The Course Of Honor, by Lindsey Davis
Sometimes writing books leads you to write others books. This seems to be the case here, as the author, while doing background research for one of her Roman mystery series (one I have not read yet), found a compelling story in some of her historical research that she thought deserved to be written about in an expanded form as a historical fiction novel that seeks to bring an obscure aspect of history. It is a story that is compelling and wroth remembering and more than a little bit melancholy but also quite romantic as well. It is a complicated story involving power and competition and ambition, and the author does a great job at making the history come alive through her storytelling. The novel as a whole has some pretty clear agendas–it celebrates a heroine who achieves her ambitions through her brains and a fair amount of decency (though not as much decency as would be demanded of a Christian) rather than through the exploitation of her beauty, yet at the same time she remains friendly to those who are beautiful without being poisoned by envy. Likewise, the author tells the story of a woman who would not be written about in detail by most chroniclers of the period given her obscurity and position.
This novel of about 300 pages tells the story of one Caenis, a well-educated slave in Tiberius’ household who happens to meet a lost pair of brothers of the senatorial class, one of whom thinks of her as an interesting girl. Through the next few decades we see emperors come and go, favorites come and go, and see Vespasion and Caenis enjoy a time together as a couple before he is called upon to marry and have legitimate children to pass on his house, and Caenis deals with loneliness and the death of someone who would have married her. Through the ups and downs of a relationship, though the period of loneliness, through the difficulty in avoiding being killed as a result of the deeds of a Caligula or a Nero, we see the intrigue of finality as well as the eforts of people to to find dignity in their lives and to overcome the place they were put in by their birth, a way that people could overcome, in some small way, the fate of their lives and the burdens of their positions of authority, in a recognition of the force of character and in the worth of the individual.
But the title of this book raises more questions than it gives answers. Is the rise of Caenis from slavery to a position of honor as a freedman supposed to give women an analogous position to men when it comes to advancement in Roman eyes? In whose eyes is Caenis given honor? Is Caenis an exemplary woman or is she supposed to be taken as a model of womanhood in general when it comes to using one’s knowledge and wisdom to get ahead in the world? Is the reader supposed to feel that it was unjust that Caenis was unable to marry Vespasian, even after saving the life of his son Titus and even after he was left a widow, because of their wide class differences? Did the personal excellence of Caenis or the known eccentricity of Vespasian make it possible for the Romans of the time to censure him less harshly for his actions than they would have done for a different woman in another time? Why does the author ignore the early spread of Christianity in this book? There are many questions that one could ask of this book and its author, questions that the author does not want to explicitly say and may not even want to consciously deal with at all, even implicitly. And yet these questions do not make this book any less enjoyable as a standalone historical fiction with somewhat obvious feminist themes.