Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

A history resource article by  © 2015

The momentous Year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE, has attracted a number of historical fiction authors.  This year alone I have read three different novels using the events preceding the rise of the Flavian dynasty as a framework for their stories, with Kate Quinn's "Daughters of Rome" being the latest.  Quinn's novel, however, is the first to view the events from the perspective of four patrician women, two sisters and two cousins, all named Cornelia.

To help the reader keep them all straight, Quinn gives three of them nicknames, Marcella, Lollia and Diana.  The eldest and most reserved of the women retains her own name, Cornelia (Prima).

As the novel begins, we meet most of the main characters at cousin Lollia's wedding. Lollia, her scheming and very wealthy grandfather's "little jewel", has endured a series of marriages and divorces to promote her grandfather's business interests.  This wedding (for the third or fourth time) is to an old senator she casually refers to as "old flacid."  We later learn that Lollia was once married to Vespasian's eldest son, Titus, and has a little daughter by him named Flavia.  Historically, Lollia's real name would have been Marcia Furnilla, Titus' second wife, whom he divorced because of her family's connections to the Pisonian conspiracy during the reign of Nero.  Titus' daughter lives with Lollia because her father is campaigning in Judea.  Historically, this would not have occurred as a Roman male's offspring are considered his property and upon dissolution of marriage would have been raised by other females of the Flavian gens but this is fiction, after all.

Relief depicting a Roman wedding ceremony.  Photographed
at the British Museum by Sarah Tarnopolsky.  Reproduced
with permission via Creative Commons by-NC-ND 2.0

Quinn does a good job of describing the excesses of a Roman wedding feast.  As the celebration progresses we learn that Diana, whose father is a famous sculptor, is a free-spirited young woman who is totally obssessed by chariot racing, the red faction in particular, and despite her beauty has no interest in anything without four legs.  Marcella, we discover, is an aspiring historian although she realizes as a woman she would probably never be published.  Marcella is married to a lackluster, miserly senator named Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus (also a historical person) who is serving as a military observer in the east.  Since he is not in Rome he sees no reason to spend money on a home for Marcella.  So, Marcella is forced to live with her brother, Gaius and his shrewish, social-climbing wife, Tullia.

Mosaic pavement depicting a charioteer of the red faction from the Villa dei
Severi 3rd century CE.  Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue of the
National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.

We learn that Servius Sulpicius Galba has been proclaimed emperor by the senate and that Cornelia (Prima) is married to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a young aristocrat that is named Galba's successor within the first few chapters.  We also meet  the charismatic Marcus Salvius Otho.  Unfortunately, Quinn does not include any of the political background between Galba and Otho that would have provided more context to the story and heightened the tension.  Quinn only sporadically mentions glimpses of life under Nero's rule, too, so uninitiated readers would have little idea what made Galba seize the throne in the first place.

The women gossip about Galba's dour personality and that Piso has been tactfully trying to get Galba to pay a promised donative to the Praetorian Guard, but the Cornelii seem only vaguely aware of the level of unrest that is increasing around the new emperor.

Cornelia (Prima) looks and behaves every inch the soon-to-be empress as she glides around the room greeting guests.  She is also very much in love with Piso and I couldn't help but think what few days were left to her beloved.

Galba orders a Praetorian body guard for Piso and it is led by a handsome and seriously honorable centurion named Drusus Sempronius Densus - the Densus who is revered in history as the only Praetorian who honored his loyalty oath and defended Galba when the assassins attacked Galba's litter.

Detail of a triumphal arch depicting Praetorian Guards.  Photographed in The
Louvre by Eric Huybrechts.  Reproduced with permission via Creative
Commons by-SA 2.0
Quinn has Densus narrowly survive the attack on Galba and Piso, although he is severely wounded. Ancient sources do not agree on the details, but they state unequivocally that Densus fights to the death.  His fictional survival, however, provides an important dramatic plot point so I understand why this variation from history was chosen.  Furthermore, Quinn does remain true to history when Piso meets his demise on the steps of the Temple of Vesta.

As each successive emperor takes the stage, Quinn pretty much follows the overall historical narrative while providing insight into the lives of patrician women in the first century.   The women are not in positions of power, however, so are pretty much subject to the whims of the male power players around them.  Dramatically this would be considered a disadvantage to a story's protagonist(s) but would be difficult to avoid if your protagonists are women during this historical period.

To overcome this character disadvantage, Quinn injects quite a bit of fantasy into the storyline surrounding Diana, who learns to be a charioteer.  Although women eventually tried their hand at becoming gladiatrices, I could find no reference whatsoever to women attempting to become charioteers, probably because of the sheer upper body strength needed to control four horses racing at breakneck speed.  However, Diana's skill becomes crucial in an exciting escape sequence towards the end of the novel so I understand why this subplot was introduced, although it was pretty far fetched.

