After finishing all twenty of Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels, I’ve moved on to some of her other historical fiction. Yesterday’s rainy afternoon brought me to the end of The Course of Honor, an early novel by Davis. Vespasian, the miserly and curmudgeonly emperor who was in love with assigning Marcus Didius Falco thankless tasks, is in love with something else entirely in this book. That something, or someone, is Antonia Caenis, an imperial freedwoman and Vespasian’s longtime mistress. The novel picks up at their first meeting and traces their tumultuous relationship all the way until Vespasian’s accession to the imperial throne. The cover bills it as a novel of “romantic suspense.” It is definitely romantic, though if you take the word “suspense” to mean “thriller,” you would be sorely misled. I suppose the suspense is mostly over whether this star-crossed couple can achieve a happily ever after or if circumstances will inevitably force them apart.
Lindsey Davis masterfully depicts the reigns of half a dozen emperors, beginning with Tiberius, showing it all through the eyes of Caenis. As a skilled scribe in the household of one of Caesar’s relatives, Caenis is privy to many revolutionary plots and imperial secrets. She first meets Titus Flavius Vespasianus when he is just an impoverished young nobleman from the countryside, looking to ascend the ranks of office (the course of honor) in Rome. Vespasian notes her intelligence and wit. His first thought upon meeting her–a thought that continues with him throughout his life–is: “What an interesting girl!”
Caenis eventually agrees to become Vespasian’s mistress. She knows that the happiness of being with him cannot last forever since the laws of the time forbade Roman senators (or emperors) from marrying former slaves. The best Vespasian and Caenis can hope for is to grow old together outside lawful wedlock and, since this is an unlikely prospect, Caenis tries to conceal the fact that she is desperately in love with him–perhaps that will make things easier when they are forced to part. The Roman ranks of government were weighted heavily against bachelors, and when Vespasian’s family finds a suitable bride for him, both of the lovers accept the inevitable separation.
The years go by as debauched emperor after debauched emperor ascends the throne. Caenis and Vespasian catch only brief glimpses of each other, but as long as his wife is still alive, they honorably keep their distance from one another. When that obstacle disappears, happiness once again seems in reach. But when a tumultuous empire, ruled by four different men in just one year, acclaims Vespasian as the new emperor, the new obstacle of his imperial status threatens to pull them apart once more….
Usually, I am annoyed by novels where the hero/heroine settle for a lifelong commitment outside of marriage. But in the case of this book, I was rooting for them all the way. Lindsey Davis shows very pointedly that Vespasian would have married Caenis if he could–but the laws of Rome stood in the way. I suppose he could have given up his senatorial status and voluntarily become a commoner (if matrimony was that important to him), but somehow that never really seemed an option in the novel. Caenis was beautifully portrayed as a clever, careful woman, hard to draw out of her shell, scrupulous, loyal, and slightly embittered by her fate. Vespasian also came to life as her perfect partner, jovial and martial, with a tender, romantic side. Although the novel lacked much of the witty banter that I adore about Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, it was an excellent read and one that I highly recommend for Roman history aficionados.