Mistress of Rome
Fans of fiction set in ancient Rome are spoilt for choice when it comes to thud-and-blunder action for the boys. Now here’s something for the girls, a racy tale set in the 1st century AD, packed with fabulous frocks, licentious lust and gladiatorial gore.
Shallow, self-indulgent Lepida and her slave Thea (captured at Masada, toughened by adversity and inclined to self-harm) have both fallen for gladiator Arius, rising star of the Colosseum. But Arius loves only one of them. When Lepida finds out it isn’t her, she sells Thea to a man who removes her to faraway Brundisium. Inevitably, they all meet again but now the stakes, involving cruel, depraved emperor Domitian, are much higher.
The story is told with gusto, but the flow is marred by the author’s odd decision to write Lepida and Thea in first-person scenes dropped into a third-person narrative with name headings to show where they start but nothing to show where they end. For an even more indigestible mix, add Domitian’s unfortunate niece Julia, a would-be Vestal Virgin whose story pops up here and there in both ‘I’ and italics. Why inflict this complicated, confusing structure on such a straightforward tale? It didn’t make the novel seem ‘literary’, nor did it deepen characterisation; indeed, the only characters for whom I felt any sympathy were Senator Norbanus, a decent old cove who makes the mistake of marrying Lepida, and his hapless son from a previous marriage who falls under Lepida’s spell – with disastrous consequences.