Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: Master and God by Lindsey Davis

A history resource article by  © 2015

The very first book written by Lindsey Davis I ever read  was The Course of Honour about the relationship between the Roman emperor Vespasian and his mistress, the freedwoman Antonia Caenis, set against the backdrop of Vespasian's rise to power in the years leading up to the Year of the Four Emperors.  It has remained one of my favorites.  I recently finished "Master and God" and found it too a very compelling tale of the relationship between a wounded and psychologically damaged Praetorian Guard  and a freedwoman serving as a hairdresser in the imperial palace of Vespasian's son, Domitian.  The characters were placed so the reader could gain insight into the life of this controversial Roman emperor across the fifteen years of his reign and observe his effect on members of his court, his legions and other members of the aristocracy.

We first meet the male hero of the novel when he is serving as an officer of the vigiles, Rome's combination force of firemen and night watchmen.  We learn that Gaius Vinnius Claudianus was raised by a gaggle of loving aunts and two older brothers after the death of his mother.  He grew up strong and handsome and joined the military, like his late father, who served as a Praetorian Guard at the end of his military career.  We learn that Vinnius (he goes by this name until he joins the guard) has received the Civic Crown for valor defending a tribune in a ferocious battle with spear wielding barbarians.  His personal sacrifice, however, includes the loss of his left eye and disfigurement of the left side of his handsome face.

Fragmentary Marble head of a Helmeted Soldier Roman
Early Imperial Flavian period 69-79 CE.  Photographed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch
© 2007 
Vinnius is self conscious about his appearance and has his desk turned so his undamaged right profile is seen by visitors entering his office.  We also learn he is intelligent and observant and enjoys the procedural tasks involved in crime investigations.

We then meet the female protagonist, Flavia Lucilla.   A pretty fifteen-year-old, Lucilla has come to the vigiles to report a theft of her mother's jewelry.  She explains that the jewelry was given to her mother, an imperial hairdresser, by her boy friend.  As Vinnius gently questions the girl, he begins to suspect her mother simply hid the items so she could play upon her boyfriend's sympathy and get more.  As his questions become more probing the reality that Lucilla may have been misled by her mother begins to dawn on the young girl as well.  But she refuses to retract her complaint, indignantly referring to Vinnius as "pretty boy".  He simply smiles and turns toward her saying that condition has long passed.  Although she is startled for a brief moment by his appearance, she is not repulsed by him.

Bust of a Roman man found in Ostia between the
theatre and Vigiles barracks 110-120 CE.
Photographed at the Terme di Diocleziano venue of
the National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
Vinnius promises to investigate the case just as his adjutant rushes in to report a massive conflagration.  The fire of 80 CE, the second major fire to gut the heart of Rome in less than 20 years, has begun and would rage for the next three days.

Most people are generally aware of the so-called "Great Fire" of 64 CE during the emperor Nero's reign and that some of the ancient sources notoriously claim Nero played the lyre and sang while Rome burned.  The conflagration has also been immortalized through subsequent religious teachings as the reason for the first major persecution of the early Christians.

Nero Watching Rome Burning by Alphonse Mucha (1887)
However, widespread destructive fires have been recorded throughout Rome's history.  In the Republican period the rapid and haphazard construction needed to house Rome's burgeoning population resulted in a number of catastrophic blazes (and I doubt a particular individual or even a group was blamed for them).

In his journal article "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome" published in 1932, H.V. Carter points out that dating back to to the Gallic invasion of 390 BCE, there had been no fewer than 15 documented fires, of which seven were widespread conflagrations and seven others involved the loss of at least one important public building.

"Remembering that our sources are limited, particularly for the early part of the period, and that ancient writers almost invariably confine their accounts of fire to those involving only the more important structures, we may safely conclude that the figures given fall well below the actual occurence of fires which were considerable in extent and of serious consequences." - H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"

Brennus and his share of the spoils by Paul Jamin (1893).
Fires became an even more common occurence in the Imperial Period.

