I must admit, I'm a sucker for almost anything set in ancient Rome. The tumult, the marble, the breastplates, the decadence - it all fascinates me. And when I started reading Kate Quinn's DAUGHTERS OF ROME, I expected to be drawn right in; after all, it doesn't take much for me. But I did not expect to be as enthralled as I am; not only does Ms Quinn's second novel (her first is the bestselling MISTRESS OF ROME) brim with witty dialogue and marvelous descriptions, but her four women protagonists - cousins, all, and each immersed in the deadly struggles of the epoch known as the Year of the Four Emperors - are vivid, true to their time, yet very much identifiable to us. It's sexy, transporting, addictive fiction and I'm thrilled that Ms Quinn has accepted my invitation to visit with this guest post.
Please join me in welcoming Kate Quinn!
The Woman Behind The Throne
by Kate Quinn
I was already thrilled when C.W. Gortner invited me to be a guest on his blog, but I was even more thrilled when he suggested “women in power” as a topic. Powerful women in historical settings have long been a fascination of mine – and I suspect for Christopher too, considering his splendid book on Catherine de'Medici (which I adored, by the way).
The idea of the woman behind the throne has existed as long as there have been men to sit on thrones in the first place. The beautiful woman whispering into the ear of a powerful man – whether the image makes you envious or just profoundly uneasy, it's irresistible. Of course, some women managed to sit on thrones in their own right, usually through some combination of birth, brains, and luck. But a great many more women had to wield power covertly: wives or mistresses who acted as advisors and sometimes puppet-masters for kings. These are the women I find especially interesting. It's one thing to issue directives from a throne – but a woman who is coming up with the directives and pulling the strings of the man who gets to do the issuing? What a tiring job. They deserve credit, if nothing else, for pulling double duty.
Ancient Rome never had an independent empress, but it was supplied with many influential emperors' wives. Augustus's wife Livia is probably the most famous powerful empress – everyone remembers her from the “I, Claudius” miniseries; wheeling, dealing, blithely murdering family members right and left to see her husband promoted and her son chosen to succeed him. Who knows if the historical Livia was really that ruthless, but certainly Augustus relied heavily on her advice and respected her opinions. No matter what kind of power she wielded behind the scenes, Livia was smart enough to present herself publicly as a simple Roman matron; Augustus was constantly bragging that his wife wasn't too proud to weave his tunics with her own hands, Empress or no. (I always picture Livia getting up from her desk full of official dispatches when she heard guests coming, weaving exactly two bands of cloth until they went away again, and then going right back to work while the servants finish the weaving.)
Livia was the first empress to work actively for the throne, but certainly not the last – a quartet of later Empresses known as “the four Julias” were so influential that no one bothered with the emperors themselves but simply went straight to the Mrs.
Other empresses were less influential. Sometimes this was by choice, but sometimes not – because it's no use trying to pull the strings of a powerful man unless he lets you pull them. Emperors like Augustus were happy to listen to their wives. Others like Nero were content to take orders from them. But others declined to take either orders or advice from their wives, and a woman might find herself trapped in a paradox: the most powerful and elevated woman in the empire, with no control over anything but the daily shopping list.
My novel Daughters of Rome is about the Year of Four Emperors, and thus presents a variety of men who wear the crown – along with my heroine Marcella, who has a talent for dropping the right word in the Imperial ear to produce the desired result. Emperor Galba was cranky but easy to lead around; just tell him it would save money and he was all yours. Charming Emperor Otho who succeeded him was much smarter, but he liked amusing women – present your advice well wrapped in witticisms over a good wine, and he'd be sold. Third Emperor Vitellius didn't care about much beyond his dinner and the chariot races; as long as you caught him in a good mood after his beloved Blues team won, he'd sign anything. But what happens when another emperor comes along whom Marcella can't manipulate? What's a smart girl to do then – keep trying, or give up and resign herself to weaving her husband's tunics?
That's why I love empresses. These crowned women standing behind their Imperial husbands and smiling, much like modern political wives – who's to tell what category they fell into? Did they whisper diplomacy over the pillow or keep their mouths shut when asked for political advice? Did they receive petitioners and sign Imperial documents on behalf of their husbands, or fume and rant as they were firmly shut out of the halls of power? You never know, looking at them. They all look so serene, just like their marble busts which survived them by a few millennia and reside in museums today. I like standing in front of those busts, looking at these women behind the throne and wondering, “What really went on in your head?”
None of them have given me an answer yet. But it doesn't stop me asking.
Thank you, Kate, and we wish all the best of success! To learn more about Kate and her work, please visit her website.