Books to Love: All Roads Lead to Rome
How about a trip to Rome? Or, even more adventurous, a trip to Ancient Rome, at the height of her power, when, indeed, all roads, one way or another, did lead to Rome.
Of course, we could buy tickets and go there, but if we’re talking about an immersive experience in a time and age that no longer exist, we’ll have to resort to a more novel approach, as in novels. There are countless books I could have selected to include in a post about Ancient Rome. Colleen McCullough and Margaret George both have gifted us readers with tomes and treasures devoted to this time period. However, I’ll not go to the tried and trues to recommend them in depth. Suffice it to say, if you’ve not explored either of those women’s works, they are worthy of consideration on your To Be Read pile. Today I’m sharing with you the books that I’ve returned to over and again to revisit Ancient Rome. These are particular favorites.
Michelle Moran has deservedly won acclaim within the historical fiction community for her meticulous research and well crafted novels. She’s excellent. I first came across her works when I was on an tangent for all things Ancient Egypt; her novel Nefertiti is remarkable (see post here). However, of all her novels- and I hold several of them quite dear to my heart- Cleopatra’s Daughter is my favorite. Even my brother, who is not inclined to read any of the books that I read, ended up reading this book and loving it.
Cleopatra’s Daughter tells the story of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. It begins with Cleopatra’s suicide when Selene, her twin brother Alexander, and her infant brother Ptolemy are taken captive and brought back to Rome. They are marched through the Triumph and displayed as trophies of Octavian, who has defeated Mark Antony, enemy of Rome. This novel is awash in all the political intrigue that surrounded Octavian, but we experience it through the maturing eyes of a young girl turned woman in brutal circumstances. There is much our little Selene has to endure and a great many things she witnesses regarding Roman brutality and justice. Interwoven throughout her story are glimpses into true events that happened in Rome, some grand and involving great men and women of the Empire, others of smaller significance but of equal interest, such a court trials and slave markets. And, to add even more spice, Moran throws in a mystery that Selene finds herself drawn into deeply, until it culminates with a huge revelation of massive political import.
What is of particular note in this novel is the fact that while Selene lived centuries ago, many of the things which occupy her thoughts and emotions are the stuff that continues to trouble and worry young women of today. I appreciate the way that Michelle Moran brings Selene to life and lets us as the readers experience Ancient Rome. It is important to identify with the hero or heroine of a novel, and I did just that with Selene, understanding all her whys and worries and joys as though they were my own.
The Empress of Rome series by Kate Quinn
The Empress of Rome series by Kate Quinn is one in which you can immerse yourself. Her historical knowledge, which began in childhood when her parents read her ancient histories rather than the customary children’s stories at bedtime, is so extensive that she’s able to weave together the complex political intrigues and historical events into the story lines of her characters. That’s just her superb plotting. Her characters are another matter entirely. Whether based upon truly historical figures or those she’s fleshed out from her imagination, all of Quinn’s characters are massively dynamic. I have yet to encounter one who didn’t have a major arc within their character thought out the events of the novel. That’s a major accomplishment as an author because it keeps us readers engaged on a wholly different level. We can never truly know what to expect and find ourselves in the edge of our seats wanting to know what happens.
The first in the series, Daughters of Rome chronicles the tumultuous year of 69 A.D., also know as the Year of the Four Emperors. After the suicide of Nero in 68 A.D., Rome fell into its first civil war since Mark Antony’s death in 30 A.D. From June 68 through December 69, Rome saw the succession and deaths of four emperors, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. And while you can imagine how such a time of upheaval would be fertile ground for a novel, oddly enough, Daughters of Rome does not focus the oculus of its attention on political turmoil. Rather, it delves into the lives of four noble women whose lives are forever impacted by the upheaval of this year of Roman history. What’s particularly riveting about this read is how Quinn evolves the women throughout the narrative. While you might assume one thing regarding their characters at the start of the novel, I assure you, you’ll have quite the change of heart where all are concerned. And, the chariot race in chapter 17 rivals that between Judah Ben-Hur and Masala in Lew Wallace’s epic.
With Mistress of Rome, Kate Quinn begins a family saga of sorts as the characters you’ll meet in this novel will be instrumental in the subsequent two. However, Mistress of Rome merely introduces us to these characters. They are not the main ones. Though this book chronicles the diabolical reign of the Emperor Domitian, you do not see it through his eyes, but rather through the eyes of a Jewish slave woman, a gladiator, and a noble woman. Thea, the slave girl, and Lepida, the noble woman, could not be more opposite of each other if they tried. All you need do is compare the opening lines from each of these women’s perspectives and you’ll see precisely what I mean. Of the four in the Empress of Rome series, Mistress of Rome has left the most lasting impression on me. This I lay at the feet of Arius, the gladiator. Why? Well, in all of these novels, as you would expect, the political machinations are so devious and mendacious that to encounter a character who is wholly honest and true makes his a paragon. That would be Arius and his honorable character makes him the stuff of legends.
I place the last two novels in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series together because that is exactly how I read them- back to back. They were so entirely engrossing that I cannot honestly remember where one left off and the other began. I do know that Empress of the Seven Hills chronicles the rise and fall of the Emperor Trajan. We meet him and fall in love with him through the eyes of Vercingetorix (Vix), son of Thea and Arius, and Sabina, noble woman of Rome who is destined for quite a future in her Empire’s history. There is also Titus, a legionnaire, who provides a gentler perspective than Vix and Sabina’s brash, aggressive opinions. And then there’s Polina, ambitious wife of Trajan, who is committed to the succession of Hadrian as her husband’s heir to the throne.
The story of Vix and Sabina and Hadrian has its beginnings in Empress of the Seven Hills, but it’s culmination is in the pages of Lady of the Eternal City. And what a culmination it is. From political intrigue to personal betrayal, from bitter unforgiveness and hatred to roaring passion and deep love, the interwoven stories of these three people crescendo with an impressive conclusion to an altogether brilliant and well-wrought historical fiction series. I’ll not tell you more than that as I want you to hurry to your local library or book shop and get your hands on these novels. They are epic reads, worthy of copious cups of tea and a cozy, comfy, quiet place to read them undisturbed.
What books do you recommend when you want to visit Ancient Rome?