Lindsey Davis' Master and God is a vastly entertaining historical novel set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian in First Century Rome. It is on the one hand a love story between Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a valiant but reluctant member of the Praetorian Guard, whose military career is as successful as his marital history is disastrous, and Flavia Lucilla, daughter of a freed slave, and hairdresser to the ladies of the imperial household. A devastating fire in Rome brings them together as apartment-mates whose relationship survives separation and the apparent death of Gaius, evolving into a bond of real passion and understanding. It is also the story of the seizure of power by the Emperor Domitian, his increasing paranoia and madness as he styles himself Master and God. As Domitian's cruelties to his enemies and those he only thinks are enemies grows, the future of Rome demands desperate measures, measures that demand Gaius choose between his sworn duty to protect the Emperor becoming part of the forces arrayed against him.
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Lindsey Davis is an English novelist best known for her award-winning historical crime stories set in ancient Rome and its empire. The acclaimed Marcus Didius Falco series earned her the Crime Writers' Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award, and Alexandria made the New York Times bestsellers list. She is also the author of the acclaimed historical novels The Course of Honor and Rebels and Traitors. Her novels have won numerous awards, including the 2011 Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association for lifetime achievement. Born and raised in Birmingham, England, she read English at Oxford and worked for the civil service for thirteen years before becoming a writer.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was a quiet afternoon on the Via Flaminia. When a wisp of smoke wafted across from the river direction, sheered downwards and dematerialised against a pantile on the roof of the station house, nobody noticed. Rome, the Golden City, went about its business. The vigiles of the First Cohort continued their tasks.
The yard lay still; afternoons were dead time. The tribune was off at his own house. Nobody was doing much. The vigiles had been brought into existence to combat fires, but also covered local law and order. Most action occurred at night. Between lunchtime and dinner their duties were minimal, which was how the day shift liked it.
Titus, their new Emperor, was away in Campania. For the second time now, he was visiting the disaster area after Mount Vesuvius erupted the autumn before. Many people had feared the worst when Titus succeeded his father; despite his charm, Vespasian’s son was thought to be ruthless. Yet apparently he had overhauled his personality: renounced vice, promised to execute no more opponents, and even sent away his unpopular lover, Queen Berenice of Judaea, after she scampered to Rome hoping to become his empress. Now every time the wardrobe slaves dressed Titus in his sumptuous robes, he also stepped into a fetching reputation as a benign ruler. After the volcanic catastrophe, his people, desperate for reassurance, were forgiving. Titus encouraged them by spending his own money on relief efforts.
At forty, he should have a long reign ahead of him but Vesuvius would obviously be its major event—so unexpected, so destructive, so very close to Rome. Campania was taking up much of his time. Still, if anything of moment happened back in Rome, his brother Domitian could be roped in as a substitute.
That was unlikely. The Empire and the city rolled along in the safe hands of officials. Though Titus rarely showed open animosity, most people assumed that he intended to prevent Domitian exercising power.
* * *
A couple more threads of smoke drifted above the Field of Mars. Rome’s usual hot blue sky was permanently grey that year so these cirrus-light wisps were indistinguishable. Again, no one paid any attention.
The depressing skies had deposited a fine film of dirt over everything. Throughout the Mediterranean the temperature cooled, after Vesuvius flung up millions of tons of ash, its plume blocking out sunlight as far away as North Africa and Syria. In Italy itself, the sea—Mare Nostrum, our sea—had been sucked dry then flung back upon the coast. Fish died. Birds died. When spring came, the once-fertile Bay of Naples area lay many feet deep under lava, ash and solidified mud. Instead of three crops a year in Campania, there were no crops at all. Prices shot up. Areas which traditionally fed Rome lay half dead. There was starvation; the populace weakened; an epidemic set in. Thousands were sick and many would die.
So it was already a bad year. Promises of lavish festivities once Titus inaugurated his father’s huge new amphitheatre barely kept up the Romans’ spirits. Only very expensive public games, with long holidays to enjoy the grunts and gore, would relieve their gloom.
* * *
On the station house roof, a dim pigeon spread a wing, vainly hoping to bask in sunshine, while its brighter mate simply sat hunched in the post-Vesuvian murk.
Two levels below, one of the vigiles sniffed the air as if a warning had reached his subconscious, but he continued unconcernedly sharpening fire-axes. All the other smells of Rome competed for his notice, from raw fish and bloody meat to frying food, crushed garlic and herbs; foul stinks from tanneries; wood-burning furnaces; incense and perfumes; whole aromatic warehouses full of fine peppers and cinnamon; middens; drains; pine trees; vagrants, mule dung and dead dogs.
The station house contributed its own odours of scorched ropes and dank esparto-grass mats. On busts of Titus and the old Emperor Vespasian in the shrine at the end of the parade ground, dry wreaths carried potpourri scents of laurel and cypress. The station house was occupied at various times by a thousand men of lowly origin who engaged in hard physical work; they stank of smoke, sweat and feet, while most of them made powerful use of belches and farts too, using those in conversation like expressive parts of speech.
