era under discussion..
Nero's Rome is probably the most popular of ancient settings. Henry Sienkewicz's Quo Vadis features a beautiful Christian slave and the obligatory presence of Peter and Paul. The chronology is confused, and the use of the character of Petronius as the relatively virtuous pagan is whimsical, but the central story captures both the Roman and the Christian ethos. A new translation by W.S. Kuniczak has made this novel and others by Sienkewicz, often considered Poland's national writer, more alive to English language readers. Naomi Mitchison's Blood of the Martyrs memorably describes the sadistic spectacles used to persecute the Christian scapegoats. Her martyrs indulge in homoerotic activity before their Christian services, but this quirk only serves to humanize them. The Finnish writer Mika Waltari's The Roman features a fringe political survivor who supervises the persecutions, in spite of the opposition of his wife who fears such activity will spoil the lions. John Hersey's The Conspiracy describes the story of the Pisonian conspiracy through a number of intriguing communications between principals. Balanced characterization makes the effort less heroic than tyrrannicide might normally seem; the poet Lucan's attempts to buy his way to freedom by turning his mother over to the secret police is horrifyingly vivid. Maier's Flames of Rome, a documentary novel with 25 pages of notes, contextualizes its story of Flavius Sabinus, secret Christian. David Wishart's Nero ingeniously explains who was responsible for the fire Nero blamed on the Christians. Petronius the Arbiter narrates a tale which does not sympathize with young "Lucius" (Petronius alway uses his birth name rather than Nero), but it explains some of his actions through youth and bad influences. The French writer Hubert Monteilheit's Neropolis deserves to be translated, if only for the account of Nero's plans for the new Rome's permanent open air sex market and the contrast with the humane simplicity of the early Christians. Nero's life continues to be a subject for writers even after his death, with Lion Feuchtwanger's The Pretender recounting the intriguing story of a potter who impersonated the dead emperor in the East and tried to effect a restoration.
Henry Treece's This Dark Island memorably portrays Claudius's bumbling interference with his own military. Red Queen, White Queen pits poetic Celts against practical Romans in a war to avenge the indignities heaped on Queen Boudicca. Simple language and broad characterizations do not lessen the impact of the widowed queen's struggle and defeat. George Shipway's Imperial Governor describes the same period from the viewpoint of Roman military and civilian administration, exemplified by the efficient Gaius Suetonius Paulinus.
Feuchtwanger's trilogy, Josephus*, Jew of Rome, and Josephus and the Emperor sympathetically chronicles the life of the historian Flavius Josephus. The young Josephus is a diplomat to Rome, a scholar-priest, a conciliator with the Romans, a rebel general, and a turncoat within the first volume. Written during the Hitler era, this German Jew's novel highlights the heroism of the Jews' efforts to survive through a rabbinical school and Josephus's own histories of his people. The Tenth Measure by Brenda Segal creates a more unflattering portrait of the historian's role. This poetic novel lives up to the tragic beauty promised in its epigraph, "There are ten measures of beauty in all the world . . . and nine of these are in Jerusalem." David Kossoff's Voices of Masada recreates the final siege of the war with archaeological evidence and historic imagination. Fast's Agrippa's Daughter tries to build sympathy for an unfortunately sanitized Queen Berenice, normally represented as a harlot with chutzpah.
Lindsey Davis offers the hard-boiled informer Marcus Didius Falco, an ancient Roman version of the 1940's private detective. Silver Pigs opens the series with Falco sneaking up to the 6th floor of his insula in order to avoid his unspeakable landlord, Smartacus. Falco's relationship with Helena, the imperious daughter of a senator, begins in this volume and continues through the series. Falco solves the mystery of some silver ingots, called pigs because they are made from molten silver flowing into channels as does milk to suckling piglets. Shadows in Bronze has Falco posing as a door-to-door salesman and a pater familias on vacation by the Bay of Naples. Although perfectly accurate in material history, Davis provides touches of pleasing social anachronism. For instance, in Venus in Copper Falco suggests that he needs a girl to take his messages while he is out. The Iron Hand of Mars shows Falco boasting that he has his own resources for boning up on senators, and gossip is his stock in trade. Falco represents Vespasian on a mission to Germany. In Poseidon's Gold Falco defends the reputation of his late brother and deals in classical objets d'art. Last Act in Palmyra takes him to the Near East where his employment as writer for a comedy troupe sets him to musing on his play that opens with a recently murdered father's ghost appearing to a son. On a cheerful note for those of us who appreciate the series, Falco implies that he lived at least through the age of Trajan, giving Davis the scope for at least forty more years of Falco. Time to Depart* derives its title from the custom of allowing a convicted criminal a chance to choose exile. Falco continues, as always, a committed republican serving the autocratic and parsimonious Emperor Vespasian. The series is at its best when Falco is relating to his extended family of irritating sisters, undisciplined nieces, and worthless brothers-in-law. In Course of Honor, Davis steps outside of Falco to create a love story centering on Vespasian's mistress, the freedwoman Caenis. By presenting the life of an independent Roman woman, a unique perspective is attained.
Anne de Leseleuc's Marcus Aper chez Les Rutenes is one of a series where the orator from Tacitus solves mysteries in his role as a an advocate in Gaul. A potter's daughter's death provides the plot for a roman policier of sorts as well as an opportunity to describe a thriving ancient industry.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii mixes a willful lack of fact, a melodramatic plot, and a style so hackneyed that the author is the eponym for an annual worst sentence contest. However, this may be the first novel of the genre, certainly the first commercially successful one, making it historic if not historical. Louis Untermeyer's poignant short story "The Dog of Pompeii" captures the sense of the moment frozen in time in a much more effective and decidedly shorter fashion.
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