Mistress of Rome

Written by Kate Quinn
Review by Ann Pedtke Sarah Cuthbertson

Thea is a Jewish slave girl, brought to Rome to be maidservant to the spoiled beauty Lepida Pollia. Arius the Barbarian is a reluctant gladiator, forced into a life of violence after he is kidnapped from Britannia. When they meet, each is wary of love – but gradually they find in one another a haven from the turmoil and powerlessness of their lives. However, Arius must continue to fight for his life in the arena, and Thea’s mistress Lepida quickly grows jealous of the handsome gladiator’s attentions. When Lepida separates them, Thea and Arius are pitched into different worlds. But when Thea catches the eye of the cruel and cunning Emperor Domitian and unwillingly becomes the royal mistress, old rivalries resurface. Lepida, who has acquired a husband of wealth and rank, nevertheless seeks higher conquests. And Arius the Barbarian issues a personal challenge to Domitian that can only end in death: his own, or the emperor’s.

In this epic debut, Kate Quinn gives us a gripping vision of 1st-century Rome under the Flavians – from the palace to the gladiator barracks, from the senate house to the brothel. What seems at first to have all the earmarks of a straightforward romance expands to encompass greater themes, offering the intrigue of a political thriller and the depth of great literary fiction. Quinn weaves the perspectives of half a dozen characters into a seamless tapestry, following every thread and neatly knotting every loose end. While she takes liberties with the gladiatorial games – allowing Arius to battle women, for instance, or to fight one against six – she acknowledges these inconsistencies in a well-reasoned historical note. Overall, Mistress of Rome is impeccably researched and beautifully executed. Such an accomplished debut can only augur many more impressive historical novels to come!