If you are going to have the great misfortune of spending the better part of a week in bed with a terrific cold (really, if anyone finds my voice, please return it), it helps to find yourself in possession of a good book. In this regard, I lucked out.
Palatine is the first of a series of four historical fiction novels set in the tumultuous period known as the year of the four emperors (AD 68-69) written by Linda Trafford. The series begins in the final months of the reign of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian line that began with Augustus, whose overthrow leads to a period of government instability in which the Senate, governors, generals, and the Praetorian Guard all play a part in figuring out (repeatedly) who should ultimately have control of Rome.
Historical fiction – of which I admit I’ve read more than my fair share over the years – toes a fine line between being an accurate portrayal of the period and figures at its heart and simply being a stonking good read as only fiction truly can. And as any ancient history undergraduate could tell you, the intrigues and behind the scenes machinations of the imperial court at Rome has always provided fodder for a tale of the most outlandish soap operatic heights. A story set in Nero’s court could easily and quickly become ridiculous, and with good reason.
What Trafford, however, provides her reader is a series of characters – real and created – who each have their own story, their own circumstances to deal with, surrounding and leading up to the death of Nero and the seizure of the throne by Galba. What we get is a novel driven largely by the guardsmen, freedmen, and slaves whose lives were integral to the running of the Imperial household as well as government itself. Sure, there’s a bit of toga-ripping, recollections of the more debauched activities Nero’s court was infamous for, and some of the over-wrought dramatics one would expect from Sporus, the eunuch pretending to be Nero’s dead wife Poppea, but at the heart of the novel, there’s history. As an historian, I recognise the re-tellings of anecdotes from Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch. As an archaeologist, the descriptions of both the Palatine palace and Domus Aurea are as many reconstructions have imagined them. Trafford has a degree in ancient history, and her familiarity with first century Rome is apparent from these pages.
I often disregard historical fiction from ancient Rome, simply because I can see the holes too easily, and thus fail to enjoy it at all. This was not the case at all with Palatine. I enjoyed it simply for the fiction, for the story that is told, but more to the point, I appreciated it on the level of an historian who could recognise the (undoubtedly) painstaking research behind the story, the accuracy of the historical points, and that for those unfamiliar with this period in Rome, the fiction was done well enough to foster an interest in the history. In other words, read it. Terrible cold keeping you in bed to do so: completely optional.
*I should probably preface this by saying a actually won my copy of the book from Linda in a Twitter contest, but she in no way asked for (or is even aware as of this writing) of this endorsement of her work.