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by Lindsey Davis
Lindsey Davis writes that The Course of Honor, an "archetypal secretary-to-boardroom plot" is "for all the girls in all the palaces who sleep on flea-ridden pallets on stone ledges in cold cells, and who live by the hope that one day they will rise to a better place." The Course of Honor is an historically-based love story about a rustic, but noble Roman, bound by duty to a life of civic obligations that puts obstacles in the way of what he wants most, and a woman of unacceptable social status who, moving into influential circles, ultimately acquires a seat beside her beloved emperor.
In a world where being a senator is a costly proposition, both in terms of campaign financing and freedom of marital choice, Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus), a poor member of the nobility, finds it hard to live without the love of his life, Caenis. Caenis grows up in relative privilege -- for a slave. Her mistress is the aging Antonia (known for her lack of maternal affection for her son, Claudius), until she generously and contrary to custom, frees Caenis before her thirtieth birthday.
Caenis was a real person, as we know from a half sentence in Suetonius that explains she was a secretary and freedwoman of Antonia, as well as Vespasian's mistress. On the basis of known facts about the Julio-Claudian period, life in Rome, and about the life of the Emperor Vespasian, Lindsey Davis has constructed a charming love story around the intriguing detail from Suetonius that Caenis wasn't just Vespasian's mistress when he was a young man, but that after his wife died, Vespasian renewed his relationship with his former mistress.
In Lindsey Davis' story, it is clear that Vespasian would have married Caenis if he could have, but, once he had embarked on the Roman course of honor (the cursus honorum), it was illegal. The course of honor prescribed which offices a member of the Roman nobility should attain, in what order, and at what age. Normally, consul was the pinnacle of a fortunate Roman's career, but Vespasian went even further to become emperor.
For the first half century of Roman emperors, the highest Roman office was inherited, but since the crazy, jealous, murderous family of the Julio-Claudians had caused the death of all imperial contenders, there was no one in line for emperor after Nero. This led to chaos and the infamous year of four emperors, each one vying for power, until Vespasian, with his son Titus, stepped in to secure the throne for the Flavians.
Caenis herself ascends a ladder of success from minor scribal drudge, to principal secretary, to freedwoman with some money and a source of income (her skills). No matter how well off she becomes, she can't marry the impoverished light of her life. So, with Caenis' acquiescence, Vespasian marries a woman who can secure him heirs and help him place his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder of Roman offices to which he aspires. Caenis considers marriage for herself with a man of the appropriate class, but is saved by the untimely death of her thoughtless fiance. Thus, she is free when Vespasian re-emerges in Rome after military triumphs abroad. Eventually, Vespasian's wife dies, so he is free to take off where he had left off with Caenis -- provided she is still willing.
While The Course of Honor wasn't published until 1997 (publishers considered the Roman setting a handicap and delayed publication of The Course of Honor for a decade) Lindsey Davis wrote it before any of the Marcus Didus Falco historical fiction mystery series. It was in doing the research for this masterful piece of historical fiction that Lindsey Davis came upon the idea for Falco and fit him into the period she had so thoroughly brought to life. Like Caenis, Falco must climb from the bottom of the social ladder in order to marry his senator's daughter girlfriend.
The Course of Honor fits loosely into the biographical subgenre of historical fiction. Real characters participate in actual historical events. However, unlike other popular biographical historical fiction, like those by Karen Essex on Kleopatra, or Allan Massie on Roman emperors, the main character of The Course of Honor is almost entirely a delightful figment of Lindsey Davis' imagination.
• Lindsey Davis - The Course of Honor
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