Roman Emperor Vespasian, Palazzo Massimo

Roman Emperor Vespasian, Palazzo Massimo

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Emperor Vespasian

Vespasian was Roman emperor from 69 to 79 AD. He was the last of the four emperors who ruled the ancient Roman Empire in the 69 AD. Interestingly, the previous three leaders died because of the suicide or murder, while Vespasian death happened ten years later because of natural causes. He had two sons: Titus and Domitian. All together they represented the Flavian Dynasty.

One can always spot an emperor by his haircut

Brand recognition is nothing new the use of image as an immediately identifiable expression of the power of the state was one perfected by the Roman emperors.

Today heads of state have a standard image: identical portraits of Queen Elizabeth II look down on courtrooms and public offices from Canada to the Cook Islands, from Australia to Antigua of the President of the United States from Alaska to Hawaii. Similarly at the peak of the Roman Empire, citizens and slaves alike would recognise the same portrait of the emperor from Spain to Syria, from Scotland to the Sahara. Like so much which is unmistakably Roman (gladiators, wine, the Colosseum) it was an idea borrowed from the Greek world.

Alexander the Great, British Museum

If Alexander the Great’s favourite sculptor and “spin doctor”, Lysippos had perfected the young, dynamic, studiedly casual, and carefully ruffled warrior, it was a model which Rome’s first emperor would emulate like Alexander, and unlike the Hellenistic kings which had preceded him, Augustus was clean-shaven and ever youthful.

Augustus of Prima Porta (detail), Vatican Museums

Perpetually about nineteen in his statues (though he died at the age of 76), Augustus is always identifiable by his “swallow-tail” fringe. The protruding ears and broadly spaced locks of the fringe are characteristic of the successors of the Julio-Claudian line. One might be tempted to seek a somewhat facetious correlation between the implosion of the mother of all dysfunctional families and the only ruler thus far to toy with facial hair, the famously mad, bad, and dangerous to know Emperor Nero.

After Nero met his sticky end, Rome was plummeted into the rocky “year of four emperors”, from which the solid general from Rieti, Vespasian, would emerge victorious.

Vespasian, National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

A salt-of-the-earth sort of chap, Vespasian used official portraiture as one of many tools to show the regime had changed. The effete aristocrat Nero had been replaced with a man of the people. Rugged and pock marked, Vespasian’s statues are carefully styled to tell us that this is a man too busy with matters of state to bother about his own image.

When Vespasian’s second son Domitian proved to be Nero mark two, the Flavian dynasty also came crashing to an end. The Senate put the relatively elderly and unmarried Nerva on the throne, the most important emperor no-one has ever heard of.

Nerva, National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

His portrait shows an ascetic and disapproving man, his brow furrowed with the concerns of state, furnished with an aristocratic nose which could open envelopes. Once again the official portrait was a clear expression that he was the anthesis of what had gone before.

With no natural heir, Nerva’s nominated successor was Trajan, the man who would rule over Rome’s greatest territorial expanse, always shown clean shaven with a pudding basin haircut and rather large ears.

Trajan, Capitoline Museums.

Trajan would also die without producing offspring, and his nominated successor was his distant cousin, Hadrian.

Bearded and with curly hair, Hadrian’s portrait was different to any of the emperors which had gone before, a sort of Greek philosopher look. He is always shown full-faced and, if we are to believe the busts, without a wrinkle until his death aged 62.

Hadrian also died without reproducing, and his chosen heir was Antoninus Pius. How better to show a continuity of the reign than to have the same haircut?

Antoninus Pius, National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

Antoninus and his wife Faustina had lots of children, although only girls survived beyond infancy, and once again a successor was nominated: Marcus Aurelius. Albeit slightly more bouffant, he is also in the bearded mould of his immediate predecessors.

Marcus Aurelius (detail), Capitoline Museums.

This run of what Machiavelli would term the “Five Good Emperors” – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius – would come to a screeching halt with the natural son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus who, despite the previously successful beard and curly hair combination, would prove to be what Machiavelli might have termed a “Dreadful Emperor”.

