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The Course of Honour

The Course of Honour

4.4 11
by Lindsey Davis

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In ancient Rome, the career path for ambitious citizens who aspire to become senators is called "The Course of Honor." And this honorable course has an unbreakable rule: A senator is forbidden to marry a slave. When the soldier Vespasian meets an interesting girl frying sausages in the imperial palace, he doesn't know that Caenis is immensely intelligent, or that


In ancient Rome, the career path for ambitious citizens who aspire to become senators is called "The Course of Honor." And this honorable course has an unbreakable rule: A senator is forbidden to marry a slave. When the soldier Vespasian meets an interesting girl frying sausages in the imperial palace, he doesn't know that Caenis is immensely intelligent, or that she holds a position in the household of Antonia, daughter of Mark Anthony and sister-in-law of the Emperor. But soon he's in love, struggling against a world that rejects his lover. And as emperor after emperor plays out deadly, seductive games of lust and conquest, no one envisions that a country-born army man might win the throne-no one except a slave girl who observes the bizarre fortunes of an imperial city and begins a daring course of honor of her own.

Author Biography: Lindsey Davis' international bestselling novels have recently earned her the Crime Writers' Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award (1999). She lives in London, England.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Over the years, Lindsey Davis has shown her mastery of the history of ancient Rome with her sharp, witty, and clever mysteries featuring the P.I. (Public Informant, that is) Marcus Didius Falco. The series won the Crime Writers' Association Historical Dagger Award in 1999 and prompted the London Times to award Davis the title they'd initially coined for the late Ellis Peters: "Queen of the Historical Whodunit." Now, in a historical novel that explores another facet of Rome's turbulent history, this gifted author turns her attention to a subtler sort of mystery -- how the empire that created the great despots Caligula and Nero also nurtured the good and just ruler Vespasian, who set the stage for Rome's Golden Age. According to Davis, what tipped the scales is the role played by the slave-scribe Caenis, who, against her better judgement, loved Vespasian from the time he was only a penniless younger son who had almost no hope of a political career. Against a backdrop of betrayal, intrigue, and murder by dagger, poison, assassination, and just about anything else imaginable, a complex, captivating world comes to life…and history is changed by the will of one woman, a slave who truly came to rule the Roman Empire in everything but name. Sue Stone
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The author of the popular Marcus Didius Falco mystery series reaches again into the fertile bone pile of ancient Roman history, this time to fashion an unforgettable character out of a little-known woman of the first century A.D. Caenis merits a single reference in the entry on Emperor Vespasian in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd edition: 'He then lived with an earlier mistress who had been a freed-woman of Tiberius' sister-in-law Antonia.' The story is set against the backdrop of particularly turbulent years of the Roman Empire, the time of the most notorious emperors (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero) and some of the most forgettable. In Davis's imagining, the sparks fly from the first accidental meeting when Caenis is a slave and a secretary in Antonia's household and Vespasian a young rustic from Reate visiting Rome. With meticulous detail and powerful drama, Davis chronicles Vespasian's remarkable rise to power and Caenis's equally compelling success in shaping her own future. As presented in this intricate braiding of character and action, fact and imagination, these two strong characters, bound by passionate and enduring love and parted often by what Vespasian bitterly refers to as the 'cursus honorum,' deserve to take their place in the pantheon of the world's great lovers.
"The course of honor" is the route a man must take to become a Roman senator; its one unbreakable rule is a senator cannot marry a slave, even a freed one. After a chance meeting in the palace, two lives are forever changed. Caenis, a slave, is confronted by two brothers—Sabinus, a senator, and his younger brother, Vespasian, a soldier and aspiring senator. Vespasian and Caenis are immediately drawn to one another even though both realize the futility of their desire. Caenis lives in the palace of Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony. She witnesses many important events and meets famous people. Over a 40-year period, despite long periods apart and Vespasian's marriage, their attraction to each other never lessens. He rises through the political ranks and, after the abdication of the emperor Vitellius, is voted the next emperor. He then asks Caenis to come to live with him in the palace. Davis has done an excellent job of bringing the ancient city of Rome to life—the sights, sounds and smells are vivid. The characters, most of them real historical figures (including both Caenis and Vespasian), also come alive on the page. Careful research and a good eye for detail are evident throughout. The book includes maps of Imperial Rome and the Roman Empire; I would also have appreciated a family tree or two. This well-written story is enjoyable reading that also gives a good history lesson. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1997, Mysterious Press, 327p. map.,
— Barbara Gorman
From the Publisher

“As presented in this intricate braiding of character and action, fact and imagination, these two strong characters ... deserve to take their place in the pantheon of the world's great lovers.” —Publishers Weekly

“Davis's vision of everyday life in the roman empire is superb. I haven't read historical fiction this good since I, Claudius by Robert Graves.” —Detroit Free Press

“Davis makes Rome live.” —The Washington Post

Product Details

Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.22(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.24(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Whatever was that?

