The Course of Honour - Lindsey Davis

The Course Of Honour
Lindsey Davis
Arrow Publishers
ISBN: 0099227428 (Amazon link)

In a recent book-log entry, I lamented catching up with the hardback publication schedule of the Falco novels. Luckily, I had kept one Davis novel in reserve, in case of reading emergency as it were. The Course of Honour is, I believe, Davis' first novel although it wasn't published until she'd made her name with the more marketable Falco crime novels.

The Course of Honour in the title is the Roman magisterial career ladder - the cursus honorum. It's appropriate that the cursus honorum gives the novel its title as it is effectively the third 'person' in a love triangle. Our hero is the Emperor-to-be Vespasian, famous founder of the Flavian dynasty. As the novel opens he, along with his brother Sabinus, is merely yet another ambitious provincial come to Rome to make his fortune. He has no reputation, no money, and an eye for pretty girls.

The pretty slave girl in this case is Caenis, a secretary to Antonia. She's a slave, but well educated, with comfortable duties, and, importantly, is the property of an important woman - Antonia is the "Daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia; Augustus' niece and sister-in-law of Tiberius; mother of the renowned Germanicus; (mother too of the pecuilar Claudius and the scandalous Livilla); grandmother of Caligula and Gemellus, who were to share the Empire on day...".

Vespasian is instantly fascinated by the headstrong Caenis, but naturally the course of true love never runs smooth. Well, things don't even get off to a good start, they meet over a pan of frying sausage in a poisoner's storeroom...

It would be highly inappropriate for an ambitious young man like Vespasian, just starting out on his career, to become involved with another citizen's slave, worse still when you consider that Caenis is an insider in one of the most infamous families in Roman history - this is the tale we see in from above stairs in Robert Grave's classic "I, Claudius".

Vespasian is a fascinating historical figure in his own right, and the rise of the this plain-speaking, blunt soldier to Emperor is fascinating, but Davis doesn't concern herself with either the power struggles surrounding the Julio-Claudian family or the rise to power of Vespasian. Instead she takes one line of Suetonius which says that after the death of his wife, "[Vespasian] took up again with Caenis, one of Antonia's freedwomen and secretaries, who remained his wife in all but name even when he became Emperor".

Around this single line Davis builds a fine romantic tale of love across decades, concentrating on the very private lives of her two finely characterised principals - but it's not all hearts and flowers for our star-cross'd lovers. The pragmatic Caenis is a romantic deep-down, but her expectations are tempered by an acute awareness of her station in life and how things always turn out for the pretty lower-class mistresses of important men, an awareness sharpened by her proximity to the corrupting power of the Julio-Caludians. Caenis' stubborn refusal to allow herself to swept away by her knight (actually he's a senator, outranking an equites) in shining armour makes all the difference between this story being touching and it being a sloppy, predictable Harlequin romance. (Despite their differences in background, it's interesting how similar Caenis is to the patrician Helena Justina in the Falco novels, another woman involved in a scandalous relationship across class boundaries.)

Caenis is right to rein in her expectations, for Vespasian is taken from her repeatedly by the cursus honorum; by his duties abroad, including his part in Plautius' invasion of Britain, and also by a politically motivated marriage. I think much of the tension of the later half of the novel might be heightened by a lack of knowledge of this period of history and how Vespasian's career will thwart any personal plans, but still, this is about the most satisfying romance, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else, I've read.

If I had to quibble, I'd want more of Vespasian - we only really see him through Caenis' love-struck eyes, and his political and military exploits are mainly off-stage. As in the Falco novels, Davis paints Vespasian as an impossible-to-dislike, earthy, honourable man, relying on Suetonius' record, but it's worth remembering that while Seutonius calls Vespanian's governorship of Africa "upright, and highly honourable" Tactitus calls it "infamous and odius".

Posted: Thu - November 6, 2003 at 01:36 AM