A cultural faux pas that Quinn should have avoided was repeated references to a vomitorium as a room where satiated banquet guests go to relieve their overfull stomachs.  Although this is a common misconception, a vomitorium is actually a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance. Although the word vomitorium is derived from the Latin word vomō, meaning "to spew forth" and hence the root of our word vomit, it has nothing to do with the act.

Quinn also mentioned salmon at a banquet and that gave me pause as well.  The salmon I am familiar with (being from the Pacific Northwest) are from the colder regions of the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Although they may have been served in the northern provinces, I had serious doubts about fresh salmon on the menu in Rome.  However, I did some research on this and I guess there are species of salmonids in the Adriatic and Black Sea so it was theoretically possible, I guess, although I've never read any other books that mention it in their sometimes extensive descriptions of dishes served.  I felt much more comfortable when Quinn talked about the possibility of a poisoned mullet that sickened Vitellius' general (and another of Lollia's husbands), Fabius Valens.

Roman mosaic pavement depicting various fish species from the House of the 
Severi.  Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue of the National Museum
of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.
My biggest source of confusion, however, was the names of the female protagonists, as I could not recall any Cornelii having any connections to the historical men in the story.  My confusion only increased when Quinn has a teenaged Domitian become infatuated with Marcella.  I kept thinking to myself that he obviously must lose interest in her when Domitia comes along.  Then Quinn mentions Cornelia and Marcella's father, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, the famous Roman statesman and general. These sisters were really Domitia (Prima) and Domitia Longina.  I'm baffled why she named the characters Cornelia unless it was to emphasize their aristocracy by recalling the consumate Roman matron who gained fame as the mother of the Gracchi or to make this a plot surprise (sorry for the spoiler if that's the case).  The Domitias certainly did not need any help from the ancestry of the Cornelii as they were direct descendants of Augustus.  Not only is this naming convention confusing to those of us who have studied the history but made it necessary for Quinn to contrive an awkward name change forced on Marcella by Domitian when she becomes his empress.

Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.  Photographed by
Quinn Dombrowski at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.
Reproduced with permission via Creative Commons by-sa 2.0.

I also thought her characterization of Corbulo as a cold father who probably could not even tell his daughters apart was unlikely.  Corbulo, besides being a brilliant general, was also a revered stateman and consul, which means he would have been resident in Rome for extended periods.  I'm relatively sure he would have not only known his daughters but been instrumental in the formation of their characters.  I much preferred Douglas Jackson's portrayal of Corbulo (and Domitia for that matter) in his novel "Avenger of Rome".

Marcella's unfeeling comment about the murder of Vespasian's "silly" brother, Sabinus, and Domitian's narrow escape from the Vitellian mob by cowering in the temple of Isis also showed little understanding of the value of Titus Flavius Sabinus to both his brother, Vespasian, and his nephew as well as the traumatic impact on Domitian when he witnesses the crowd tear his uncle to pieces. Perhaps Quinn intended this remark to reflect the insensitive nature of Marcella, but it seemed to strike a false chord for someone like Marcella who prides herself on her understanding of Roman politics.

Of course a major problem with portraying this period from a female perspective, too, is that you have no protagonist involvement in pivotal battles fought during this contentious period.  If Quinn had developed the Densus character more fully she could have written a more visceral battle sequence as seen through his perspective.  Instead, Quinn chooses to have Marcella supposedly convince Otho to let her travel to the first battle of Bedriacum as an observer.  But Marcella, the consummate historian, describes this horrendous confrontation of Romans fighting Romans in vague terms as if she is watching a stormy sea from a remote hilltop.  As someone used to reading the dramatic battle sequences in the novels of Douglas Jackson and Harry Sidebottom, this lackluster passage did little to drive the story forward, other than to describe the death of Otho, and would not have been very satisfying to male readers.

At least Quinn did have Densus go into hiding after the battle of Bedriacum to escape a Vitellian death sentence.  She made it sound like he was, ironically, blamed for the death of Galba and Piso, when historically Vitellius issued execution orders for all of the centurions of Otho's Praetorian Guard who fought at Bedriacum.  Perhaps she was trying to increase the reader's sympathy for Densus, but Quinn gave Densus so little to do with the events driving the narrative after Piso dies until almost the end of the story that this plot development was, in my opinion, not fully exploited for dramatic potential.

Still,  I found Quinn's evocation of first century Rome immersive and her characterization of the women compelling enough to keep me interested in what would happen to the women and their paramours.  If you would like more details of the actual politics and battles during this turning point in Roman history, though, I would highly recommend Douglas Jackson's historical novel "Sword of Rome" or Nic Fields historical text, AD 69: Emperors, Armies and Anarchy.

A Kindle preview:



More suggested reading:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

E-book Review: Inside the Egyptian Museum by Dr. Zahi Hawass

A history resource article by  © 2015

A couple of weeks ago I noticed Dr. Zahi Hawass had released an e-book version of "Inside the Egyptian Museum Pt 1".  The e-book is the first of four e-books that will be released highlighting the collections of the Egyptian Museum.  I thought it would make a perfect companion to take with me if I ever get a chance to finally visit Egypt so I downloaded both the iPad and iPhone versions from iTunes ($2.99 US).

