The Third Nero (A Flavia Alba Novel #5), by Lindsey Davis
The more I read this series of novels, the more I am convinced not only of the author’s encyclopedic knowledge about the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD, but also the intentionality of various aspects of her writings. Here, for example, the author reveals a deliberate desire not to write about Judea during this period–likely so that she does not have to get involved in writing about Christianity or Judaism to any great degree. Likewise, the author also makes it a point here to be even more bluntly feminist than usual by surrounding Flavia with more than usually incompetent male help and strikingly competent female point. Even Manlius finds himself somewhat affected by his lightning strike at the end of the previous novel and is so not up to his usual standard here, at least through most of the novel. If you like an author being rather overt and less than subtle with such themes, this novel will likely please you, but even those of us that are not so fond of overt feminism will find enough in this cloak and dagger plot to appreciate, thankfully. And that is for the best.
It is striking that this novel is called The Third Nero when that particular character takes up so little time and indeed dies pretty early in the action. The title is a bit misleading because the real mystery here is about the Fourth Nero and Flavia’s unwilling and partial efforts to work with Domitian’s establishment to preserve Rome from Parthian intrigues. There is a lot of intrigue to be found here, as various people die and are suborned, and where there is a great deal of opposition between people and even a plot to kill Domitian and replace him with a puppet that would be controlled by the Parthians. Flavia Albia is forced to recognize various aspects of danger, not only the physical danger of violence but also the danger of having one’s family become involved and tangled up with various plots against the Emperor and the atmosphere or terror and intrigue that made the Roman Empire of the time particularly dangerous. We see Flavia’s desire to be independent from the imperial bureaucracy but also deeply connected to it and its goings on at the same time, all of which makes her less safe than she would have been had she chosen a less interesting life.
Yet the author makes deliberate behaviors too that undercut the sense of danger that this novel has. Indeed, this particular novel has a strangely foreshadowing and retrospective action that points to the survival of Flavia Albia after the reign of Diocletian, and to her own understanding of Domitian’s end. While that undercuts the danger to her and points to this being a somewhat long series (since we still have about five or six years more to go before the death of Diocletian, and another couple of years or so before the reign of Trajan, which is already pointed out in the novel as well), it also makes this novel appear rather comfortable since we know that whatever happens, our heroine will survive. Since this is a general expectation anyway, even with one of Flavia’s cousins having to make an exile to Naples in order to avoid Domitian’s wrath after returning safely from the Danube regions, it is good that this is made specific. Even so, this particular novel offers a lot of bluntness and a lot of structural interest that makes a tale about loyalty to the Roman imperial regime a lot more complex and dark than patriotism is normally viewed in such works.