The Course of Honor is a historical novel that was written by Lindsey Davis. The book highlights the story of Emperor Vespasian and his freed lover called Caenis. It highlights the accurate picture of gender and sexuality in the ancient Rome through the story of the two lovebirds. Caenis was a scribe who worked as a secretary for a woman called Antonia, and it was during her duties as a secretary that she was able to meet Vespasian who would later become the emperor of Rome. It was love at first sight as the two were attracted to each other and this marked the beginning of their dating life, which was against the Roman cultural and social laws because of their different social standing. Caenis was an outstanding and intelligent woman; this made her earn Antonia's trust. Caenis was able to receive a significant amount of Antonia's fortune and her freedom after Antonia's demise. The freedom enabled her to build her life and to support Vespasian in his political career. The story is interesting because Vespasian was able to quickly rise through the political ladder because of the great support that Caenis offered him. The author enlightens us on the manner in which the Roman law defined associations and relations among people of different financial statuses and social classes. It also talks about the love relationship between Vespasian and Caenis but the two could not marry because they were from different social cadre which was against the norms of the Roman society. The societal expectations of the Romans did not approve of a high-ranking political office holder marrying a slave, reputation determined how different people related, and the social status defined the course of political interaction and succession among the low and high class. The above assertions will be proven by examining the theme of gender and sexuality in ancient Rome through the social lens, economic lens, and the reputation lens.
Firstly, it is clear from the read that the Romans did not approve the mingling and marriage of people with different social statuses. The rich were supposed to associate and marry the rich while the poor were supposed to marry and mingle with the poor. Caenis was a slave girl who fell in love with a soldier who came from the upper-class family. The two met when Caenis was working as a scribe for a lady called Antonia who was the mother to Emperor Claudius and daughter of Mark Anthony. As highlighted earlier, theirs was love at first sight that marked their love affair. They, however, both understood that they could not marry because it was against the Roman law for a man from a high ranking family like Vespasian to marry a slave girl like Caenis. We are ushered to a point in time when Caenis was no longer a slave but a freedwoman, but this is equally ignored since she was once a slave woman and only got freedom after the demise of her employer Antonia, who entrusted Caenis with a significant amount of her fortune. This is the reason why the two ended their romantic affair because the two were from different social classes. They could not marry initially because Caenis was still regarded as a slave woman and it would have been embarrassing for a high ranking individual in the society in the name of an emperor to have a slave girl as a wife. Vespasian would later marry a woman from his social class. From the above submission, we saw a woman in love who had to sacrifice her love for the common good of what the society held to be important. Unfortunately, this is an accurate reflection of what happens in many cases as it is the women who often suffer. They are even used by men as ladders to higher positions in life. The interaction that the ancient Roman society approved between the rich and the poor was that of the slave-master and nothing beyond that.
Reputation also determined how people related in ancient Roman society. In this story, for example, Caenis was a slave girl who came from a poor background. She used to work as a scribe for a wealthy woman called Antonia. The ancient Roman society thus identified her with her first reputation of being a slave girl. Even after getting freedom and becoming successful, she is still being referred to as a freedwoman which highlights the stigma and social alienation that is identified with the same. Vespasian, on the other hand, came from a well-off family and thus the society expected her to marry a woman from the said class. This explains why his relationship with Caenis was not positively received in the Roman society then. It was believed that he was doing a great disservice to the upper-class family by getting into love relations with a poor girl. The reputation of the society momentarily carried the day when Vespasian married another woman who was from the same social class as his. One understands that reputation was used as one of the yardsticks in the evaluation of gender and sexuality in ancient Rome. Reputation was linked to the social and financial status of the people. People who were wealthy and famous were thought to have a good reputation while those that were poor were considered to have a bad reputation. The two were not supposed to interact through marriage. It was believed that the people from the lower social cadre would use people from the high social cadre to climb up the social ladder. To them, it was perceived that these individuals were opportunists who were out to benefit from the rich. The interaction of people from different social cadres was prohibited since it was believed that they could use them to gain political power which was mainly in the hands of famous and influential families. Caenis happened to be from a poor background, hence had a bad reputation. While Vespasian came from a wealthy background, thus had a good reputation. In the ancient times, it was believed that she would probably use Vespasian to climb up the social ladder as it was the case with Lady Antonia. It is such sentiments that made her forgo her love and let Vespasian marry the woman of the same social class as his. However, what is interesting is that it was Caenis who was responsible for Vespasian's rise to power. She devoted her time and resources in helping Vespasian achieve his political goal. Whereas the society expected her to use Vespasian to climb up the social and political ladder, it is, in fact, Vespasian who used her to climb up the political ladder. Had he not received the support that he did from her, he would not have progressed as rapidly in his career as he did. Vespasian had family in politics already and came from a high social class, which allowed him to begin a career in politics. Ultimately, it was his education that helped him secure the throne. This was possible because Caenis provided financial support to Vespasian in order for him to further his education and become the emperor.
Thirdly, it is also clear that the social status determined the course of political interaction and succession among the low and high class. Vespasian came from a renowned family who held positions of influence in ancient Rome. Vespasian was a soldier, but his older brother called Sabinus was a senator. These were influential positions in ancient Rome that were admired by many people, yet a few people held them. He comes from a senatorial family which was one of the highest social status families in ancient Rome. The novel highlights the story of a lady called Antonia who was not only the mother to Emperor Claudius but the daughter to Mark Anthony. It is during one of the visits to Antonia that Vespasian was able to meet Caenis. What this reveals is that the high class socially interacted and visited each other. The Vespasian family was a political family bearing in mind that his brother was a senator and he had political ambitions. It was thus natural for him to pursue his political ambition because he came from a well-renowned family. It is what happened; next, that reveals to us the depths that Caenis went to support his political dream. Having inherited significant fortune and freedom from Lady Antonia, she devoted her time and resources in helping Vespasian rise through the political ladder. She is behind the rapid rise of Vespasian through the financial aid that she offered him. It is clear from the novel that the poor people did not visit each other because they were probably occupied with working for the rich. The rich, however, got to visit each other and that is how Vespasian got to meet Caenis at the house of Lady Antonio. Not much is highlighted about the poor save in the novel except for Caenis who inherited a significant amount of money and freedom from Lady Antonio. The social course only delayed what was due to happen between Vespasian and Caenis. The author helps us to understand that some of the issues that the society faces can be overcome if people stand tall against the said social norms that seem to be discriminative.
From the above discourse, it is apparent that the ancient Roman society had reservations with the interaction of people from different social classes. People from wealthy backgrounds were held in high regard and were required to interact and deal with people of the same status. The poor people worked for wealthy people as slaves and were not allowed to marry the rich. It was also against the societal norms and expectations for a high ranking political leader in the name of an Emperor to marry a slave. This explains why Caenis gave up her love for Vespasian to allow him to marry a woman who was considered to be from his social class. The theme of gender and sexuality has also been extensively covered by the author, and it is clear that the women played second fiddle to the men. Caenis for example, was able to use her resources to support Vespasian to rise to up the political ladder but little emphasis is put on this. Also, in the earlier writings of the book, we get the perfect picture of the slave girls who used to work in the homes of the rich and had no freedom. It is for these reasons that the marriage of Vespasian and Caenis could not take place because one came from a senatorial family which was wealthy while the other was a freedwoman who came from a poor background and the societal norms of the Romans was against these kind of unions since it was viewed as a way of the poor taking advantage of the rich to climb up the social ladder.
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