Although I have never read the hard copy version of the book that was originally released in 2009, I have read "Valley of the Golden Mummies" by Dr. Hawass, so was sure his text would be fact-filled. Furthermore, I hoped the features  available on the iPad would enable me to study the images more closely than I would have been able to by simply browsing a physical book.

Dr. Hawass begins his journey through the museum as you physically would if you visited the galleries in person.  First, though, he describes some of his favorite objects.  These include, naturally, the golden mask of Tutankhamun, as well as a statue of a dwarf named Perniankhu.  As it turns out, Dr. Hawass was present when the dwarf statue was discovered and he describes the experience.  Dr. Hawass did the same thing in his book Valley of the Golden Mummies and I think these insights make the artifacts seem more personal than just a physical description of them.

As I had hoped, the retinal display of my iPad presented the high-resolution images in wonderful detail. If you hold your iPad in the horizontal position, the e-book is designed so each page has a panel of scrollable text on the right side and an image of the object Dr. Hawass is discussing on the left .  If there are multiple images of the artifact or the text describes more than one artifact, you will see little dots under each picture that you can select to view additional images.  Whenever I am photographing artifacts in a museum I try to take images from different angles and closeups as well as full length views. The photographer for this book, Sandro Vanini, has done the same thing, which I really appreciated.  You can also expand the images by spreading your fingers to really study specific details, something not possible with a physical book.

Each page also includes a little map to show you exactly where the object is in the actual museum. So, the iPhone version would work well as a gallery guide if you prefer not to travel with your iPad.
Dr. Hawass presents the artifacts in chronological order beginning with the early Pre-Dynastic Period. Each era in the book is preceded by beautiful full screen images of ancient remains as well as overhead views of the museum gallery pertaining to the period.

First up was a marvelous image of the Narmer Palette.  I had read about the Narmer Palette when I took the Great Courses lecture series "History of Ancient Egypt" presented by Dr. Bob Brier some years ago.  But it was wonderful to be able to examine it in such detail.  I also had a chance to examine the Libyan Palette, too, which I had never seen before.

The Narmer Palette from the Pre-Dynastic Period 3000 BCE Egypt


There were also images of Naqada II pottery.  I had first photographed Naqada pottery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2007 but knew very little about it.  Dr. Hawass carefully describes the imagery on them and I'm glad he did as I wouldn't have realized what some of the objects portrayed were.

Naqada II pottery at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo by Mary Harrsch  © 2006
Leaving the Pre-Dynastic Period you see an amazing image of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara.  What made this image particularly interesting to me was the viewpoint of the pyramid with its chapels in the foreground.  Most documentaries I had seen always show the Step Pyramid from a distance and I don't recall ever seeing the mortuary chapels before.

The Old Kingdom, known as the Pyramid Age, begins with the 3rd dynasty and ends with the 6th dynasty.  One of my favorite pieces from this period was a wooden statue of the Lector Priest Ka-aper.  He looks almost kindly with the hint of a smile on his plump face and his lifelike eyes outlined in copper and crafted of quartz with black paste for pupils make him appear to be looking right at you.  I also found images of inlaid bracelets and a sedan chair particularly interesting.

Moving on we come to the Middle Kingdom.  There is an image of a statue of Queen Nofret, wife of the Pharaoh Senwosret II that caught my eye.  Just a few months ago I saw a similar statue on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and learned from Dr. Hawass that the distinctive wig worn by Queen Nofret and the statue I had seen in Baltimore is known as the Hathor wig.  I really appreciate these little details.

Egyptian Queen with Hathor wig 30th Dynasty.
Photographed at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore,
Maryland by Mary Harrsch © 2015
I was also fascinated by a very lifelike statue of Senwosret III.  Many statues I have seen of Egyptian pharaohs are so stylized they sort of look alike to me, but this statue had a very distinctive, care-worn face.

"...his tired eyes, the bitter mouth, the forceful frowning, and the large ears. The tormented visage of the king reflects his new role and responsibility as administrator of Egypt, a result of the later 12th Dynasty kings' policies of expanding the Egyptian border further south, and of crushing the authority of the independent Nomarchs in order to create a more powerful centralized government." - Dr. Zahi Hawass, Inside the Egyptian Museum

Another more realistic sculpture depicted is a statue of Amenenhat III as a priest with a stern face and unusual haircut as well as a sphinx with the face of Amenenhat III and large tufted ears.  Dr. Hawass points out in the book that large ears are a distinctive feature of Middle Kingdom art, an interesting tidbit I will tuck away for future reference.

The book concludes with an extensive bibliography that provides sources for future study if you are so inclined.

I am really looking forward to the next three installments in this e-book series!