Tagged: ancient rome

Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

A.D. 69. Nero is dead.

The Roman Empire is up for the taking. With bloodshed spilling out of the palace and into the streets of Rome, chaos has become the status quo. The Year of Four Emperors will change everything—especially the lives of two sisters with a very personal stake in the outcome….

Elegant and ambitious, Cornelia embodies the essence of the perfect Roman wife. She lives to one day see her loyal husband as Emperor. Her sister, Marcella, is more withdrawn, content to witness history rather than make it. Even so, Marcella has her share of distinguished suitors, from a cutthroat contender for the throne to a politician’s son who swears that someday he will be Emperor.

But when a bloody coup turns their world upside down, Cornelia and Marcella—along with their cousins, one a collector of husbands and lovers, the other a horse-mad beauty with no interest in romance—must maneuver carefully just to stay alive. As Cornelia tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, Marcella discovers a hidden talent for influencing the most powerful men in Rome. In the end, though, there can only be one Emperor … and one Empress.

In order of publication, Daughters of Rome is technically the second book in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series but chronologically it is the first.  It’s a sort of prequel and you will recognize some of the characters we meet in Mistress of Rome except for the fact that they’re a couple of decades younger.  And the story takes place not in the relative stability of Domitian’s reign but the violent chaos that was the Year of the Four Emperors.  You would think that by virtue of having more drama (which Kate Quinn excels at writing about) the story itself would be better.  The problem is, it isn’t.  The strength of the first book was in its characters, notably Thea, but in this second book the characters really are the weakness.

First off, in true Roman fashion there are four cousins, all named Cornelia because they’re from the wealthy and influential Cornelii family.  Kate Quinn helpfully gives us nicknames for them all (the eldest Cornelia is the only one actually called by her name) and it does take a little bit to get used to.  However, after a couple of chapters it’s pretty easy to get everyone all organized because their personalities are fairly distinct.  Cornelia is the ideal senator’s wife, Marcella is a bookish woman who just wants to write history, Lollia has the most unfortunate string of marriages imaginable and Diana, the youngest, is horse crazy.  We do get to see the chaos from the eyes of all four of the sisters: the changing alliances, the marriage swapping, the crass power grabs not even bothered to be cloaked in lofty ideals, etc.  The Year of the Four Emperors was a horrifying time to be a Roman, particularly since backing one person meant glory one day and committing suicide while on the run the next.  Against this horrific background, you’d think that the characters would particularly stand out.

The problem is that none of the characters stand out; they didn’t have that authenticity that made Thea such a powerful, moving character.  Diana is the only one who is vaguely believable in her actions but the idea that she’d be a female charioteer is just ludicrous.  Roman women were generally more free than Greek women but they certainly weren’t that free, especially if they were from one of the main families in Rome.  Lollia’s string of husbands is definitely believable but even though she finds love in an unusual place I never really connected with her and her plight.  Like Marcella, her character felt rather hollow.  Marcella’s character didn’t ring true to me because even though she’s a bookworm much like myself, she gets into all of these situations that feel like they’re the direct result of Kate Quinn’s manipulation of historical fact.  It doesn’t feel natural that she finds herself in the midst of all of this trouble as it should; it feels forced and as such her character doesn’t grow in the way you would expect it to.  Cornelia, the eldest of the four cousins and sister of Marcella, is a bland Roman matron who also finds love in an unexpected place.  She at least is a believable character and I could sort of connect to her plight.

While the plot was certainly fast-paced and interesting (how could the Year of the Four Emperors not be, though?), it was surprisingly unsatisfying.  Kate Quinn uses the most gossipy of all the gossipy sources on Roman history and takes the worst of said gossip to portray each emperor as a caricature of what they probably really were.  This is not surprising given her portrayal of Domitian as a total sadist in the Marquis de Sade mold but it does make it seem like she’s going for the most drama no matter the historical reality.  Galba was a stick in the mud, Otho was a jealous brooding sort of hedonist and Vitellius was a total glutton/hedonist but I think Quinn takes things just a little too far and it seems like she’s playing things up for her audience.  As some people on Goodreads mentioned, it makes it feel like you’re reading The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome.  Really, the story would be just as good if she toned down some of the drama and didn’t rely so heavily on Flavian-biased historians.

