Master & God: A Novel About The Roman Empire, by Lindsey Davis
On the one hand, reading this particular book is somewhat useful in providing some of the context for the author’s Flavia Albia series, which takes place during the reign of Domitian and sometimes makes use of the same incidents referred to in this novel, such as a conspiracy that took place at around the same time as the story of the third Nero. The author shows her customary skill at taking footnotes of ancient historians and turning them into more extensive and intriguing novels, and in looking at the hairstyles of the Flavian court as well as some scattered mentions of one Gaius Vinius Clodianus, who qualifies as one of the more noble but bumbling PTSD survivors in historical literature, the author constructs a plausible account of two interconnected lives during the troubled reign of Domitian, where two people end up sharing the rent for an apartment and predictably finding their lives drawn together as a result of their close connect. Of course, while the book’s historical insight and plausible conjecture and speculation is certainly entertaining, this book resembles a bad romantic comedy in the way that the author contrives to keep the two characters apart until nearly the end of the book.
The course of this novel takes place over the entirety of Domitian’s reign, thus giving the novel a bit of a strange quality in that it takes a snapshot of the lives of two people and the circles in which they travel and also shows with it the deterioration of Roman elite society as seen by these people and their associates, culminating in the dramatic assassination of Domitian (spoiler alert!) at the end. This novel may as well have been titled “Domitian Dies At The End,” but one suspects that the author doesn’t have the cheeky sense of humor to give such a spoiler as a title and instead gives the book the title that Domitian himself liked to be called by his subjects. At the beginning of the novel Domitian is a young man who rises to power after the premature death of his older brother Titus, and before too long everyone around him feels unsafe for one reason or another as the paranoid ruler seeks to dominate others by fear but ends up increasing his enemies as a result. The plot itself focuses around an imperial hairdresser and a Roman veteran who finds himself unwillingly a praetorian guardsman as a result of receiving special favor by Domitian.
The author contrives various ways of keeping the couple apart for most of the course of the novel. At the start, Flavia Lucilla is a fifteen year old who files a claim of theft of her mother’s jewels only to find the mother faked the theft as a way of gaining more from her lover. Of course, Lucilla files the claim with the vigiles, coincidentally Clodianus. While Lucilla gains expertise and clientele as an elite freedwoman hairdresser to the imperial court, Clodianus marries several women in turn and divorces them, struggles with alocholism and PTSD and even manages to find himself imprisoned by the Dacians for a spell and helping to keep his fellow Romans alive in captivity through encouragement. Lucilla finds herself married unhappily to a poor philosopher when Clodianus returns and it is only after an interminable length of time that the two end up together, despite having shared an apartment for more than a decade. And, of course, Clodianus finds himself an essential member of a plot to kill Domitian and find himself an exit from Rome so that he does not suffer any of the inevitable blowback when Nerva decides to get rid of as many conspirators as he can find to avoid encouraging assassination by the Praetorian guard as a solution to imperial misrule. Too late.