Arrow, 1998. ISBN 978-0-099-22742-7. 341 pages.
Set mainly in Rome in AD 31-69, The Course of Honour tells the remarkable story of the lifelong love affair between Titus Flavius Vespasian (later Emperor Vespasian) and the slave and later freedwoman Antonia Caenis. Both main characters are historical figures, and their relationship is (briefly) documented in historical sources.
Caenis is a slave owned by Antonia, an important Roman noblewoman (daughter of Mark Antony and niece of Emperor Augustus). Trained in the imperial school, Caenis is a scribe and routine copyist, until Antonia needs someone to write a highly confidential and dangerous letter in a hurry and Caenis is the only scribe available. This incident sets Caenis on her path to becoming Antonia’s trusted secretary, and later a career in the Imperial administration. Titus Flavius Vespasianus is the younger son of an undistinguished noble family from a rural backwater, without much in the way of money or political influence. Both will have to make their own lives as best they can within the constraints of Roman society, Vespasian by following the cursus honorum (the ‘course of honour’) of successive military and political offices, Caenis in the Imperial bureaucracy. As their love for each other grows, both know that marriage is impossible – Roman law forbids anyone of senatorial rank from marrying a slave or ex-slave – and both know that Vespasian will have to make a suitable political marriage to someone else. Through separation and heartbreak, not to mention the perils of life under a succession of mad Emperors, the love between Caenis and Vespasian holds true – until chaos and civil war bring Vespasian within reach of the ultimate prize...
The lifelong love between Vespasian and Caenis is real, and is briefly mentioned in Roman chronicles (e.g. Suetonius) but, as usual, details are scarce. In The Course of Honour, Lindsey Davis has imagined the character of Caenis and the relationship between Caenis and Vespasian over the course of their lives. Caenis’ position in the Imperial service places her close to the heart of the political turmoil of the early Empire, and readers of I, Claudius by Robert Graves will recognise many of the events. Details of life in classical Rome are vividly portrayed, from the Imperial palace staff to renting a shabby apartment in a jerry-built tenement.
Most of the story is told from Caenis’ perspective. She is a wonderful central character, excellent company for the book’s 341 pages. Fiercely intelligent, cynical (although not quite as cynical as her racy friend Veronica), honest and realistic, the experience of life as a slave has taught her that life is unreliable and good fortune liable to be fleeting. When Vespasian has to marry for political reasons, Caenis ends their relationship and builds her own life without him, surviving the erratic Emperor Caligula and then using her contacts with the freedman Narcissus to get herself an appointment to the administration under Emperor Claudius – not forgetting to persuade Narcissus of the merits of appointing Vespasian to a senior military command for the invasion of Britain. Caenis is resolved as far as possible to rely on no-one but herself, and determined not to be dependent on anybody, not even Vespasian. Throughout the ups and downs of her life she sticks to her principles. Despite the disparity in their social status, the relationship between Caenis and Vespasian is one of equals, with respect and (sometimes painful) honesty on both sides, as well as love.
Caenis’ life story is particularly appealing because, in a society where women were expected to be invisible and valued only for political alliances and as producers of children, Caenis is a single woman without children, making her way as best she can. It’s interesting to see the familiar politics of the early Empire from the perspective of someone close to but not directly involved in events. Caenis and her friend Veronica take a wry view of the unedifying antics of the Imperial family, sometimes cynically amusing, as when Caenis remarks of Claudius’ treacherous empress Messalina that Roman men are always divorcing their wives and at least Messalina had returned the compliment, and sometimes heartbreaking, as when Caenis reflects of Claudius’ children that in their family tradition they will either have to become monsters or life will deal monstrously with them.
The writing style has the same fluency and immediacy as Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels (e.g. The Silver Pigs, reviewed here earlier) but with a more serious tone and less modern slang. I think The Course of Honour is my favourite of Lindsey Davis’ Roman novels.
A brief Author’s Note at the back outlines some of the underlying history, and a detailed map at the front shows the layout of first-century Rome and is useful for getting one’s bearings.
Remarkable story of the lifelong love between Emperor Vespasian and the freedwoman Antonia Caenis, against the background of the chaotic politics of the first-century Roman Empire.