Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #88: Master and God by Lindsey Davis
Ms. Davis, a careful historian with a fine wit and a penchant for detail, has produced another in a long line of novels about ancient Rome, only her favorite gumshoe Marcus Didius Falco is taking a well-deserved rest this time around. Instead, she has created another delightful character in the form of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a soldier turned vigile turned imperial guard under the Flavian imperial dynasty.
When we first meet Gaius, he is head of a district station which oversees everything from petty theft to rape, and does a lot of firefighting on the side. His once-handsome face has been destroyed by a spear thrust during his time as a young soldier abroad, and he is not yet cynical about the people whose safety he is entrusted to guard. A sassy 15-year-old storms into his office and demands that he investigate the theft of her mother’s jewelry, but the great fire of 81 AD which destroyed half of Rome has already broken out and he and his fellow vigiles spend the next three days battling to save what they can of the imperial city, the girl and her plight forgotten, or so it would seem.
Gaius’ courageous fire-fighting draws the attention of the recently-ascended and unpopular Emperor Domitian, and he is inducted as the youngest member of Domitian’s Praetorian Guard as his “reward.” Going into battle under the mad emperor, Gaius is ultimately taken captive during the Dacian wars, and spends five long years slowly dying of starvation as a prisoner of war before he is allowed to return to Rome along with a tiny handful of survivors. He reluctantly remains in the Guard, but at a “desk job” which gives him access—more than he is comfortable with—to the swirling conspiracies of the time, which eventually draw him in with dramatic consequences.
Gaius’ life becomes intertwined with that of Lucilla, a hairdresser to the imperial court who was once that feisty 15-year-old in the young Gaius’ office, and the author uses the beautifully-drawn details of their complicated relationship and ultimate love for each other, as the backdrop to the empire’s chaotic decline under the rule of the increasingly paranoid Domitian. Through a combination of humor, a wealth of historical detail, and the drama that was imperial Rome, Davis gives us a stunning and very accessible portrait of an era nearly 2,000 years ago, down to the details of food preparation, hairstyles, public baths and poetry festivals. There are moments when Davis indulges in an excess of detail, as when she is describing the reconstruction of Rome, but for the patient reader who sticks with it, you come away feeling like you’ve just taken a personal guided tour of that ancient city. A dense book, to be sure, but well worth the read.