Our book today is Den of Wolves, the first book in a new ancient Rome series by Luke Devenish called “Empress of Rome.” Den of Wolves came out in Britain two years ago when the success of HBO's “Rome” sparked a mini-revival of historical fiction set in Rome, and it's being released in the US in a nicely plump, well-designed trade paperback with a cover showing a sultry woman staring straight at the reader with a look of blank determination.
The woman might be doing stand-in duty for Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, the mother of Tiberius, and one of the main characters of this volume, which spans events from Livia's childhood to AD 19 in the reign of her son Tiberius. Although the story is narrated by Iphicles, a slave, it's very much the story of the leading figures of Rome during its transition from Republic to Empire. Livia is just a girl when her father is girding himself to go off to the Senate and join the men who will assassinate Julius Caesar – and she's becoming an old woman when the book ends, having taken us through the story of the premature death of Tiberius' brother Drusus, the family life of his widow Antonia and her children, the rise of Tiberius in Roman politics, the birth and upbringing of his son Castor, the glory days of Germanicus and his haughty wife Agrippina and his creepy son Caligula, and of course the rise and rise of Octavian, who later took the name Augustus and shares some time with Livia in the spotlight of this first volume.
As that cast of characters and thumbnail of setting and action will indicate to those of you who read Roman historical fiction at all, Devenish has chosen for the first volume of his trilogy some extremely well-trod ground, and everybody will be able to identify the owner of the boots in question. Yes, this novel is full of the exact same people doing the exact same things for the exact same reasons as a certain other Roman historical novel – I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Considering the fame and fortune of Graves' book (and its less successfully-conceived sequel), Devenish has got to be given credit for approaching his subject at all, let alone diving into a series of books.
The signature feature of I, Claudius is Graves' picture of Livia as a great Moriarty-like figure at the heart of her webs of intrigue, moving relatives and strangers around Rome as though they were pieces on an invisible chess board. It's an ingenious reading of Tacitus and Suetonius, and it works in most readers' minds because they came to the book after the epic “Masterpiece Theatre” production in which the serpentine Sian Phillips performed a Livia for the ages. Taking on such material yourself, for a novel of your own, is ambitious almost to the point of effrontery.
Stylistically, there can be no comparison between the books. And even in terms of narration, Devenish takes a gamble by making his main character a slave – perhaps a bigger gamble than he realizes, since most people living in Western countries today have no real conception of how any slaves get treated, much less how slaves in the ancient world got treated. All through the first part of his book, he has the sassy, smarter-than-is-good-for-her Livia deliver barbed comments to her astonished servant:
Livia was still gazing at me, open in her mockery now and aiming it wholly at me.
“Do you believe the Great Mother's prophecies to be true, Iphicles?”
I was chilled that she could ever doubt my faith. “Of course I do, domina – I hard them with my own ears. I believe every word,” I replied.
Livia laughed. “Well, I don't.”
My shock increased tenfold and the six frightened and confused Tonsores tried to concentrate only on Livia's hair. To her they weren't even there. She was focused completely on me.
“Domina,” I whispered, “they were the Great Mother's words ...”
“All shit,” said Livia.
I nearly fell back against the wall.
“Well, maybe not all shit,” she went on. “One or two had some potential – the ones where I give birth to the kings. But not the other rubbish.”
I was stunned by such blasphemy.
“What's the matter?” Livia asked, enjoying the look on my face. “Have I shocked you, Iphicles?”
“Yes, domina,” I said.
“Then your attitude toward such things is ridiculously old-fashioned,” said Livia. “But what else should I expect from a slave? Gods are not to be feared and cringed at. They're to be respected, certainly, but only for the purposes of self-preservation. We shouldn't love the gods – that sort of mindless devotion would embarrass them – and we should never take everything they say for granted. We're not simple-minded fools and the gods know that.”
I could only stare dumbly at her, the sacrilegious words beyond my comprehension.
The problem here is twofold: first, obviously, our narrator is an idiot (and our author is severely underconfident – how many times do we need to be told who's in this exchange of dialogue between two people?). But second and equally tough to resolve: no highborn Roman citizen would ever have dreamt of engaging in philosophical badinage with their personal slave, any more than a modern-day Anaheim stock-broker's wife would seek out the fifty-year-old Hispanic father of five who tends her garden and unburden herself of her latest religious epiphanies. Such scenes bid fair to ruin the credibility of the whole book. Graves chose as his narrator Claudius, a noble-born member of the Roman elite who is able to be a fly on the wall at all the great moments in his history by virtue of the fact that everybody thinks he's an fool. It's a fun old gambit, but it incontestably works better than poor credulous Iphicles listening at ajar doors.
About half-way through this first volume, Iphicles becomes the slave of Plancina, the squawky wife of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, and Devenish subtly shifts his narrative focus onto higher ground, often moving entirely to the unmoored third-person that should have been the book's voice from the start (individual narrators lend an inviting sheen of intimacy to a historical novel, so they're very tempting for writers who don't want to intimidate their audience … but the book is often better without them). Even so, there are problems, as in this exchange between Tiberius' son Castor and the mysterious young man Tiberious has brought back to Rome with him after long foreign campaigns:
“And what about your own father, Sejanus? Where is he?”
Sejanus wouldn't give Castor the pleasure of seeing him looked shamed by this question. “I have no father,” he said.
“You are a bastard, then?”
“I'm alone. I don't know who my parents are or were. I don't know anything.”
“I do,” said Castor. “You're a slave.”
Sejanus didn't show the deep anger he felt. “I'm not a slave,” he said finally. “I was an apprentice to the Greek physician as a freeborn child. I'm Italian. My status has been recognised by your father. I'm free – I'm no-one's slave.”
Castor had flaunted his supremacy and needed nothing more now. “My mistake,” he said. He could afford to be welcoming – or rather, he could afford to make a show of it. “Well be friends then, Sejanus? What do you say to that?”
Sejanus said what he could only say. “I'd like that.”
It's a bad thing when reading pages of a historical novel makes you want to take out your corrective red pen, and Devenish provokes that reaction far, far too often. Not only is this passage needlessly convoluted (Sejanus follows up “I don't know anything” with a veritable fountain of stuff he knows), and not only is it heavy-handed (can even the least Rome-cognizant reader have any doubt, after reading this passage, that Sejanus is going to kill Castor at his earliest possible opportunity?), but it has that otherworldly-awful clunker of a line, “Sejanus said what he could only say,” when the correctly-phrased line, “Sejanus said the only thing he could,” is a mere synapse away.
Fortunately – even amazingly – passages like these don't scupper the book. Den of Wolves isn't I, Claudius; it's not even remotely trying to be literature (although the author rather touchingly expresses his admiration for the aforementioned Tacitus and Suetonius, I very much doubt they'd have returned the sentiment). But it's breezy and fast-paced and extremely inviting despite its author's obvious research. The acid test here will be Livia, and she passes it: we get a three-dimensional emotional accounting of how her life slowly changes her. And Devenish has benefited by being among the eighty gazillion people who've watched “Masterpiece Theatre”: many of his Livia's best lines read like they were written to be purred by Sian Phillips. The rest of “Empress of Rome” - featuring, as it must, the fall of Tiberius, the rise of Caligula, and the eventual emperorship of Claudius himself – can be honestly anticipated.
Unless the author decides to write his future historical novels set in other time-periods, that is. Perhaps a big, sprawling novel about a Southern belle on the eve of the American Civil War?