Commodus as Hercules, Capitoline Museums.

The hubris encapsulated in showing the Emperor in the guise of Hercules would herald the long, but ultimately inexorable, decline of Empire a poor advertisement for hereditary rule if ever there were one.

A gallop through Imperial portraiture could be incorporated into a tour of the Capitoline Museums, the Vatican Museums, or the splendid and vastly under-visited National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

One of the Grandest Designs Ever Built

The war spoils from the sack of Jerusalem ensured a limitless supply of men and wealth for the construction of the grand monument. Over 100,000 slaves were employed to finish the construction of the Colosseum as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the architect of this wonderful structure is unknown. The grand design of the Colosseum suggests extensive planning, perspective drawings, and other architectural aids, but none of these can be attributed to a man or a group. The monument is an example of fine engineering and demonstrates technological advancement of the Romans.

The structure spans an area of 6 acres encircled by an outer circumference of 545 meters. It is 189 meters long and about 156 meters wide. The outer facade stands 48 m high above the ground, equivalent to a 12-story building. The amphitheater is elliptical in shape.

Unlike other massive structures of that time, the Colosseum is a freestanding building owing to a complex system of groin and barrel vaults. It was constructed in a level valley between the Esquiline and Caelian Hills.

The most prominent features of the building are its columns and arches. The first story is decorated with Tuscan order columns, the second story with Ionian columns and the third one with Corthinian style columns.

The fourth story of the Colosseum is mainly decorated with pilasters and Corthinian capitals. While the lower three-stories have abundant arches, the fourth story lacks them and instead features small windows. These windows have plinths, which most probably were used to support the Velarium. The arches were decorated with statues of gods and emperors. The exterior top of the building was covered with a gilded bronze shield.

Review: Vespasian: Rome's Executioner by Robert Fabbri

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

I didn't realize it but I guess I started this series about one of Rome's "good" emperors with book 2 of the series. However, the story, woven around the downfall of the infamous Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, stood on its own quite nicely.

There is no indication in history that Vespasian and his brother Sabinus conspired with the Lady Antonia, Tiberius' sister-in-law, to overthrow Sejanus to protect the reign of Tiberius. However, a successful conspiracy is one in which the participants remain anonymous so Fabbri takes advantage of the lack of documentation to creatively spin this tale.

Sejanus was born into the equestrian class in 20 BCE at Volsinii in Etruria. Sejanus' grandfather had improved the family's social standing by marrying a sister of the wife of Gaius Maecenas, one of the Emperor Augustus' closest political allies. Sejanus' father, Lucius Seius Strabo, also married well and his uncle Quintus Junius Blaesus distinguished himself as a military commander and became proconsul of Africa in 21 CE. Junius subsequently earned triumphal honors by crushing the rebellion of Tacfarinas, a Numidian deserter from the Roman Army who led a coalition of rebels against the forces of Rome in north Africa for 10 years.

It is thought Strabo eventually came to the notice of Augustus through his connection to Maecenas. Anyway, sometime after 2 BCE, Strabo, Sejanus' father, was appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

We know little of Sejanus' early career until, according to Tacitus, Sejanus accompanies Gaius Caesar, adopted grandson of Augustus, to Armenia in 1 BCE. Gaius Caesar dies from wounds supposedly received in a campaign in Artagira, Armenia in 4 CE. Tacitus suggests there may have been foul play involved in the death of Gaius, orchestrated by Augustus' wife Livia to facilitate the accession of her own son Tiberius to the throne of the Roman principate. However, Tacitus does not point an accusing finger at Sejanus. But when Tiberius is crowned emperor in 14 CE, Sejanus is immediately appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard as a colleague of his father.