Overall, I felt that compared to Mistress of Rome was a much better book than her second book.  That’s kind of shocking considering it was her debut but it was certainly much more satisfying than Daughters of Rome, which ends so randomly and incomprehensibly that I was left scratching my head in disbelief at the actions of three of the four sisters.  There were a lot of good things happening in this book, mainly the portrayal of the chaotic events and the uncertainty that gripped all of Rome but on the character front it was the most unsatisfying book I’ve ever read by Kate Quinn.  It’s just a complete disappointment to me, considering the fact that I loved her Borgia Chronicles and her debut novel.  Really, the only thing that can adequately express my feelings toward this book is the word ‘meh’.

I give this book 2/5 stars.

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Forgotten Figures: Aurelian

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus—Aurelian to modern scholars—is one of the most famous men you’ve never heard of.  What I mean by that is he is remembered as an absolutely amazing Emperor within Roman history, but the average person has never, ever heard of him.  That’s a shame because as you’ll see, Aurelian deserves to be put up there with the more recognizable Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian.

Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia

A bust of Aurelian.


Aurelian is not as familiar to our modern ears because he ascended to the throne during what’s known as the Crisis of the Third Century.  This crisis of political, economic and social factors is a confusing mess of events for modern historians trying to piece together a coherent narrative and not much is actually known about it.  What is known, however, is that during this period, the Roman Empire split into three distinct areas ruled by different emperors and pseudo-emperors.

This period is not the high point of Roman culture, believe me.  The written word was rarer, there were severe manpower shortages throughout the empire as the plague made its rounds and emperors rose and fell with alarming frequency.  In the so-called Middle Empire of the time, the Emperor Gallienus ruled until he was assassinated by a military coup led by Claudius, who would later earn the title Gothicus for his campaigns against the Goths.  Unfortunately, Claudius Gothicus likely succumbed to the plague killing his men, leaving no clear successor and a bunch of ambitious, seasoned military officers behind.

In the western Gallic Empire consisting mainly of Britain and Gaul, a man named Postumus had been ruling wisely and justly.  He was beloved by his troops and the people he ruled over because the Western provinces had been neglected by the emperors in the central Empire.  And when Gallienus, the current central emperor tried to launch a military campaign to retake the provinces, Postumus repulsed him twice.  He was no dummy and managed to maintain his hold over the Gallic Empire for around nine good years.

In the East, a man named Odaenathus had been the de facto ruler for years.  His main strength was that he was keeping the Sassanids in Persia from retaking territory they had lost to Rome centuries ago.  Odaenathus was also no dummy and had a sphere of influence over most of the eastern provinces, including Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor.  He ruled from the trade city of Palmyra, which had grown influential as it was one of the last main stops along the silk road before traders entered Persia.  As such, it could charge taxes and create protection rackets that made the city obscenely wealthy.  When Rome’s influence was degrading in the East, Odaenathus seized his opportunity to extend Palmyra’s influence over the surrounding provinces and although he officially had the approval of Gallienus, Gallienus couldn’t have dislodged him if he tried.  Odaenathus was too smart and too powerful.

A map of the three different 'empires' that had split from Rome during the crisis years.

A map of the three different ‘empires’ that had split from Rome during the crisis years.

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The Hunger Games and The Third Servile War

The Third Servile War is probably one of the most famous wars you’ve never heard of.  What I mean by that is that everyone knows about Spartacus’ rebellion from the movie Spartacus, but few people know that there really was a Spartacus and he really did start a rebellion that morphed into what the Romans knew as the Third Servile War.  In Roman history, it was a monumental event that forced the Romans to reconsider their treatment of slaves and paved the way for later legislation to give slaves some protection (you could be charged for murder if you killed a slave during Claudius’ reign!).