Few were talking now. Fire buckets were stacked around unfilled. The enormous gates stood all but closed, with only a crack left for access. Some men were catching a nap indoors, though a few lolled outside in the air. They looked up when one of their crime team returned. It was Scorpus, close-cropped and shrewd-eyed, limping since an old accident at a house fire, as so many of them did. He was trailing a young woman.
She must be bound for the investigation officer: Gaius Vinius Clodianus, son of an ex-cohort tribune who managed promotion to the Praetorian Guard; brother of two ex-soldiers; ex the Twentieth legion himself; twenty-three years old, five feet ten, a hundred and seventy pounds; generally competent, pretty well-liked. The men assumed he would hear the story, promise to look into it, deplore the cohort’s heavy workload, wink flirtatiously—then send the girl packing.
Sizing up the visitor, they reflected crudely on her youth, her figure and the fact that the lucky Vinius would interview her unchaperoned. She was decent-looking, though here being female was enough.
They all knew Vinius was married. Although he never discussed his private life, the marriage was rumoured to be in trouble (Vinius himself was ignoring their difficulties—which, for his wife, encapsulated the problem). His men assumed that he upheld cohort traditions by chasing other women, though not unmarried girls. They would lay bets on that, just as they were certain that Vinius would always choose the Chicken Frontinian off a menu board or that every time he was shaved he had his barber slap on a plain camomile wash. They served with him, so they knew him. Or so they believed.
* * *
As Flavia Lucilla entered, her heart sank. Several men whistled. To them it was appreciative; to her it felt aggressive. She was young enough to blush.
She had found herself in a large open space inside the two-storey official premises. Colonnades ran down each long side; another similar courtyard opened ahead, then a third. Just inside the mighty main gates, she had passed between two large water basins. Pieces of equipment were piled in the yards in a way that looked haphazard although perhaps it made items quick to collect in an emergency. It was all alien to her.
She scuttled after Scorpus into the enquiries office, half way down the left colonnade, in one of many small rooms that lay behind the pillars. As they entered, Scorpus pointed an index finger at her in silence, then moved that finger through forty-five degrees to indicate where she was to take a seat. The gesture was not particularly offensive. “Gaius Vinius will take your story.” The presumed Vinius barely glanced up.
Lucilla dropped onto the centre of a low wooden bench, otherwise unoccupied. She sat on her hands, arms straight and shoulders tight. Clearly, she was a nuisance and she had to wait. That suited her. By now, she wished she had not come.
The enquiry officer was not what she expected; for a start he was young, not some grizzled centurion. Seated at a rustic table placed crossways to the door, he had a good-looking profile and Lucilla felt he knew it. He was working on documents; other men would have had the cohort clerk do the writing, while they dictated. Waxed wooden tablets with a stylus lay in front of Vinius, but he was completing a formal list in ink on a scroll. She watched him sign it then replace the wet pen rather daintily in its inkwell; with this small fancy gesture he seemed to be half-mocking himself for enjoying such work. It suggested Vinius was eccentric; most investigators complained about time-consuming bureaucracy.
“Here, Scorpus. Three to kick upstairs.” His voice was lower and stronger than Lucilla expected. She guessed “kicking upstairs” was not a literal command but shorthand for despatching wrongdoers to the Vigiles Prefect. Routine crimes would be dealt with by a thrashing or a local fine. Recalcitrant offenders would be passed to the Prefect of the City, who could send them for a full trial.
Scorpus skimmed the short scroll and, as he went out with it, commented, “Morena won’t be happy!”
Vinius shrugged. Then he waited, idly flipping through the waxed tablets. Lucilla noticed his wedding ring. His hands were clean and neatly manicured. He was blessed with thick, dark hair which he had had extremely well cut, so the young girl was startled by the erotic attraction of expert layering into the nape of his strong male neck.
He continued to ignore her. Increasingly nervous, she tried not to attract his attention. She gazed around but apart from the table and bench there was nothing in the room except a large map on the wall. It showed the Seventh and Eighth Regions, which the First Cohort covered, a segment of the city which ran from the city boundary above the Pincian Hill, down past the Gardens of Sallust and the Quirinal, right into the Forum. It was where she had been brought up so she recognised the main features, even though the street names had faded badly. Occasional newer marks in different inks had been added, as if to pinpoint local incidents.
She should not have come. She should either have left it alone, or made her mother come with her. That had proved impossible; she should have accepted that her mother did not want the vigiles involved.
After various shouts and banging of doors outside, a man burst into the room, grumbling loudly. Some sort of prisoner-escort could be heard in the portico, while Scorpus reappeared and leaned on the doorframe, watching with a smirk.
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