Master and God

Lindsey Davis. Master and God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012.

Lindsey Davis is best known for her two delightful historical mystery series set during the reigns of Vespasian (Falco) and Domitian (Flavia Albia). Her mysteries are well-researched and well-plotted, with the wry sense of humor that tends to characterize my favored mystery series—Lord Peter Wimsey, Amelia Peabody, Cormoran Strike, and Brother Cadfael all make me laugh more than shudder. When I found a copy of Davis’ stand-alone novel, Master and God, I couldn’t wait to crack it open and immerse myself in the back-streets of Flavian Rome.

Set over the entire fifteen-year span of Domitian’s reign, from the death of Titus through the “Reign of Terror” and Domitian’s assassination, the novel centers on the on-again, off-again romance between Flavia Lucilla, a freedwoman hairdresser, and Marcus Vinius Claudianus, a member of the Vigiles and, later, the Praetorian Guard. As is almost obligatory in historical novels, the two become closely involved in the great political happenings of the time. Lucilla is the Flavian ladies’ favorite stylist, and the novel abounds with lush descriptions of the notorious elaborate hairstyles of the period, as well as wig-making episodes as a nod to Suetonius’ snide comments on Domitian’s sensitivity around his baldness. (Janet Stephens has a fantastic tutorial on how to create a Flavian coiffeur, should you so desire.) Once he is promoted to the Praetorian Guard, Vinius is constantly at the emperor’s side, apart from a not-so-brief stint as a prisoner in Dacia.

The romance between Lucilla and Vinius is—as is to be expected over a fifteen-year plot—continually interrupted by both external and internal factors. With Vinius especially Davis has done an excellent job painting a character whose devotion and strengths in one area of his life (his military career) interfere with other areas of his life (his five marriages before Lucilla). Lucilla suffers a bit from what I like to call “plucky maiden syndrome,” assuming an independence and status which strains credibility for a woman of her social standing in the period. 

The attention to detail which is characteristic of the Falco and Flavia Albia mysteries is on display here, too, for better and for worse. As always, Davis vividly conjures up ancient Rome’s bustling side streets and ramshackle tenements, but once she moves into the forum or the palaces, she wanders dangerously far into the realm of over-exposition. A description of the placement of the famous equestrian statue of Domitian, for example, reads suspiciously like a very dry report I once gave on Statius’ Silvae 1.1. Many chapters begin with a protracted history lesson on, for example, the military situation in Britannia, the tactical reasoning behind Domitian’s attack on the Chatti, even Quintilian’s Institutio Oratia. Davis’ love for the period is clear from the way she writes these expository passages, but the novel would have greatly benefited from careful editing to incorporate necessary information within the action and dialogue.

Davis’ typical brand of humor is also evident, though, sadly, not nearly as often as in her mysteries. My favorite example is the inclusion of a guard dog answering in public to the name “Terror,” and to “Baby” in private.

I don’t think Master and God would be the first Lindsey Davis novel I’d recommend to a friend—The Ides of April still holds that place—but, for those who enjoy (or can stomach) a generous helping of overt exposition, the novel gives the reader a beautifully visceral sense of Domitian Rome, with all its dirt and paranoia.

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