ELISABETH STORRS Call to Juno: Tales of Ancient Rome Book 3. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
This is historical fiction at its best in the final volume of the Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy.
Call to Juno is the final volume of the story of Aemilia Caeciliana, a Roman who was married as a teenager to Vel Mastarna, a powerful Etruscan warrior, in 406 BC. This marriage was the result of an attempt to create a peace between Rome and Veii, the most powerful city of the Etruscans. Aemilia’s shock and dismay when she encountered the more relaxed mores of Etruscan culture, where women were afforded freedoms forcefully circumscribed in the more patriarchal and regimented world of Rome, were described in the first book of the series, The Wedding Shroud. In that book, she rejects her chance to return to Rome and chooses to stay with Vel Mastarna. Her growth from sulky teenager to loving wife is the subject of the second book, The Golden Dice. In Call to Juno, set in 397 BC, Caecilia, as she is now usually called, is the Queen of Veii and her adopted home is at war with Rome, under siege and vulnerable.
Caecilia’s rise to power has not been assured. She has been despised by her family and the citizens in Rome, and mistrusted and hated by the people in Veii. Her path has been one of painful lessons; active opposition and malevolence from her husband’s brother Artile, the high priest – haruspex – of Veii, and hatred from her family and Drusus, the Roman who had wished to marry her before she was promised to Vel Mastarna. Her cousin Marcus, who loves Drusus, although unable to acknowledge his love, has also rejected her. The impact of all this is intensified because the warring cities are only 12 miles apart across the Tiber. But in spite of all she has endured, she knows that she is well loved by her husband.
This trilogy rests firmly on the quality and extent of the research. That is not to say that the research overshadows the vitality of the story, but it is extensive and gives the novel an almost documentary validity. In fact, for those who are gripped as Elisabeth Storrs has been by the history of the Etruscan antecedents of Rome and Rome’s early development, there is an extensive author’s note that demonstrates the depth of her exploration of the historical sources and her very obvious pleasure in that exploration. So although we learn about the characters, the subtext of this rich historical novel is the rise of Rome.
Storrs’s skilfully told story depends very much on the way she portrays the emotional intensity of the characters, who are vibrantly and dramatically drawn. And it is their conversations and interactions that both advance the story and provide a sense of realism. In particular, two women, Semni, a servant in the royal household who has a secret of betrayal, and Pinna, a Roman girl whose family’s destitution has led her to become a night moth, a whore who works in the Roman tombs, are vital. These woman provide a potent thread which holds the narrative to an intense pace and contributes not only to the flow of events but to the outcome:
The autumn sun was warm on [Pinna’s] back and hair. Hands dripping, she sat back on her heels and examined them, turning them palms up and then down. She remembered when they were engrained with grave dirt and painful from chilblains when she was a tomb whore. She remembered when they were soft and grimy from the sooty air of a brothel. Here she could put her past behind her. The secret she kept from her lover. One for which he would never forgive her.
So two strands are apparent in this story. One concerns the lives of the women, both domestic and public, and the other shows the strategic and military rise of Rome and the beginning of the decline of the Etruscan world. It is no spoiler to mention the fall of Veii, as history tells us about that. In his book Rome, Robert Hughes discusses how the Romans adopted many Etruscan legacies – religion in particular – and Storrs subtly shows this through the treachery of the Etruscan high priest Artile and his role in Veii’s downfall.
The tactics of the Romans are revealed through the ears and eyes of Pinna, who by blackmail and manipulation has become mistress of their leader, Camillus, and is able to hear the Romans’ plans:
Pinna loitered in the hallway outside, curiosity overcoming caution.
Camillus rose and stood beside the haruspex. ‘Tell my guests what you have discovered, Artile. How our consular generals have failed in religious matters …’
Artile adjusted his crescent fibula on his cloak. ‘The rising of Lake Albanus was not just because the sacred rites of Mater Matuta were neglected. The current consular generals omitted including the Votive Games of Latium in the religious calendar this year. It is no wonder that your allies are prepared to break the Latin Pact. You have disrespected their gods more than once. Then you refused to drain the floodwaters that have destroyed their farmlands.’
Storrs here shows the role of religion in Roman life and hints that control of water and drainage contributed to the way Rome was able to subsume the surrounding tribes. Although this story explores the beginning of the Etruscans’ demise, we know that they underpinned the rise of Rome and there is an element of redemption and hope for the future in this fine example of historical fiction at its best.
Elisabeth Storrs Call to Juno: Tales of Ancient Rome Book 3 Lake Union Publishing 2016 PB 521pp $29.95 (also available as an ebook)
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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