In ancient Rome, ambitious citizens who aspired to political power, to become one of the ruling elite—a senator, had to follow what was known as "The Course of Honor." This course had only one unbreakable rule: a senator is forbidden to marry a slave, even a freed slave. When the soldier Vespasian meets an interesting girl in the imperial palace, he doesn't know she is a slave in the household of the imperial family. But he is inexorably drawn in by her intelligence and charisma. Yet as Vespasian slowly rises from near-obscurity and as emperor after emperor plays out their own deadly, seductive games of lust and conquest, the future is something no one could imagine. No one could believe that a country-born army man might win the throne—no one, that is, except a slave girl who, with the future Emperor, begins a daring course of honor of her own.
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.