"...we can say that in the imperial period destructive fires in Rome were far more numerous than in that of the Republic.  This was due to the fact that a greatly increased population, larger supplies of food and clothing necessary for its maintenance, and an inevitable increase in homes, tenements, shops and warehouses necessary for domestic and business life, produced still greater congestion in certain already overpopulated quarters, a condition which, as affecting fire risk, was not adequately offset by improved building, either in plans or materials used, or by facilities sufficient for checking and extinguishing fires." - H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"

Carter says there were at least nine fires recorded during the reign of Augustus, the most destructive being the fire of 6 CE that destroyed so much of the city Augustus immediately reorganized the vigiles to make the unit more effective.

The Roman emperor Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
photographed at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009

Five major fires were recorded during the reign of Tiberius.  The fire of 36 CE burned the long side of the Circus Maximus facing the Aventine then spread to the Aventine itself.  It caused so much destruction that Tiberius, sometimes criticized as "stingy" by contemporaries and possibly even some scholars, donated over 100 million sesterces to its victims to rebuild their homes.

A bronze statue of the Roman emperor Tiberius (not Augustus) with head veiled (capite velato)
preparing to perform a religious rite found in Herculaneum 37 CE.  Photographed at the
Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California by Mary Harrsch © 2014
The emperor Claudius was not spared either.

"In 54 [CE] the Aemiliana district (in the southern part of the Campus Martius) was leveled by a stubborn fire which lasted for at least a day and two nights.  The emperor, when the regular firemen augmented by a body of his own slaves were unable to cope with the flames, summoned the common people from all parts of the city to assist the fire fighters, and paid on the spot each helper so enlisted a suitable remuneration for his service.  In this same conflagration was burned (and apparently never rebuilt) the temple of Felicitas, in or near the Forum Boarium.  It was in front of this temple, embellished with statues of the Muses by Praxiteles and by other works of art, that Julius Caesar had the misfortune to break the axle of his chariot when celebrating his triumph in 46 BCE. -  H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"
Posthumous portrait head of the Roman Emperor Claudius
from the reign of Nero 54-68 CE .  Photographed at the
Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington by
Mary Harrsch  © 2015
Nero's "Great Fire" lasting six days and seven nights was probably the largest conflagration to ever strike the Eternal City but the fire of 80 CE was second only to it.

"In the year 80 [CE] flames raged for three days and nights, burned a large section of the Campus Martius, and, moving thence in a southeasterly direction, devastated the Capitoline hill.  Dio Cassius (LXVI, 24), after naming eleven structures that were consumed (including the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus with its surrounding temples), adds: "Anyone can estimate from the list of buildings that I have given how many others must have been destroyed."  it is probably that at least five additional important public buildings were in whole or part destroyed by this same fire.  Naturally, too, a large number of public and private buildings of secondary importance wedged in among the principal ones were swept away at this time." -  H.V. Carter, "Conflagrations in Ancient Rome"

Carter points out that fire was responsible for the destruction, wholly or partially, of the Temple of Vesta five times, the Regia and Theater of Pompey at least four times, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the Basilica Julia and the Basilica Aemilia three times and the Theater of Marcellus, the Pantheon and the Colosseum twice.

Remains of the Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum
in Rome, Italy.  Over the course of Rome's history the
Temple of Vesta was destroyed five times by fire.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2005
In the novel Davis mentions the destruction of the Pantheon and I was startled by this.  Although I knew Hadrian had "refashioned" the Pantheon, I assumed at least part of it was the original structure built by Marcus Agrippa, like a lot of other people, because of the inscription on its front facade.  I guess I should have read up on it before I visited the structure for the first time in 2005.  In fact, the Augustan Pantheon was totally destroyed by the fire in 80 CE. Domitian subsequently rebuilt the Pantheon which was destroyed again in 110 CE.

A spectacular vertirama of the interior of the Pantheon by Christopher Chan © 2010. Reproduced with permission via
CC by-nc-nd 2.0
But, it is the destruction of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus that is the site of our hero's next courageous act and the deed that will bring him to the personal attention of the young Flavian princeling, Domitian.  This time his bravery will win him an appointment to the Praetorian Guard and give him the opportunity to personally serve the man that will become emperor in less than a year.

