In the late first century A.D., Thea is a Jewish slave girl living in Rome after the rest of her family committed suicide during the siege of Masada. Thea’s owner, the spiteful Lepida Pollia, misses no opportunity to berate and abuse her; so when Rome’s most popular gladiator, Arius the Barbarian, falls in love with Thea and spurns Lepida’s advances, Lepida immediately takes a brutal revenge. This novel follows the stories of Thea, Arius, Lepida, and several other characters as they all try to better their fortunes, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, Thea uses her talents as a singer and musician to perform before the most fashionable crowds in Rome, where she catches the eye of Emperor Domitian. As the emperor’s mistress, she becomes the most powerful woman in Rome; but the more she learns about the enigmatic emperor’s true nature, the more desperate she becomes to escape her fate.
This is one of those books that hooked me almost immediately, and I found it compulsively readable. Ever since I took Latin in high school, I’ve been interested in the setting of ancient Rome, and this book explores so many aspects of life at that time, from social mores to military strategy to fashion. It’s a truly fascinating time period, and Quinn takes full advantage of the drama it provides. Indeed, the book is almost too melodramatic at times; it’s very much a soap opera, complete with fake deaths, illegitimate children, and even an orgy. The love story between Thea and Arius is often sweet but occasionally becomes a bit too over-the-top. I feel like I should also mention a particular review on Amazon, which pointed out several flaws in plot logic and historical accuracy. But personally, I really enjoyed the novel overall, and I’ll definitely seek out the sequels at some point. If you like your historical fiction gory, sexy, and extremely dramatic, I highly recommend this book!