A young Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in the 1976 production of
"I, Claudius". Image courtesy of the British Broadcasting Company.
© 1976
Then when Sejanus' father is appointed to the governorship of Egypt in 15 CE, Sejanus assumes sole command of the Praetorians. He centralizes the guards into a single garrison on the outskirts of Rome, personally appoints the centurions and tribunes and increases the number of cohorts from nine to twelve, resulting in a force of 12,000 soldiers now loyal to him.

Sejanus then conspires with the wife of Drusus, Tiberius' son, to have Drusus poisoned. But when Sejanus asks permission to marry Drusus' widow, Tiberius ominously warns Sejanus not to overstep his bounds. So Sejanus sets about sowing unrest between Tiberius and the senate. Tiberius, already deeply depressed over the loss of his son, finally retreats to Campania in 26 CE then the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus to essentially rule Rome in Tiberius' absence. Sejanus then sets about eliminating anyone he deems a threat that includes many of the elite.

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 by Mary Harrsch © 2014.

Sejanus is wielding this immense power when Fabbri's story begins in Thrace where Vespasian is completing his appointment as tribune. The plot involves Sejanus' funding of a rebellion in Thrace as a strategy to weaken the empire and redirect the attention of the legions from politics in Rome to the provinces. The groundwork for these clandestine activities may have been laid in Book 1 but I had to simply accept them as described as I had not read book 1 and have not found any references to them in the ancient sources.

A portrait bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
Photographed near the Forum Romanun
in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Fabbri's pacing of the story is good and the characters thoughtfully fleshed out. The only thing I found a bit distracting was Vespasian's use of colloquial language such as referring to "me mates". I realize Vespasian was born into a rather undistinguished family of tax farmers and debt collectors in a little village northeast of Rome but I think he would have tried to speak in a more educated manner in the presence of military legates and a Thracian queen.

The constant bickering between Vespasian and his brother Sabinus also grew tiresome, especially since I know the two Flavian brothers were actually quite close and during the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian entrusted the care of his youngest son Domitian to Sabinus during a very dangerous period. But, soon the action kicked into high gear and there wasn't much time for the siblings to snipe at each other any more.

Vespasian's relationship to Antonia's slave Caenis was also more out in the open than it was portrayed in Lindsey Davis' book, "The Course of Honor". Their little trysts did provide the opening for the development of another strong female character, however, so I can understand why Fabbri plotted the story in this way.

Vespasian is portrayed as being a childhood friend of Caligula's and, although there is no evidence of this in the ancient sources, the plot device worked well to provide an inside source in Tiberius' household on Capri to enable the band of rescuers access to the emperor.

Fabbri developed Tiberius' character as described by his detractors, Suetonius and Tacitus - a sinister demented pervert. I personally think Suetonius and Tacitus' accounts of Tiberius' behavior in his last years are full of discrepancies and represent more character assassination than fact (See my article "Sexual innuendo and character assassination in the ancient world".)

But, from a dramatic standpoint, such a character definitely adds a heightened level of suspense to the narrative.

Fabbri appears to have intentionally changed one aspect of history. Early in his career Vespasian obtained a post as a minor magistrate in the vigintivirate. In the book, Vespasian becomes a tresviri capitales, one of three magistrates charged with managing prisons and the execution of criminals. This places him in a key position to be informed of the Senate proceedings surrounding the treason of Sejanus (since he is not a senator himself) and to witness both the execution of Sejanus and his eldest son as well as the tragic execution of Sejanus' young children (and provide the title for the book). Scholars, however, think Vespasian served as a quattuorviri viis in urbe purgandis - one of four magistrates charged with road maintenance within the city of Rome. He was so unsuccessful in this position it is said the emperor Caligula publicly stuffed fistfuls of muck down Vespasian's toga because the streets were so filthy.

All in all, though, the novel followed the history of the fall of Sejanus quite closely including the dramatic climax and the fates of key characters. I will definitely add the first book of the series and the sequel to this novel to my "to read" stack!


The various exhibitions of the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme are divided into different themes and organized chronologically throughout the four floors of the museum. The basement houses a collection of jewels, grave ornaments and Roman coins from different periods. This might be considered to be the least interesting floor of the museum.

