Reading History: “Lady of the Eternal City”

Lady of the Eternal City

I have been following the writing career of Kate Quinn since her debut novel Mistress of Rome caught my eye at a local Wegman’s.  I’m always hungry for a new historical novel about ancient Rome, particularly one in the vein of I, Claudius and other delicious costume dramas that explore the sexual and viscerally violent politics of ancient Roman life.  Luckily for me, Kate Quinn never disappoints, and her newest novel, Lady of the Eternal City, is a riveting drama that highlights the latter years of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, through the eyes of the tale’s four heroes:  Vix, Hadrian’s reluctant bodyguard; Sabina, Hadrian’s headstrong wife; Sabina’s illegitimate daughter Faustina; and Hadrian’s besotted lover, the young Antinous.

Picking up where Quinn’s previous Roman-centered novel, Empress of the Seven Hills, left off, the novel follows the ways in which the lives of these four extraordinary individuals continue to intertwine with one another and the larger fate of the Roman Empire.  In one way or another, each of the four main characters finds his or her fate tied to that of the unpredictable and often volatile emperor.  The characters, in typical Quinn fashion, are likable yet irascible, individuals not afraid to take what they want and do what they want, the consequences be damned.  Most exemplary, however, is the emotionally resonant way in which Quinn manages to bring to life one of the ancient world’s most touching and tragic love stories.

It is not every author who manages to capture the vibrant, visceral intensity of same-sex attraction, and it is especially rare among historical novelists writing about the ancient world.  Mary Renault and Madeline Miller are two that come to mind, and both of them wrote about ancient Greece, wherein male same-sex attraction operated according to different logics than its Roman counterpart.  Indeed, it would have been easy for Quinn to paint the love between Hadrian and Antinous as one-dimensional, or just another aspect of Hadrian’s deranged character, a way of him manipulating the younger man into a sexually diseased relationship.  Instead, what emerges from her words is a haunting and evocative portrait of two souls who find absolute completion in one another.  Antinous, the epitome of youthful purity and a paradoxical worldly innocence, tames the baser and more dangerous aspects of Hadrian’s character, and they both benefit from it.

However, Quinn doesn’t shy away from pointing out the ways in which the relationship between these two men raised not only eyebrows, but the ire of many of Rome’s elite, who saw the greatest amount of shame and decline of Roman virtue in this relationship.  Indeed, it is precisely this relationship, and Antinous’s acquiescence to it, that leads to his death (I won’t reveal anything, so those who haven’t read it won’t have one of the novel’s central mysteries solved too early).  Quinn manages to solve one of the ancient world’s most puzzling and saddening mysteries in a way that allows the reader to feel both vindicated and yet also saddened at the course of events that led up to the ending of a truly beautiful relationship.

If the love of Antinous and Hadrian is, as we know, doomed to tragedy, the fate of Vix and his wife Mirah is equally fated for tragedy in the form of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and its aftermath.  Quinn does a masterful job of showing us the very real and very human consequences of one of antiquity’s bloodiest and most brutal conflicts, one that would shape the fate of the Jewish people for centuries to come.  Here, we come to understand that this conflict had very real, human costs, and that entire families were torn apart by the suppression of the revolt.  The fact that we never definitively know what happened to Mirah makes this particular section of the novel all that much more gut-wrenching.

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning the central triad of Sabina, Vix, and Faustina.  These three characters are in some ways the moral and narrative center of the entire story, and though it remains mostly focused on their personal lives, it also shows the ways in which the personal can become quite political when one is the wife of an emperor, the bodyguard of an emperor, and the beloved of a future emperor.  When you have three intensely powerful characters, it’s easy to see how their lives, hatreds, and loves can come to shape the fate of an empire and the world in which they live.

All in all, Lady of the Eternal City is the strongest offering yet from one of today’s finest and most consistently talented historical novelists.  This is a story that is full of violence and tragedy, the joy and the anguish of love, and the cruel and merciless machinations of time and politics.  While Quinn has not yet announced her next novel, one can but hope that it will continue to follow the eventful life and actions of the fiery Faustina, an empress who was not immune to the taint of scandal (she was rumoured to have consorted with gladiators, an all-too-common slur hurled at many an empress by those seeking to discredit her).

Quinn once again proves herself an adept at showing us what life might have been like for those living in the ancient world, a world where life and order were far more uncertain than we assume is the norm today.  Just as importantly, however, Quinn also continues to showcase the types of strong women whose presence in the historical record, particularly for ancient Rome, is spotty at best and nonexistent at worst.  Let us hope that she continues to bring these extraordinary women to such vibrant and compelling life.