What really struck me when I read The Hunger Games is that the Third Servile War is startlingly similar and is probably at least what partially inspired Suzanne Collins’ depiction of the rebellion of the Districts.  First I think we need a little background on the inspiration behind this and then we’ll go more in depth into why there are so many similarities.

The Third Servile War didn’t start out as a war.  It started out as a breakout from a gladiator school in Capua that included some two hundred slaves and gladiators.  Unsurprisingly, with that many people involved, the plot was discovered and the rebel slaves had to fight their way out of the school.  Spartacus was among them and he was naturally looked to as a leader, but what most people forget is another man who was a key player: Crixus.  Crixus was a Celt who had also been captured to fight in the gladiator schools of the Roman Republic and he didn’t like his situation any more than Spartacus did.  He and Spartacus, even though it may not have started out that way, became the ringleaders of their little revolt. Continue reading

Caesar’s Daughter: Julia’s Song by Alex Johnston

Caesar's Daughter Julia's Song by Alex Johnston(Cover picture courtesy of History and Other Thoughts.)

After serving Julius Caesar on assignments in Gaul and Alexandria, Marcus Mettius is finally back home in Rome. His work with Caesar had been lucrative, but dangerous. So you can imagine his trepidation when the Roman soldier Quintus shows up at the tavern where Marcus is drinking with yet another letter from Caesar.

You’ve got to admit, Caesar certainly had balls, asking Marcus for his help yet again. On his last two assignments, Marcus was arrested by a mad Egyptian Pharaoh, almost burnt at the stake, and nearly lynched by an angry mob.

But this time is different (you can almost hear the Fates chuckling with glee at THAT line!) All Caesar wants Marcus to do this time is to take a gift to his daughter, Julia, and have a little chat with her while he is there. Certainly no harm can come from that, right?

Well, the next thing you know, Marcus is all tangled up with the leading figures of late Republican Rome – Pompey, Cicero, the deposed King of Egypt, and, of course, the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, aedile and former Tribune of the Plebs.

Once again, Marcus’ life hangs in the balance, in ways he could scarcely have imagined. But he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, he’s Caesar’s Agent Man. And odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow. Join Marcus and his friends in the thrilling sequel to Caesar’s Emissary!

I previously read and reviewed the first book in Alex Johnston’s short story series about Marcus Mettius, Caesar’s Ambassador.  Well, I absolutely loved his funny take on Roman history through the eyes of a bit player.  I mean, how can you not love Marcus Mettius, the consummate salesman?

The book starts off with us hearing about the most feared slave since Spartacus: Vinus, Marcus’ wine slave who writes critical reviews of wine throughout Italy that can make or break a vineyard.  He’s not that important in the scheme of things but it certainly sets the tone as Marcus decides Vinus really doesn’t understand how the whole master-slave relationship works out because Vinus tends to dictate to him and not the other way around.  This isn’t just meaningless joking, though.  It serves to tell us a lot about the aftermath of Spartacus’ rebellion and how the First Triumvirate are faring currently (despite the rogue Clodius terrorizing all of Rome).

One thing about Alex Johnston’s writing that I really appreciate is his obvious deep love and respect for Roman history.  You can really tell that he loves it but at the same time is able to create some rather irreverent versions of famous historical characters like Cicero and Pompey Magnus.  He uses modern dialogue and slang to convey the idea that while obviously not accurate, Romans had their own sort of slang and ways of speaking rather than the usual dry dialogue I find in historical fiction.  They had crude language (Latin is a beautiful language to swear in), the younger generation’s version of rap, etc.  He really captures that sort of turning point in Roman culture as the Republic is failing and although some events are changed a little for the story Caesar’s Daughter it’s actually very historically accurate.