The ground and first floor feature famous Greek and Roman sculptures and statues, as well as impressive sarcophagi and high reliefs.

The second floor showcases the best preserved Roman frescoes in the world, which are considered the highlight of the museum. Originally located in Villa of Livia and Villa Farnesina, these colourful frescoes,sometimes covering an entire room, represent different paradisiacal landscapes and domestic life.

On the same floor, visitors will also see an impressive collection of mosaics from the second and fourth century AD.

Roman Forum

The ancient Roman Forum is a huge complex of triumphal arches, marble fragments, basilicas, ruined temples and other architectural elements from different time periods. Moreover, it was the ceremonial, political, religious, and business center of ancient Rome. The forum provides insight into the splendor that previously was the Roman Empire.

Review: Master and God by Lindsey Davis

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Review: Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 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.

List of Roman Emperors

On these pages, you will find the names, regnal dates, and portraits of the emperors of the Roman Empire, with links to more information.

  • 13 July 100 BCE: Gaius Julius Caesar
  • 10 January 49: rebelled against the Senate
  • 9 August 48: sole ruler
  • 15 March 44:murdered by senators
  • 23 September 63 BCE: Gaius Octavius
  • 8 May 44: Gaius Julius Caesar note [Historians often call him Octavianus, a title he never used.]
  • November 40: Imperator Caesar Divi filius
  • 2 September 31 BCE: sole ruler
  • 16 January 27: Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus
  • 19 August 14 CE: natural death
  • 16 November 42 BCE: Tiberius Claudius Nero
  • 19 August 14 CE: Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus
  • 16 March 37: natural death
  • 31 August 12 CE: Gaius Caesar Germanicus
  • Summer 14: nickname Caligula ("soldier's boot")
  • 18 March 37: Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
  • 24 January 41: murdered by soldiers
  • 1 August 10 BCE: Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus
    25 January 41: Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
    13 October 54: poisoned

Refused title: Britannicus (43)

  • 15 December 37: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
  • 25 February 50: Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus
  • 13 October 54: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
  • September (?) 66: Imperator Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
  • 9 June 68: suicide
  • 24 December 3 BCE: Servius Sulpicius Galba
  • 8 June 68: Servius Galba Imperator Caesar Augustus
  • 15 June 69: lynched by soldiers
  • 7 September 12 (?): Aulus Vitellius
  • 2 January 69: Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator
  • 18 July 69: Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator Augustus
  • 20 December 69: lynched by soldiers
  • 28 April 32: Marcus Salvius Otho
  • 15 January 69: Imperator Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus (Nero?)
  • 16 April 69:suicide
  • 17 November 9: Titus Flavius Vespasianus
  • 1 July 69: Imperator Titus Flavius Vespasianus Caesar
  • 23 June 79: natural death
  • Year of birth unknown
  • Spring 70: Emperor of the 'Gallic empire'
  • Summer 70: into hiding
  • 79: executed
  • 30 December 39: Titus Flavius Vespasianus
  • July 69: Titus Caesar Vespasianus
  • 2 September 70: Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus
  • 24 June 79: Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus
  • 13 September 81: natural death
  • 24 October 51: Titus Flavius Domitianus
  • 14 September 81: Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus
  • 83: Imperator Caesar Domitianus Germanicus Augustus
  • 18 September 96: murdered by courtiers
  • 30 November 30: Marcus Cocceius Nerva
  • 18 September 96: Imperator Nerva Caesar Augustus
  • 97: Imperator Nerva Germanicus Caesar Augustus
  • 27 (?) January 98: natural death
  • 18 September 53: Marcus Ulpius Trajanus Crinitus
  • October 97: Imperator Caesar Nerva Trajanus
  • 28 January 98: Imperator Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus
  • Germanicus (97), Dacicus (102), Optimus (114), Parthicus (116)
  • 7 August 117: natural death


Dietmar Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle. Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie (1990 Darmstadt)


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