Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Master and God, by Lindsey Davis (2012)

Fans of "light" historical fiction will recognize the name Lindsey Davis as the British author of the "Falco" series of historical murder mysteries set in ancient Rome. The adventures of protagonist Marcus Didius Falco are always entertaining and absorbing.

Master and God is a more ambitious effort, though sharing some character and plot elements with the Falco novels. Set in the time of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), the protagonist is a fictional ex-legionary named Gaius Vinius Clodianus. His fortunes rise along with those of the younger brother of the Emperor Titus, who became the third and last of the Flavian emperors.   

As the novel opens, Clodianus is a non-com in the vigiles: the loosely-organized neighborhood police force of Rome. Through skill and luck, he rises to become a trusted officer of the Praetorian Guard, charged with accompanying and protecting the Emperor. As such, Clodianus is well-placed to witness and participate in the rise and fall of Domitian. 

The complicated and egalitarian relationship between Clodianus, the stereotypical clueless male, and Lucilla, the self-made successful hairdresser to the imperial family, is a lot of fun - similar to that of Falco and Helena.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Historians, both contemporary and modern, have had mixed opinions about Domitian. In many ways, his reign was a very successful one for the Roman Empire, yet his cautious foreign policy and heavy-handed domestic policies earned him few admirers. As a result, historical novelists have been drawn to the more flamboyant figures of the late Republic and first Emperors. With this novel, Davis filled a gap in ancient Roman fiction. The Dacian campaigns, in particular, were an interesting and previously unfamiliar subject to me.   
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. I hesitate to say this but, if anything, there's too much history. Davis seemed to sense that many readers would be unfamiliar with Domitian's reign and the historical figures of the time, and therefore perhaps tried too hard to include lots of historical background setup and detail. That effort results - especially early on -  in a tone that sometimes borders on pedantic. Missing is the easy familiarity of the Falco novels, where the history seems less forced. The story flows better as it progresses, once the stage is set.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Mostly. Davis is a thorough researcher and scrupulous about accuracy. Chronology and descriptions of events never departed from authoritative sources. Inclusion of a closing "Author's Note" is always a nice touch.

One large quibble: Davis departs from most sources in her explanation of Roman names. The "praenomen, nomen, cognomen" convention is fairly well understood, but Davis invented a different rationale in Master and God.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes. As noted, contemporary sources varied widely in their assessments of Domitian, and his alienation of the Senate resulted in derogatory biographies by Tacitus and Suetonius. Davis used those portrayals to construct her fictionalized Domitian as insecure and suspicious, tending toward paranoia later on. She resisted the temptation, however, to paint a one-dimensional negative portrait of a deranged evil tyrant. Other historical characters of the time are known largely through their own writings, which can be problematic. The satirical poets Juvenal and Martial have cameos, but could perhaps have been used to greater effect.

A number of those involved in Domitian's assassination are included as characters (thanks to the detailed account of Suetonius). A number of the imperial women also have roles, because of Lucilla's contact with them.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes. Like Falco, Clodianus hovers near the boundaries of stereotype, but Davis resists the temptation to ever let him become a total macho jerk and/or a total blockhead. Lucilla is perhaps more thoroughly liberated than is plausible for that time, but it works. Her thinking certainly confounds Clodianus, who is easily confused anyway where women are concerned.

Davis' fictionalized historical Romans lack the devious depth of Graves - mainly because they're not central characters - but come across as plausibly real people.
Score = 4

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