The young man arrested his stride. He halted. At his shoulder his brother drew up equally amazed. An incongruous scent was beckoning them. They both sniffed the air.

Incredible! That was a pig's-meat sausage, vigorously frying.

Everywhere lay silent. The echoes of their own footfalls had whispered and died. No other sign of occupation disturbed the chill, tall, marble-veneered corridors of the staterooms on the Palatine Hill from which the Roman Empire was administered. Under the long-absent Emperor Tiberius these had never offered much of a homely welcome to strangers. Today was worse than ever. Arches that were meant to be guarded stood framed only by forbidding drapes whose heavy pleats had not been disturbed since they were first hung. No one else was here. Only that rich odor of hot meat and spices continued its ravishing assault.

The younger man set off, walking faster. He wheeled around corners and brushed along passages as if he had just discovered the proper route to take until, after a fractional hesitation, he whipped open a small door. Before his brother caught up with him, he ducked his head and strode through.

A furious female slave exploded: "Skip over the Styx; you're not allowed in here!"

Her hair hung in a lank, sorry string. Her face was pasty, a sad contrast to the tinctured ladies at court. Yet despite her grubbiness, she wore her dull frieze dress with courageous style, and although he knew better he threw back at her drily, "Thanks! What an interesting girl!"

Afterward Caenis could never quite remember which festival it had been. The time of year wascertain. Autumn. Autumn, six years before Tiberius died. The year of the fall of Aelius Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus, who allegedly kept a pack of pet hounds he fed with human blood. Sejanus, who had ruled Rome with a grip of iron for nearly two decades and who wanted to be Emperor.

It could have been the great ten-day series of Games in honor of Augustus. The Augustales, which had been established as a memorial to Rome's first Emperor and were now conducted in honor of the whole Imperial House, would have been an occasion that explained why Antonia had given most of her slaves and freedmen a holiday, including her Chief Secretary, Diadumenus. Even more likely would have been the actual birthday of Augustus, by then a long-established celebration, a week before October began. Thinking of Augustus, the founder of the Empire, could well have stirred Antonia to what she was about to do.

Foolish, at any rate, for anyone to attempt business at the Palace on such a day. On any state holiday the priests of the imperial cult led the city in the duties of religion while senators, citizens, freedmen, and even slaves, from the most privileged librarians to the glistening bathhouse stokers, seized their chance and piled into the temples too. Here on the Palatine the slop-carriers and step-sweepers, the polishers of silver cups and jewel-encrusted bowls, the accountants and secretaries, the chamberlains who vetted visitors, the majordomos who announced their names, the lifters of door curtains and carriers of cushions, had all disappeared hours ago. Sejanus would be lording it at the ceremonies; the Praetorians, who ought to be guarding the Emperor, would be guarding him. Caesar's palace complex, which even during Caesar's long absence from Rome thrummed with occupation every day and rustled with innumerable murmurs of life into the dead of night, for once lay hushed.

So the door flew open. Someone strode in. Caenis looked up. She scowled; the man frowned.

"Here's somebody—Sabinus!" he called back over his great shoulder as he loomed in the low doorway. The fat spattered dangerously beneath the girl's spoon.

"Juno and Minerva—" Caenis coughed, as she was forced back from her pan while the flame lapped sideways across the charcoal brazier in a palely fluttering sheet. "We'll all go up in smoke; will you shut that door!"

A second man, presumably Sabinus, came in. This one wore a senator's broad purple stripe on his toga's edge. "What have you found for us?"

The fat went wild again. "Oh for the gods' sake!" Caenis swore at them, forgetting their rank as she was nearly set alight.

"A bad-tempered slavey with a pan of sausages."

He had the sense at last to close the door.

They were lost. Caenis guessed it at once. Even the open spaces and temples among the homes of imperial family members above the Circus Maximus were deserted. The public offices on the Forum side of the Palatine were closed. Stupid to come today. With no guards to cross spears in their faces, these two had blundered down a wrong passageway and ended up bemused. Only people who wanted to indulge in sad habits alone were lurking in corners with their furtive pursuits. Only eccentrics and deviants, misers and malcontents; and Caenis.

