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Trajan and Plotina
By David Corson
The Roman emperor Trajan has been described as the Perfect Prince. Too bad though that the perfect prince had also a rather dull personality, his penchant for carousing aside. His consort, Plotina, seems to have been the perfect Roman matron. Thus, making them a subject of a novel, is a rather a tall order.
Nonetheless, the late David Corson has given it a try, in a sequel to his Domitia and Domitian. I described the latter as “a sprawling novel” in an earlier review, whereas the current book is a more plodding one.
We meet both protagonists in their teens, Plotina with her family in her native Gallic Province near Arles, Trajan in Syria, where his father Trajanus is stationed and has taken wife and son along. Things begin to move fast: Plotina's parents are murdered in a Gallic revolt, and she moves to Rome with her guardian's family. Nero is murdered, but Trajanus retains Vespasian's favor when the latter becomes emperor, and stays with Titus fighting the Jews. Trajan--as he is called in the book to distinguish him from his father of the same name, as well as using current convention – starts his military career there.
Plotina lives at an intersection of families related or friendly to each other, including Trajan's sister Marciana, to whom he will remain close all his life. So eventually, a match is arranged between the two young people. What develops is a marriage in name only, but of a close friendship, which, when Trajan becomes emperor himself, develops into a partnership of consultation and advice, even if Plotina very rarely accompanies her husband during his extensive stays away from Rome. Trajan is the military man and able administrator, Plotina the intellectual in this rather curious relationship.
The book takes us from the Provençe to the Middle East, back to Rome, then to a bleak outpost of the Empire in Northwestern Spain, and as far as Trajan is concerned, to Germania and later to Dacia. And eventually of course, as students of ancient history already know, back to Syria and Parthia, with the earthquake at Antioch thrown in.
Apart from the family women around Trajan, and their male relations all favored in high positions by the emperor, we meet Licinius Sura, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, and sundry other personalities of the times, and last but not least Hadrian, Trajan's ward and successor, and confidant of Plotina. And baby Pius, the later emperor. It is a bit baffling that the author insists that he was named thus as a baby due to his nature, whereas historians tell us that Antoninus didn't acquire that cognomen until after Hadrian's death. However, this seems to be the only anachronism in the book.
One might quibble also about the depiction of the munera, the gladiatorial games, as a religious ritual. By the time of the Empire, they had become more of an entertainment of the masses.
Based on Julian Bennett's excellent imperial biography Trajan: Optimus Princeps, the novel is a fount of information about the reign of Trajan. However, it is curiously lifeless at times. This may be due to the characters of Trajan and Plotina, which do not lend themselves to much drama or tension, especially as Mr. Corson chose to ignore ancient gossip about Plotina and Hadrian, and accepts Plotina's quiescence to a sexually unfulfilled marriage. Had he not done this, the story might have had a bit more spark. Among the other characters, only Hadrian comes through as a more complex personality.
The author unfortunately passed away during the – apparently – final draft stage of the book, and the book was published by iUnverse, and thus lacked an attentive editor, who might have tightened the story somewhat.
Nonetheless, for those readers interested in Trajan and his times without wanting to plod their way through a learned biography, the book should be a good read.
© 2003 Irene B. Hahn
Trajan and Plotina
by David Corson
Paperback, 328 pages (August 2003)
List Price US$19.95
Trajan: Optimus Princeps
by Julian Bennett
Paperback: 352 pages
Indiana University Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 2001)
List Price US$24.95
Domitia and Domitian Review
by David Corson
Paperback, 697 pages (August 2000)
Writer's Showcase Press; an Imprint of iUniverse.com Inc.
List Price US$31.95
Domitian, Tragic Tyrant
by Pat Southern
Hardcover, 176 pages
Routledge (Import); (June 1997)
List Price US$45.00
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