THE COURSE OF HONOR
Warner Reissue, Feb 2003
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
THE COURSE OF HONOR is the fictionalized story of Roman Emperor Vespasian and his mistress Caenis, a freedwoman. It tells, from Caenis’ point of view, of their constantly interrupted but lifelong love, which lasted into a comfortable old age together. Caenis, as imagined by author Lindsey Davis, is an irresistible creation, a funny, cantankerous, forthright woman with a fascination the reader will find unforgettable.
The charming opening to THE COURSE OF HONOR shows us two important things happening in one day. Caenis is a young secretary with a sharp intelligence and the ambition to overcome her slavery. Her straightforward bluntness makes a delightful first impression on Vespasian, an impoverished country knight just starting to work his way up the political ladder in Rome. In the same day, her owner entrusts her with a confidential letter so dangerous it could get their whole household killed. Vespasian leaves at once for military duty, but Caenis’ owner Antonia, sister-in-law of Emperor Tiberius, chooses Caenis as a favorite. By the time Vespasian returns, they both have budding careers. Caenis sturdily resists her liking for him, because a knight having a liaison with someone else’s slave would be frowned upon.
Vespasian tries again after Caenis has earned her freedom, and this time he wears down her half-hearted resistance. Their affair is necessarily short. It is Vespasian’s duty as a Senator to marry a gentlewoman and breed little senators-to-be, and Caenis knows that when he does he will be a faithful husband. The title THE COURSE OF HONOR indicates the long separations Caenis and Vespasian endure, while Vespasian supports his family and earns respect serving Rome in far corners of the empire. Caenis is left to build a life of her own out of the empty ruins of his absence.
The reader, if not Caenis, can enjoy this very interesting life, because Antonia’s son becomes Emperor Claudius, and Claudius’ head administrator of the empire is Caenis’ former teacher Narcissus. Anyone who saw the BBC series "I, Claudius," knows how strange and dramatic were the events in the imperial family during this period. Caenis, as part of Claudius’ "family," has a part to play in the shaping of the times. The reader gets to know Vespasian’s sons, the little emperors-to-be Titus and Domitian, and Titus’ friend Britannicus, Claudius’ son, who will be rival and victim of Claudius’ successor, Nero. Much of Rome’s near future is written in those three small faces.
The most interesting of Vespasian’s sons is Titus, who charms Caenis at first sight. He has the diplomacy Vespasian lacks, and the ability to serve his father effectively and loyally. The story doesn’t cover this, but Titus will respect his father’s example by also placing a high value on a love that runs contrary to his imperial position.
Award-winning author Lindsey Davis has become well known for her series of detective novels set in the time of Vespasian. Her extensive research shows in every book she writes, though she may occasionally change a detail of lifestyle or personality to enhance the story. In THE COURSE OF HONOR, there is no denying the living, breathing vitality of Davis’s Rome. Caenis sees the city and people with an acid sense of the absurd that is very funny to read. It is an exciting experience for the eye and ear, and of course the heart, because Caenis and Vespasian really were born to be life mates.
THE COURSE OF HONOR was originally published in Britain in 1997, and is at last being released in the US – a delay amazing to those of us who knew its quality. I bought it in hardback at import price, and never regretted a penny. I chose THE COURSE OF HONOR as my Best Historical Fiction Read of 1998. Let it be yours for this year.May 2003 Original Version Published on WOR Aug 2003 Revised Version
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