She was one of the group of girls who worked with Diadumenus, copying correspondence for the lady Antonia. Today he had ordered her to remain quietly out of trouble; later she must go to the House of Livia, where their mistress lived, and ask whether any work was required. Caenis was junior but capable; besides, Diadumenus had really not anticipated that anything significant would occur. In most respects Caenis was, like everyone else, on vacation.

Hence the sausage. She had been enjoying both her solitude—rare for a slave— and the food too. She had scraped together the price by writing letters for other people and picking up lost coins from corridor floors. She had crept in here, sliced the meat evenly, and was cooking it in a pan intended for emulsifying face creams before she ate her treat deliberately, on her own. She craved her sausage with good reason: Her starved frame needed the meat and fat; her deprived senses hankered after nuts, spices, and the luxury of food fiercely hot from a pan. She hated being interrupted.

"Excuse me, sirs; you are not allowed in here."

Warily she tried to camouflage her annoyance. In Rome it was wise to be diplomatic. That applied to everyone. Men who thought they possessed the Emperor's confidence today might be exiled or murdered tomorrow. Men who wanted to survive had to inveigle themselves into the clique surrounding Sejanus. Making friends had been unsafe for years, for the wrong association clung like onion juice under a chef's fingernails. Yet so many promising careers were ending in disaster that today's nobodies might just survive to ride in tomorrow's triumph beneath the laurels and ribbons of the golden Etruscan crown.

For a slavegirl it was always best to appear polite: "Lords, if you are wanting Veronica—"

"Oh, do cheer up!" chaffed the first man abruptly. "We might prefer you."

Caenis gave her pan a rapid shimmy, agitating the spatula. She chortled derisively. "Rich, I hope?" The two men glanced at one another; then, with a similar slow regretful grin, both shook their heads. "No use to me then!"

She saw their veiled embarrassment: traditionalists with good family morals—in public, anyway. Veronica would shake them. Veronica was the one to astonish a stiff-necked senator. She believed that a slavegirl who was vivacious and pretty could do as well for herself as she pleased.

Caenis was too single-minded and intense; she would have to make a life for herself some other way.

"We seem to be lost," explained the cautious man, Sabinus.

"Your footman let you down?" Caenis queried, nodding at his companion.

"My brother," stated the senator; very straight, this senator.

"What's his name?"


"Why no broad stripes too?" she challenged the brother directly. "Not old enough?" Entry to the Senate was at twenty-five; he was probably not long past twenty.

"You sound like my mother: not clever!" he quipped.

Citizens never normally joked with slavegirls about their noble mothers; Caenis stared at him. He had a broad chest, heavy shoulders, a strong neck. A pleasant face, full of character. His chin jutted up; his nose beaked down; his mouth compressed fiercely, though he seemed good-humored. He had steady eyes. She looked away. As a slave, she preferred not to meet such a gaze.

"Not ready for it," he added, glaring at his brother as if it were a matter of family argument.

Against her better judgment she replied, "Or is the Senate not ready for you?" She had already noticed his obstinate roughness, a deliberate refusal to hide his country background and accent; she admired it, though plenty in Rome would call it coarse.

He sensed her interest. If he wanted it (and she reckoned he did), women probably liked him. Caenis resisted the urge.

"You have lost yourselves in Livia's pantry, sir," she informed the other man, Sabinus.

There was a sudden stillness, which she secretly enjoyed. Though the cubbyhole looked like a perfumery, the two men would be wondering whether this was where the famous Empress had mixed up the poisons with which, allegedly, she removed those who stood in her way. Livia was dead now, but the rumors had acquired their own momentum and even grew worse.

The two men were nervously surveying the cosmetic jars. Some were empty, their contents evaporated years before; some had leaked so they sat embedded in a tarry pool. Others remained good: glass flasks of almond oil, soapstone boxes of fine wax and fat, amethystine flagons of pomade, stoppered phials of antimony and extract of seaweed, alabaster pots of red ocher, ash, and chalk. No place for a cook; rather an apothecary. Veronica would give three fingers to discover this little cave of treasures.

There were other containers, which Caenis had considered but carefully left untouched upon the shelves. Some ingredients could have no possible benign use and had convinced her it was true that Livia must have been in league with the famous poisoner Lucusta. She would keep that to herself.

"And what are you doing here?" asked Sabinus, in fascination.

"Cataloguing the cosmetics, sir," Caenis answered demurely, implying otherwise.

"For whom?" growled Vespasianus, with a glint that said he would like to know who had replaced Livia as dangerous.


He raised an eyebrow. Perhaps he was ambitious after all.

Her elderly mistress was the most admired woman in Rome. The first lesson Diadumenus had drummed into Caenis was that she must avoid speaking to men who might be trying to maneuver themselves into a connection with Antonia. Daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia; Augustus' niece and sister-in-law of Tiberius; mother of the renowned Germanicus (mother too of the peculiar Claudius and the scandalous Livilla); grandmother of Caligula and Gemellus, who were to share the Empire one day. . . . If a woman must be defined by her male relations, the lady Antonia had gathered some plums, even though Caenis privately found them a specked and mildewed crop. Afflicted with these famous men, Antonia was wise, courageous, and not quite worn out by the indignities she had seen. Even the Emperor took her seriously. Even her slavegirls might wield influence.

"I rarely see my mistress," Caenis stated quietly, lest there be any misunderstanding. "I live in the imperial complex here. Her house is too small."

This was true, yet being appointed to work as a copyist for Antonia had been a magical opportunity.

Though born a slave, Caenis was no skivvy. She had been singled out as bright, then given an education in office skills: reading, writing, ciphers and shorthand, discretion, deportment, graceful conversation in a pleasant voice. She had first-class Latin, and better than average Greek. She understood arithmetic and cheerfully grappled with accounts. She could even think, though she kept that to herself, since she did not choose to embarrass other people by showing she was superior. Only her morose adolescence had prevented her being placed in one of the imperial bureaus before this. They did not allow you into a bureau until they were sure you could deal firmly with senators.

She moved the pan off the brazier and stood up straight to deal with these men now. She had been thoroughly trained. Caenis could melt into backgrounds, yet radiate efficiency. She always sat well, to help her handwriting. She stood without slouching; she walked with confidence; she spoke up clearly: she knew how to show uninvited senators to the door with relentless charm.

Whether this applied to pantry doors remained to be seen.

"Antonia's cook?" Sabinus asked curiously as she moved the pan. Men had no idea.

"Antonia's secretary," she boasted.

"Why the sausage, Antonia's secretary?" asked the brother, still regarding her with that long frowning stare. "Don't they feed you here?"

The way they were hanging around near her food seemed endearingly hopeful. Caenis grinned, though looking down at her pannikin. "Oh, the daily slave ration: nothing good, and never enough."

Sabinus winced. "Sounds like a middle-class lunch!"

She liked this senator more than she expected. He seemed honest and well intentioned. She let herself exclaim, "Well, everything's relative, lord! A rich knight is more cheerful than a poor senator. To be poor but middle class is still better than being a commoner who hardly has the right to pick his nose in the public street. A slave at the Imperial Palace leads a softer life than the free boatman who lives in a flooded shack on the Tiber's bank . . ." Since they did not stop her, she went on rashly: "The power of the Senate has become a delusion; Rome is ruled by the commander of the Praetorian Guard . . ."

She should never have said that aloud.

To distract them, she rushed on: "As for me, I was born in a palace; I have warmth and music, easy work, and opportunity to progress. Perhaps more freedom than a high-born Roman girl with a garnet in each ear who lives penned in her father's house with nothing to do but be married off to some wealthy halfwit who spends all his time trying to escape her for intelligent conversation and unforced sexual favors—even perhaps if he's not an absolute halfwit, some genuine affection—with the likes of Veronica and me!"

She stopped, breathless. A political statement had escaped her; worse, she had betrayed something of herself. She shifted from foot to foot with unease.

The younger man's serious gaze was disturbing her. That was why she muttered, "Oh do stop leering at my sausage! Want a piece?"

There was a shocked pause.

It was unthinkable.

"No; thank you!" said Sabinus hastily, trying to override his brother—no easy task.

Caenis was gruff but generous. Giving up the struggle for privacy, she offered the young knight a slice on the point of her knife; he nipped it off between his fingers at once.

"Mmm! This is good!" Laughing now, he watched her while he munched. His grim face lost all its trouble suddenly. She had assumed anyone in a decent white toga dined daily on peacocks aswim in double sauces, yet he ate with the appetite of any starving scullion she knew. Perhaps all their ready money went on laundry bills for togas. "Give that fool a bit; he wants it, really."

Caenis eyed the senator. Once again she offered her knife; Sabinus gingerly lifted the food. His brother clapped his shoulder heavily, so she caught the gleam of his gold equestrian ring. Then he admitted to Caenis, "His footman, as you say! I clear a path in the street, chase off bailiffs and unattractive women, guard his clothes like a dog at the baths—and I see he gets enough to eat."

She could not tell how much of this was a joke.

