The subtitle of this historical romance is "A Tale of Early Rome," but it should also say "A Tale of the Etruscans." I always think of the Etruscans as a mysterious people predating and then overlapping with the Romans before disappearing from history--about whom, I thought, we knew very little. Elisabeth Storrs showed me how fully their world can be imagined based on the evidence of archaeology and ancient sources. From translucent silken gowns, gold embossed mirrors, realistic paintings, delicious spiced banquets, and gracious, brilliantly colored houses, the Etruscans lived in a style dramatically different from their boorish neighbors twelve miles away in Rome (this is early Rome, remember). The equality with which women are treated, the luxurious sensuality and celebration of life, including in the realm of sexuality, set off the Etruscan city of Veii from Rome's original identity as a place of modest, subservient women and tough, warrior men living plain, frugal lives. Certainly later Romans rarely lived up to their nostalgic model--it's not much fun as a lifestyle and when the Romans conquered most of the world they chose to live a grander, more decadent life. To some extent Storrs shows they weren't following their own righteous values even at this early stage. The contrast between the two cultures holds center place in this book about a marriage between a Roman girl and an older nobleman of Veii, Mastarna, a marriage arranged to seal a treaty between the two cities and viewed by the Romans as a horrible thing for the Roman girl, Caecilia.
Caecilia suffers from a severe case of culture shock when she arrives at her husband's home in Veii. All this decadent, sexually loose behavior causes the young woman to cling to her Roman ways for fear of giving in to this sinful life. Even the food is over spiced! To make an inaccurate comparison, she's a Puritan among the hedonists and she's terrified of temptation. This is an historically accurate juxtaposition, as far as I know, but it can be a heavy one at times. You may wish occasionally that Caecilia weren't so proud of her stiff Roman values. She does succumb to Veii in a number of ways--perhaps in all the important ways--but Storrs avoids a linear descent, forward a little into Veientane lifestyle and love, then back part way again, so this is an unpredictable and complicated tale. Caecilia's relationship with her husband, Mastarna, is a compellingly deep one, overshadowed by the gradually revealed story of his love and sorrow for his first wife. Mastarna's family--his mother, brother, adopted son, servants--is a rich source of flawed human beings who, with one notable exception, try to make Caecilia feel welcome, despite her prickly start. Along with the wealth of dramatic detail about daily life and macabre Etruscan religious rites, the interactions of the family and Caecilia engaged my interest throughout against the main story of the back and forth romance between husband and wife with its intentional frustration and grief. This novel pulls its reader into an unusual world where no other writer I know of has gone and unfolds an intriguing plot, revealing a little known corner of Roman history. Pick it up and explore.