Claudia: Daughter of Rome

Written by Antoinette May
Review by Bill Dodds

Claudia: Daughter of Rome is set in the early years of the Roman Empire, when the empire is consolidating its political and military hold over its recent conquests. It is the time of the transition from Augustus’s sham republic to a hereditary empire. Set in the Eastern Mediterranean, it explores the world from the perspective of a wife of an equestrian governor, Pontius Pilate.

Claudia is the educated daughter of a Roman general, a close ally of Germanicus. She uses magic to ensure her marriage to an up-and-coming equestrian, Pontius Pilate. The first narrative theme of the book is the disintegration of Claudia’s family in the power struggles that surround the succession to Tiberius. May does not depart from the story as told by Robert Graves, but inserts a fictional account of the rise and fall of Pontius Pilate.

The second narrative theme is the experimentation with eastern religions by the Roman aristocracy. Claudia becomes an initiate in the cult of Isis; at first she treats the religion as a Roman would and buys favours from the goddess; the emptiness of this relationship leads her into a more personal mystery.

Love, sex and betrayal in ancient Rome are the subtitles. The book does not live up to such brash branding. It is a thoughtful attempt to explore the dilemmas faced by a Roman woman who has married into the equestrian class, which was the backbone of the Roman administrative machine. The themes of sexuality in marriage and the search for mystical enlightenment are beautifully exposed. Unfortunately, one is distracted from these more interesting aspects by the fashionable retelling of the Mary Magdala myth, Pontius Pilate and the vilification of the Empress Livia.