Daily conversations: Betrayal of a Republic by Joost Douma
Based on years of academic research, Joost Douma’s novel Betrayal of a Republic: Memoirs of a Roman Matrona (Histria Books, 2020) tells the story of Cornelia Africana, woman of power and influence in the Roman Republic. Cornelia is considered the model of virtuous Roman womanhood. Educated, cultured and dedicated to her family, Cornelia tells the story of her remarkable life from the viewpoint of her wise old age.
In creating this engaging representation of an historical person, author Joost Douma followed three rules. First, he considers all historical novels to be interpretations rather than simple relaying of facts, and affected by the time of writing as well as the historical record. “Our society is very different from the Roman Republic,” he says. “I have tried my best to reconstruct the events as closely as possible to what I think happened, but in the end it still remains my own approach.”
His second rule was to believe the evidence of the sources. “Scholars have a tendency to question every fact or event, but I refrained from doing that for this novel. So, for example, I accepted the letter reputed to be sent by Cornelia as genuine.” When in doubt, Douma followed the consensus of experts, an approach that gives his novel a satisfying unity. We readers recognize this Rome, these people, and their motivations.
Third, Douma believes that the people of the Republic were just as human as we are now. “The death of a child was as painful then as it is now. Roman society was very violent and often cruel, so some historians have suggested that the Romans were kind of numbed and less emotionally involved, but I don’t believe that. Roman child graves contain many intimate, loving objects. I felt free to describe Cornelia’s emotions as if she lived today.”
In Douma’s novel, Cornelia’s heartfelt account of her life is convincing and moving. Her voice seems very real. “I deliberately chose ‘monologue interieur’ so I could focus entirely on her thoughts and feelings and leave out mundane details.”
Douma knows his subject very well. “For eight years Cornelia has been inside my head, a person with whom I conducted an ongoing conversation almost daily… Cornelia’s letter and remarks made by historians such as Plutarch and others offered valuable insights into what kind of woman she must have been.”
Even so, historical facts about women in classical times can be difficult to research. “We know far less about them in general and especially about women of the Republic. If they are mentioned at all, then we can safely conclude that they must have been quite extraordinary.”
Not all of the information comes from dry historical research. “Sometimes I was lucky,” says Douma. “While I was visiting the Forum in Rome, they were conducting an excavation underneath the foundations of the Basilica Sempronia, laying bare the floor of the old house of Cornelia’s father, Scipio Africanus. They allowed me to climb over and touch the floor Cornelia must have walked upon as a child. It gave me the chills. I got the same feeling in Spain where they were excavating the foundations of the colony founded by Cornelia’s husband. Archeology is an underrated source from which we can learn a lot about the lives women led.”
Betrayal of Republic was first published in Dutch in 2012, and republished in 2020, translated by the author. Douma took the opportunity to expand on the original as he translated. “I made a lot of changes. As a writer, I am sure you are familiar with the principle that one should be able to ‘kill one’s little darlings’. Five years had passed after I finished my Dutch novel and I was able to view the text with a cool, clean head. I became a kind of serial killer, tossing out nearly a third of the Dutch novel.”
The 2020 English novel is reflective of its time as well as the author’s extensive understanding of the forces at work in the politics of the classical era. “Some of the editing was based on reviews and remarks I received about my Dutch version. The current rise of extreme populism, especially here in the US, made the novel seem even more timely. I actually started to work on the novel in 2002, partly inspired by the ‘dot-com’ crisis, which revealed in my view the upcoming moral and political crisis in our society.”
One fascinating aspect of the novel is the unveiling of the Roman domestic scene. The relationship between Cornelia and her household staff, both slaves and free, comes under pressure as her social influence wanes after the deaths of her sons. “In general, we know that there must have been a lot of tensions through recounts about slave risings and cases of domestic violence. I found the remarks made by Cicero and Pliny in their letters about domestic affairs very insightful.”
Betrayal of a Republic probes the status of free women at the time; enslaved women had no status above chattels. “Men are afraid of women and in those days, they had to be subservient. If women played a leading role, they were often pictured as amoral and vicious (as Trump would say, ‘nasty’).” In the novel, Douma outlines one of the laws resulting from the Rebellion of the Women, a statute designed to suppress the economic independence of all women and especially widows like Cornelia.
Readers of the novel will be impressed with the wisdom that comes from Cornelia’s long experience and her well-informed mind. To Douma, Cornelia Africana is “a fiercely independent, politically active woman and someone who had very clear ideas about how to educate children and the society in general. She was also a very proud Patrician with the bluest of blue blood running through her veins. Her letter to her son Gaius shows how uncompromising she must have been until the very last moment.”
Without a doubt, Cornelia was a remarkable woman with an absorbing life story and Douma’s Betrayal of a Republic acts as a fitting fictional autobiography.
About the contributor: Clare Rhoden is a writer and reviewer from Melbourne Australia. Her novel The Stars in the Night is about the experiences of Australians during the Great War.