Wednesday, March 4, 2015

BRINGING ROMAN HISTORY TO LIFE






The simplest way to review Kate Quinn's WOMAN OF THE ETERNAL CITY is to say that it is marvelous. But it is more than that. It is an engrossing, beautifully crafted story that includes romance, geopolitics and the question of ethno-religious identity. The deftly handled plot encompasses a shift in Rome's imperialistic policy,  efforts to impose Roman values and ideals on conquered nations and to define the borders of territories annexed in war. These,  as Quinn's impeccable research shows, are Roman Emperor Hadrian's documented contributions to history. But it is the imagined details of his relationship with his wife Sabina and  his lover Antinous,  as well  her relationship with the warrior Vercingetorix (Vix) that grab and hold  the reader's attention .

Vix is a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile his Jewish identity--technically, he  is a Jew though his enslaved mother has been cut off from normative Judaism--and his allegiance to Rome.  He also struggles to reconcile his work as  a tribune in the Praetorian Guard and his love for Mirah, the  religious Jewish woman whom he married and who gave him two daughters. Additionally, he strives to contain his emotional attachment to his former lover, Sabina, a woman whose great intelligence, beauty and kindness make a brilliant contrast to the darkness of Hadrian's violent moods.

Enter Vix's adopted son, Antinous, who is supremely handsome and gentle. He and Hadrian meet and what follows is a heartbreaking love story told enormous sensitivity and grace. The first heart to break is Vix's. His  dislike of Hadrian is  as strong as his loyalty to fray  destroy his ties with his son.  Next heart to crack it is Mirah's. Her  narrow view of  good love  is shaped by religious prejudice. As for Antinous, life becomes a series of  painful encounters with hypocritical Romans who pattern their  view of homosexuality on that of the Greeks--it is OK if one of the partners is a young boy.

There are, in this story,  two young boys  and a remarkable young girl whose reaction to Antinous have great  significance for the empire--Marcus Aurelius, his remarkable  cousin Annia Galeria Faustina the Younger and their sworn enemy. Gneus Pedanius Fuscus Salinator, whose lust for power and Annia' virginity might have earned the cognomen of Salivator. How the  love of the first two and the hatred of the third change the shape of  history is a tale that  will captivate students of philosophy, feminists, and admirers of a well written romance.
 Romances in this novels are as complex, as they are in real life.  Vix and Mirah's meets with a formidable obstacle when they move to Judea where her uncle, Simon Bar Kochba leads the resistance against Rome. Much has been written about Hadrian's response to Jewish aspirations. I will leave it to you to discover the choice Vix made in this fight between Roman imperialism and Jthe Jews' ardent desire to free Judea. The Bar Kochba war against Roman invaders lasted three years at the end of which approximately 580, 000 Jews lay dead and Judea was left in ruins. Countless Jewish survivors were enslaved and the very name of the  Jewish homeland was replaced by that of   Syria Palestina. Quinn's novel reminds us of how history repeats itself; Although it it is set in 128nB.C.E.. the history of imperialistic nations,  the ways in which humans love or hate each other have changed very little,  It is to her credit that there is no sense of deja vu in a tale as old Christianity itself. Bar Kochba,  Hadrian, Sabina, Titus, Marcus Aurelius,  Roman legionnaires. the defeated and the victors emerge from page with such clarity they might be one's next door neighbor.. This is a book I am glad to have read. I would hesitate to recommend it to the most fastidious reader.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love this review - thank you for taking the time to write something so thoughtful.

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