Meanwhile, Flavia Lucilla learns to craft the huge crescents of curls that will become a hallmark of feminine style during the Flavian period and increasingly spends more and more time at the palace herself.

Portrait of a woman of the Flavian period, marble possibly
a  portrait bust of Julia, daughter of Titus Marble, 80-90 CE
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch
© 2005
As in the relationship between Vespasian and Caenus in "Course of Honour", the on-again off-again nature of Vinnius and Lucilla's relationship creates an underlying thread of sexual tension that helps to drive the story forward.  Just when you think they are finally going to get together, Vinnius' brothers saddle him with a newly widowed mate and Lucilla eventually ends up married to some stodgy poet who wears socks!!

The couple finally recognize their feelings for each other but Domitian has named himself censor for life and reinstituted the old Augustan morality laws so an affair could be literally fatal.  Then Decebalus, the king of Dacia, begins raiding Roman outposts along the Danube and Domitian announces he will handle the problem himself, taking the Praetorian guard and our hero along with him.

Bronze portrait of an ancient Dacian photographed at the
National Military Museum, Buchareșt, Romania by
Cristian Peter Marinescu-Ivan © 2009
Reproduced with permission via CC by-sa 2.0

I knew Decebalus had been defeated two decades later by Trajan, hence the carving of Trajan's Column to commemorate the event.  But I didn't realize as a young leader, Decebalus (then called Diurpaneus) had given Domitian trouble in Moesia back in 85 - 86 CE, surprising the Roman governor, Oppius Sabinus and annihilating a legion, probably the V Alaudae, which disappears from the military records at this time.  Domitian and his Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus arrive and the ever-micromanaging Domitian reorganizes the province into two separate provinces, Moesia Inferior and Moesia Superior.  Then Domitian orders the IIII Flavia from Dalmatia, and the I and II Adiutrix to the region to replace the lost legion and prepare for an attack on Dacia.

Scholars are divided by what happened next.  Some say Domitian handed the command over to Fuscus and returned to Rome.  Other scholars think Domitian personally led a successful operation against the Dacians and returned to Rome where, it is recorded, he celebrated a double triumph.  In any event, a contingent of the Praetorian Guard remain with Fuscus and in 87 CE Fuscus crosses the Danube where his army (that includes our hero Vinnius) like that of Oppius Sabinus, is ambushed and destroyed at a mountain pass the Romans called Tapae (widely known as the Iron Gates along what is now the modern Romania-Serbia border).  The battle becomes known as the First Battle of Tapae.

Scene of the Second Battle of Tapae with Jupiter Optimus Maximus overlooking Roman troops depicted on Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
Although Davis does not describe the battle in as much visceral detail as Harry Sidebottom or Douglas Jackson would, she provides enough context and suspense to leave the reader breathless.

So how will our female protagonist carry on with the worst years of Domitian's tyranny still ahead? You'll need to read the novel to find out but I assure you Davis will keep you guessing about the ultimate fate of her protagonists until the last paragraph!

Because Domitian is not one of the main characters of the narrative, Davis has to get very inventive to provide background information about this controversial emperor.  In one chapter she does so by introducing a non-human character named Mosca - a house fly.  Suetonius tells us that at the beginning of his reign Domitian would spend hours alone every day catching flies and stabbing them with his needle-sharp stylus.

"Once, on being asked whether anyone was closeted with the Emperor, "Vivius Crispus answered wittily: 'No, not even a fly!'." - Suetonius, Domitian, The Twelve Caesars

Mosca makes all kinds of observations about the solitary human inhabitant of her environment as she prepares to annoy him, oblivious to the corpses of her relatives splayed beneath Domitian's stylus.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Master and God" and have elevated it to one of my favorite Lindsey Davis novels.

To learn more about Domitian and the other Roman emperors mentioned in this post I recommend The Great Courses series Emperors of Rome by Professor Garrett G. Fagan of Pennsylvania State University.


Carter, H. (1932). Conflagrations in Ancient Rome. The Classical Journal, 27(4), 270-288.

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