Hadrian is about to enter Rome for the first time as Emperor. His Empress Sabina, accompanied by Vercingterix the Red (Vix), a Praetorian Guard tribune, stands ready to welcome him along with the the people of Rome, the loudness of their cheers in direct proportion to the promises of largesse they have been given by a fearful Senate. The Senate is right to be fearful. Executions are likely, not least for the five poor souls imprisoned for months in a dungeon within Caesar’s palace who also have been waiting for Hadrian’s arrival, but for the worst of reasons. One of the condemned men is Hadrian’s brother-in-law and close friend of both Sabina and Vix. The hours to come will be extraordinarily tense and dangerous.
Lady of the Eternal City brings together the stories of the individuals whose lives revolve around the powerful force that is Hadrian. The novel flows between them, encompassing the first person account of Vix, a man whose life appears to be shaped by the women he has loved and lost, and the third person narratives of Sabina, her spirited niece Annia and Antinous, Vix’s adopted son, whose beauty captivates the heart of Hadrian and shapes his life and, most remarkably of all, his character.
At the heart of the novel, though, stands Hadrian. Kate Quinn is to be congratulated on her wondrous portrait of a man who is more than a man in so many ways. Hadrian is larger than life, he has become Emperor in more ways than one, he is powerful both physically and imperially, and he is a man who lives behind masks, lashing out unexpectedly, his moods as fickle as the winds, his cruelty scarcely controlled. But Lady of the Eternal City covers the length of Hadrian’s reign and this means that time is spent on him. We observe his many sides and, even more intriguingly, Hadrian’s own efforts to understand himself. This is a man of infinite contradictions – a man who can put out a young slave’s eye but who can also leap between a lion and his beloved, to strike one down and save the other, at enormous risk to himself. A man who calmly pronounces the most terrible threats but also dreams of glorifying his empire, encasing it behind secure boundaries, erecting its finest buildings and consolidating its armies. Hadrian shines in this novel as much as he terrifies – he is remarkable.
But Hadrian is also the product of the people around him, whether he likes it or not. Lady of the Eternal City shows us the efforts of Sabina and Vix to temper his cruelty. We have glimpses of the friendship that once existed between Hadrian and his wife but now we marvel at her courage in continuing to encourage him to show goodness. Vix despises Hadrian and when Hadrian falls in love with his son Antinous his rage knows no bounds, but Vix at this stage is unaware of the true potential of Antinous. This young man is Hadrian’s star, and that is exactly what he is. Antinous lights up the pages of this book just as he lightens Hadrian’s soul. His story is tragic, beautiful and golden.
Hadrian was a great traveller and this novel takes us with him. We journey across the empire, witnessing its strange cults, religions and customs, hearing rumours of revolts, watching how this, too, changes Hadrian, Vix and Sabina. In a parallel story we have Annia and her young friendships and enmities. These are destined to shape the future of the empire. This is a book with a grand vision.
Reading Lady of the Eternal City was, for me, like eating at a rich feast. It is dark, velvety, fragrant and deliciously decadent. It truly does provide food for all the senses. It is heady with love, hatred, sex and ambition. Its colours are imperial purples, sea blues, stone whites, desert yellows and the red of spilt blood. It is an intoxicating read and, as such, it might be best to read it in small greedy bites. I was overpowered at times, finding it a little rich for my tastes, its passions too strong, but I was addicted to it and happy to read deeply into it, while mixing it with other reads.
Lady of the Eternal City is such a powerful, potent read which will stay in my mind for a long time, largely because of its portrait of Hadrian, revealing a complex and disturbed man, driven by both dreams and demons. Never again will I think of this emperor in the same way.
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