Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn
The Year of the Four Emperors was one of the most messily eventful in a Roman regime that never had qualms about the gratuitous shedding of blood (but then, who ever heard of a squeamish empire?).
Such historical drama cries out for creative representation, and the latest comes in the form of Daughters of Rome, a prequel to California native Kate Quinn’s first novel Mistress of Rome. Where that tale was set during the 15-year reign of Domitian (who when he appears late in Daughters of Rome is depicted as favouring a Caligulan style of personal relations), this addresses the blood-soaked instability of June 68AD to December 69AD, when first Galba then Otho, Vitellius and finally Vespasian seized the title of Caesar.
And seize they did. In Quinn’s Rome, assuming the precarious position of emperor is the outcome not of merit but of skill in the game of daggers at dawn. It is hard to avoid pondering the parallels with modern-day corporate warfare – the likes of Michael Eisner would probably find a lot more to identify with in the character of Piso than he would care to admit.
Piso is the beloved, kindly and ambitious husband of the eldest of the titular ‘daughters’, 24-year-old Cordelia Prima. Her younger sister, the self-pitying schemer Cordelia Secunda, goes by the nickname Marcella. Cousins to the elder women are Cordelias Three and Four, known as Lollia and Diana.
Lollia’s surface flightiness disguises a core of steel common to all the women, each of whom is one marriage or stab-wound away from the seat of the empress. At 19, Lollia is on her fourth marriage and prefers the company of her slave Thrax to that of her husband, while Diana, though sought by every well-bred man in the empire, prefers males of the equine variety.
It is the relationships between the four women, and how the ambitions and cares of each prompt them to act for and against one another, that form a fictional parallel to some of the most unpredictable months in human history. And in a useful footnote, Quinn explains which of her characters actually existed, which historical events are real to history, and where dates were conflated or fudged for dramatic effect.
(Rather sweetly, she so admired the bravery and loyalty of one historical figure that she erases his death on the night of an emperor’s assassination and instead sets him up in a happy relationship with one of the Cordelii.)
Quinn’s writing is vivid and fanciful, and invites comparison with the sober, considered historical fiction of Philippa Gregory. While unlike the latter’s protagonists Quinn’s female characters are mostly inventions, she has the potential to make key events in the Roman empire as lively and accessible for women readers as Gregory has Tudor history.
Indeed, much of what transpires in Daughters of Rome is eerily familiar. The bloodbath that ends the seven-month reign of the first of the four emperors is reminiscent of the famous multi-family assassination scene in another Italian drama, The Godfather Part I – frenzied wailing and gnashing, the glint of metal, blood and corpses. Perhaps there is nothing new under the Roman sun.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones