Two Roman roommates, a Praetorian Guard and an imperial hairdresser, play a part in their emperor’s destiny.
Gaius Vinius, an officer in the vigiles (Roman police and firemen), first meets Flavia Lucilla in his office, where the teenage hairdresser apprentice has come to complain about a theft of jewelry from her mother’s apartment. Vinius soon disabuses Lucilla that the theft happened (more likely her mother, a freedwoman of the imperial Flavian dynasty, was simply trying to scam better jewelry from her lover). Such petty concerns are soon forgotten as a fire rages through Rome, destroying much of the city. After Vinius rescues a priest from the flames, he is rewarded with a coveted (but not by him) appointment to the Praetorian Guard by soon-to-be-emperor Domitian. Vinius hopes that his duties will not extend to soldiering: He is a veteran of wars in Britain, where he lost an eye. After becoming emperor, Domitian embarks on a massive campaign to rebuild Rome. (His many elaborate projects include a colossal statue of himself and a revamped Colosseum.) Lucilla establishes herself as beautician to the empress and garners many other noble clients. When she rents a new apartment, she is discomfited to find that Vinius has leased half the space as a pied-à-terre when he’s not on duty or with his wife. After a passionate one-night stand at Domitian’s summer palace, Lucilla withdraws, but Vinius divorces his wife. Vinius is sent on a campaign to Dacia, where he is held captive by the enemy for five years. Thinking him dead, Lucilla is surprised to learn that his will left his side of the apartment and all of its contents (including a substantial cache of gold) to her. Vinius returns, but by this time, Lucilla has married her literature teacher. Complications ensue, including the increasing oppressiveness of Domitian’s regime, before true love and fate intervene.
Another detailed and witty recounting of ancient Roman life, public and private, from the sure-handed Davis (Alexandria, 2009, etc.).