Add on top of all this awesomeness the fact that Alex Johnston is a truly hilarious writer.  I was in stitches, literally laughing out loud half of the time.  There are some jokes where you have to know Roman history to truly appreciate but the majority of them are hilarious non-insider jokes.  You really can’t get a better take on history that’s funny, historically accurate and yet not historically accurate at all.  The only thing I can really criticize is the overuse of capitals when characters are exclaiming things excitedly.  They lose their effect after a while.

Although I’m kind of in a mixed up order for the series right now I’m really looking forward to reading the second short story Caesar’s Emissary some day.  I’d recommend giving Alex Johnston’s short stories a try for pretty much everyone, even if you’re not a big Roman history buff.

I give this short story 4.5/5 stars.

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Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter(Cover picture courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.)

When your world blows apart, what will you hold onto?

TAG is a medical slave, doomed to spend his life healing his master’s injured gladiators. But his warrior’s heart yearns to fight in the gladiator ring himself and earn enough money to win his freedom.

LUCIA is the daughter of Tag’s owner, doomed by her father’s greed to marry a much older Roman man. But she loves studying the natural world around her home in Pompeii, and lately she’s been noticing some odd occurrences in the landscape: small lakes disappearing; a sulfurous smell in the air. . . .

When the two childhood friends reconnect, each with their own longings, they fall passionately in love. But as they plot their escape from the city, a patrician fighter reveals his own plans for them — to Lucia’s father, who imprisons Tag as punishment. Then an earthquake shakes Pompeii, in the first sign of the chaos to come. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review during the book tour.]

One of the things that struck me about Vicky Alvear Shecter’s first book, Cleopatra’s Moon was the historical accuracy.  She is an excellent writer when it comes to putting little historical details into her writing to give it that authentic feel.  In this novel she’s even better because there are detailed descriptions of the medical practices, gladiator training and even the current political climate.  That’s not really something you expect from a book aimed at the younger YA demographic (13 to about 15) so I was quite impressed.

Her characters were good, but I didn’t take a particular shine to either of the leads.  Lucia is quite naive, as would be expected from her upbringing, but she never really gets any better either.  She still doesn’t know when to speak and when to keep her mouth shut, which is pretty frustrating for me.  Still, she’s a well developed character and you really get the feeling that she is the product of her upbringing.  Tag (short for Tages) is far more interesting with his medical knowledge and his desire to become a gladiator to buy his freedom.  That could be because I’m a sucker for the underdog in stories but whatever.  In the end, all of the characters Vicky Alvear Shecter writes about are well-developed and have believable motivations demonstrated through their actions.

The plot was quite well done in terms of pacing.  There’s this slow build-up to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and you can see how all of the signs of an eruption were there before from animals acting crazy to wells drying up.  Of course no one knew what was going on at the time so it was quite suspenseful for Lucia to slowly discover all of the signs before reaching her ultimate, terrifying conclusion.  The only thing I didn’t like about the plot was how it ended.  It was a little too melodramatic and the magical curse element seemed to come practically out of nowhere.  Looking back, I really think this book would have been better without the random curse that shows up about halfway into the book.  It just seems random and tries to add to the overall tension but really doesn’t.

In general, I think Curses and Smoke is a pretty good novel.  I don’t think it’s as good as Cleopatra’s Moon but I’d recommend it to young readers 13 to 15.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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Roma by Steven Saylor

Roma by Steven Saylor(Cover picture courtesy of Liberia Estudio en Escarlata.)

Spanning a thousand years, and following the shifting fortunes of two families though the ages, this is the epic saga of Rome, the city and its people.

Weaving history, legend, and new archaeological discoveries into a spellbinding narrative, critically acclaimed novelist Steven Saylor gives new life to the drama of the city’s first thousand years — from the founding of the city by the ill-fated twins Romulus and Remus, through Rome’s astonishing ascent to become the capitol of the most powerful empire in history. Roma recounts the tragedy of the hero-traitor Coriolanus, the capture of the city by the Gauls, the invasion of Hannibal, the bitter political struggles of the patricians and plebeians, and the ultimate death of Rome’s republic with the triumph, and assassination, of Julius Caesar.

