Master and God by Lindsey Davis

9 July, 2013

Master and God

Having finished both Nemesis and The Ides of April, I still wanted to remain immersed in Roman history and turned to Lyndsey Davis’ standalone novel, Master and God, about Vespasian’s youngest son and tyrant, Domitian. Paranoid, despotic and feared, Domitian’s damnatio memoriae remains a warning against ruling Rome through terror. Ultimately murdered by those he once trusted, Domitian is as much a tragic figure as a cruel one and Davis tries to revise history’s judgement of him as much as she can.

History is a contentious thing. Davis cites Suetonius‘s biography of the Roman emperors as having a political agenda of its own. In some ways this is inevitable, especially if you are commissioned to write about Domitian by his successor who probably had a hand in his removal.

Davis’ use of a fictional narrative to write about Rome under Domitian’s rule prevents it from becoming a dry, historical account. The gradual erosion of trust and freedom that so marked his father Vespasian’s rule after several years of strife in the Year of the Four Emperors, the increasing air of menace and surveillance that is so prevalent in The Ides of April all added to the growing dissatisfaction and fear in his subjects and this is shown through the relationship and romance between a hairdresser to the Imperial family, Flavia Lucilla, and a member of the notorious Praetorian Guard, Gaius Vinius. From their first meeting through their career, marriages and friendship, their one constant is their shared office building which acts as a refuge against life’s dramas. Both are connected to Domitian in some way, Lucilla through her hairdressing talents who sees the domestic side of the Emperor’s family life and Vinius, the political and military. Both characters are the human face of Domitian’s Rome; ordinary folk who rises through the ranks, saving money, building their life, guarding their independence. And yet they are inevitably caught in the political nature of life as a Roman citizen and this is what Davis excels at, showing us Rome through their eyes.

And we see Domitian, unable to free himself from the glorious shadow cast by his father and elder brother Titus and who remains a victim of his childhood. Domitian is quieter, a thinker, someone who has never had the chance to go into battle like his brother or a self-made tactician like his father. And yet he somehow manages to shape Rome into a morally upright city, cleaning it up, rebuilding it after a disastrous fire, even if his grip threatens to spiral out of control.

Master and God is similar to Davis’ first novel, The Course of Honour about Vespasian’s love for a slave girl, Antonia Caenis. It’s not hard history and easy to read, which isn’t a bad thing. But I did wish for a little more depth, a little more weight as Domitian’s Rome is dark and frightening, something which is better revealed in The Ides of April. I felt as if she couldn’t quite settle on which Domitian she wanted to portray: the scary, paranoid tyrant or the misunderstood, paranoid young man. What is clear is that he was a complex man, one capable of a deep love for his wife, Domitia Longina, whom he wooed and stole away from her husband. And there are also the troubling rumours of an affair with his niece and Titus’ daughter, Julia Flavia, which may or may not have happened but which Davis discounts. I am not entirely convinced that Davis’ portrayal of Domition is successful or complete and many of her other characters can seem like extras from her Falco mysteries. But Davis does excel in plunging her reader into a vibrant, working Rome. You can see it, hear it and smell it. And she does one helluva romance.

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