For the background to this novel, Lindsey Davis picks up on Suetonius's biography of the Roman emperor Domitian, as well as more recent histories. Suetonius's dramatic account of Domitian is perhaps now unfashionable, but his spindly-legged madman stabbing flies with a pen is far more fun than the rather swotty legislator of modern scholarship.
The imperial rule of this oddball, whose father and brother, Vespasian and Titus, had notable achievements to their names, is the background to the love story of two lesser Romans: the hairdresser Lucilla and the one-eyed soldier, Vinius. Their on-off romance is gently but unsentimentally recounted by Davis, who displays her fascinating panorama of knowledge of the ancient city in all its filth and glory.
When Vinius is sent abroad, Lucilla earns her own living by creating those towering wigs seen on the statues of Roman women of the period. Meanwhile, in the dangerous province of Dacia, Vinius takes part in the disastrous battle of Tapae, where he is captured. Lucilla believes him dead and eventually remarries, but this tough hero is not so easily killed off, even by the Transylvanians. Returning to Rome, Vinius goes back into the Praetorian Guard, bringing him closer than ever to the emperor.
This is a dangerous orbit, for Domitian's increasing paranoia causes him to lash out at all within his inner circle. His wife is accused of an affair with the actor, Paris, and the madly jealous emperor takes revenge, exiling his wife and murdering Paris himself. Vinius gets far too close to his unpredictable master and is forced to lie low. The lovers are brought together again when Lucilla gives him sanctuary, but Vinius cannot resist trouble, and gets involved in a very dangerous enterprise – investigating the death of the former emperor, Titus. The conspiracy which finally rids Rome of Domitian is inevitable, as is Vinius's part.
The narrative is rapid and the story well told with much sharp-edged detail. You can open this book and step right into a convincing yet extraordinary past. Just mind the overflowing gutters and the stray dogs. And stay clear of homicidal emperors.