Witnessing this history, and sometimes playing key roles, are the descendents of two of Rome’s first families, the Potitius and Pinarius clans:  One is the confidant of Romulus. One is born a slave and tempts a Vestal virgin to break her vows. One becomes a mass murderer. And one becomes the heir of Julius Caesar. Linking the generations is a mysterious talisman as ancient as the city itself.

Epic in every sense of the word, Roma is a panoramic historical saga and Saylor’s finest achievement to date.

When I first started Roma I’ll admit I did have my doubts because of Steven Saylor’s telling rather than showing style of writing.  However, I got into the swing of things and actually began enjoying his pared-down style that reads almost like a more intimate nonfiction work about the lives of two ancient Roman clans.

One of the most obvious strengths of Steven Saylor’s writing is the historical accuracy of the novel.  He does change some events around and speculate about some things but where there was information available he stuck to the facts.  I like how he doesn’t play the origins of ancient Rome straight (i.e. with gods and such) but rather offers up some explanations for how the heck such fantastical stories about Rome’s founding came about.  It makes sense and it’s quite possible that some of these things actually happened in a similar way and that’s why I really loved how Steven Saylor stayed true to the history.

His characters are amazing.  Every single one has a different perspective and a very unique voice.  They all live in turbulent times in Rome’s history so of course their lives are fascinating but it’s how they deal with the changing times that really stands out.  Some of the earlier Pinarii are quite snobby about their patrician status; later when the family is poor that’s not really the case.  Of course some of the ideas presented by characters will seem utterly absurd to modern readers but they really capture the prevailing attitudes of the time.

I can’t in all honesty call the plot fast-paced but it was very interesting.  I mean, how could Roman history not be interesting?  We get to see the events surrounding the first sack of Rome, the rise of Julius Caesar, the Second Punic War, etc.  All of the major events during the Republic period of ancient Rome are here in the novel or at least are alluded to because the characters are still dealing with the aftereffects of said events.  It’s a fascinating look at Roman history and although there was more telling than showing I still thoroughly enjoyed Roma.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Kate Quinn’s website.)

An exciting debut: a vivid, richly imagined saga of ancient Rome from a masterful new voice in historical fiction

Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.

As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.

After reading and enjoying Kate Quinn’s latest series, the Borgia Chronicles, I decided to go back and try some of her earlier works.  I mean, she wrote about Renaissance Rome well, so why not ancient Rome too?

As it turns out, Kate Quinn is comfortable in either era.  I was surprised the most by her writing, which makes you feel like you’re there.  You can hear the roaring cheers in the arena, smell the stench of Rome in summer, etc.  Her writing isn’t as polished in her debut as it is in her other books but I still really enjoyed it and she is still very good.

I like how she wound history and her own story seamlessly into a coherent narrative.  Of course there’s no evidence for some of the stuff that happens in the novel but Kate Quinn acknowledges that in her Historical Note and explains her reasons for adding or leaving out certain things.  In the end, she gets the feeling of the period across to the reader and has obviously done her research about the details of ancient Roman daily life.  That’s what’s really important to me with historical fiction.

Her characters are most definitely memorable, Thea especially.  I’m a sucker for the person who (sometimes unintentionally) goes from the lowest position possible in society to being the most highly coveted society figure as Thea does.  Still, being the Emperor Domitian’s mistress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and suddenly all of the separate paths of the narrative start to collide.  It was interesting to see how each person Kate Quinn gave readers an insight into took part in the plot, even Lepida (in her own way).  On the surface some of these characters are simply archetypes but Kate Quinn gives them so much depth that you barely notice.

This is a really good novel considering it was a debut novel and I can’t wait to read the rest of Kate Quinn’s Rome series.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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