By now she found in his face the bright signal that he liked her. She knew the look; she had seen it in men who danced attendance on Veronica. Caenis shrank from it. She found life a burden already. The last thing she needed was fending off some overfriendly hopeful with a broad country accent and no money. "Let me give you directions, lords."

"We'll get the girl into trouble," Sabinus warned.

For the first time his brother smiled at her. It was the tight, rueful smile of a man who understood constraints. She was too wise to smile back. Still chewing, he refused to move. Studying the floor, Caenis ate her own sausage from the knife point, slowly. It was decent pork forcemeat, flavored with myrtle berries, peppercorns, and pine nuts; she had tossed it on the heat in oil strewn with the good end of a leek.

Only two slices remained in the pan. The younger brother, Vespasian, reached for one, then stopped, and reproached her kindly, "You're letting us steal your dinner, lass."

"Oh go on!" she urged him, suddenly shy and cross. It had been giving her pleasure to offer something other than a slavegirl's usual trade.

He looked serious. "I shall repay the debt."


So they had eaten together, she and that big young man with the cheery chin. They ate, while the brother waited; then both licked their fingers and both rapturously sighed. They all laughed.

"Let me show you the way, lords," Caenis murmured, newly subdued as the sunlight of a different world filtered into the bleakness of her own. She led them into the corridor; they walked either side of her while she basked in their presence as she took them toward the public rooms.

"Thanks," they both said, in the offhand way of their rank.

Without answer she spun swiftly on the ball of her loosely slippered foot. She walked away as she had been taught: head up, spine straight, movement unhurried and disciplined. The grime and desolation imposed by her birth became irrelevant; she ignored her gray condition and was herself. She sensed that they had halted, expecting her to look back from the corner; she was afraid to turn, in case she saw them laugh at her.

Neither did. The senator, Flavius Sabinus, accepted their odd adventure quietly enough. As for his brother, he smiled faintly, but he did not mock.

He knew he should not attempt to see her again. Caenis had missed the significance, but he realized at once. It was like him; a swift assessment of the situation followed by his private decision long before any public act. He was due to leave Rome again, due to leave Italy, in fact. But all through his long journey back to Thrace, and afterward, Flavius Vespasianus still thought, What an interesting girl!

Meet the Author

Lindsey Davis was born and raised in Birmingham, England. After taking an English degree at Oxford and working for the civil service for thirteen years, she "ran away to be a writer." Her internationally bestselling novels featuring ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco include Venus in Copper, The Iron Hand of Mars, Nemesis and Alexandria. She is also the author of Rebels and Traitors, set during the English Civil War. Davis is the recipient of the Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, the highest accolade for crime writers, as well as the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award and the Authors' Club Best First Novel award.

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The Course of Honour 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Davis wrote this novel before she wrote the Falco series, though it wasn't published until after several Falco mysteries were out. It's a terrific look at the turbulent years of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero through the eyes of a female slave who was closely connected with the Claudians. Her relationship with Vespasian threads throughout the book, providing an interesting look at how a poor nobody could rise through the ranks to become emperor. This book is sometimes billed as 'historical romance,' but it's more accurately described as historical fiction--a romance weaves through it, but it's mostly a woman's eye view of the political history of Rome after Augustus.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story was based on an interesting fact mentioned by Tacitus -- that Vespasian had a mistress who was a slave-- and Davis, better known for her Falco series, did a terrific job of bringing the feisty Caenis to life. Many of the minor comic events in Vespasian's life also were reported by Tacitus (a great read in itself). We so rarely get to see the role that women played in ancient times!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Aside from the confusing dialong in the first scene (it is difficult to see who is speaking and what gender each is) I found the book riveting. A delightful, well paced storyline and appealing characters. The banter between the lead characters was fun. I had recently read Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, but enjoyed additional insights on Roman lifestyles in this work. My only wish would be that the heroine's character had shown more growth during the story. She seemed to be portrayed as the same emotional maturity from start to finish.
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JUDITHF More than 1 year ago
The detail, sentiment and "emotional color" Ms Davis has imbued her characters with evoke similar responses in the reader as in the characters being written about. It is a "magic carpet ride" through a sliver of history with players you are unlikely to forget. I recommend this book to casual as well as historically minded readers.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Slow, dull, no impact at all, a waste of time. I was expecting more creativity on the Author's part specially after reading her book 'Silver pigs'. The Romance side of the story was not even lukewarm, as for the description of ancient roman lifestyles, there are accurate and better books to learn from or just follow the (2005) HBO 'ROME' series.