The Daughters of the Palatine Hill
Three interesting women, one great story
Phyllis T. Smith’s second historical fiction novel, The Daughters of the Palatine Hill, is a captivating story of love, loss, sacrifice, loyalty, passion and freedom. Set in Rome during the time of Emperor Caesar Augustus’ rule, Smith’s novel centres around the lives of its three female protagonists: Julia, the only true child of Emperor Augustus Caesar, Livia Drusilla, his ever faithful wife and (Cleopatra) Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Narrated through the alternating chapter perspectives of these three women, The Daughters of the Palatine Hill gives a unique voice to three interesting women from ancient history who have frequently been ignored and even extremely misogynistically portrayed within the historical record.
As the only daughter of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, Julia has a great deal of luxury and privilege. However, as she gets older she quickly realizes that this position comes with very limited freedom and control over her life.
At fourteen, she is married to her cousin Marcellus and even though their marriage eventually develops into a romantic relationship, it unfortunately ends much too early. Unable to remain a young widow, another marriage is arranged for Julia, this time to Aggrippa, a much older military general and close friend of her father’s. Although Augustus considers this match a good idea, it leaves Julia unhappy because it is not based on love.
As time goes on, Julia gets tired of having to prioritize the state’s interests over her own and this anger and frustration motivates her to live her life how she wants, including turning to other men to obtain the love and passion she desperately desires.
Even though Julia eventually discovers a man whom she truly and passionately loves, unfortunately this relationship is strongly disapproved of by her father, who fears that this union will present a serious threat to his own power. As a result, Julia is forced to choose between the romantic love she’s always wanted and obedience to her father, resulting in a decision that brings tough consequences for all involved.
Despite being married to the man whose actions led to both the defeat and death of her beloved father, Livia surprisingly harbours no thoughts of vengeance against her husband Augustus. Instead, she has impressively adapted to her situation in life becoming the ideal Roman wife, characterized by her demonstration of modesty, faithfulness and loyalty. Additionally, Livia is passionately in love with Augustus, worrying about him when he is away fighting, caring for him when he is ill and counting down the time until they are reunited.
Although Livia could easily abuse her power by giving bad governance advice, she doesn’t. Instead, all of her advice is motivated by the goal of maintaining Agustus’ rule and the peace of the empire, in order to prevent another disastrous civil war. Unfortunately, sometimes she is so focused on ensuring the empire’s best interests that she fails to consider other people’s feelings and accept that certain people, like her own son, are not well suited to be in power.
Following Augustus’ defeat of her parents, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, nine-year-old Selene is brought to Rome as a prisoner in chains, where she is raised, first by Augustus’ sister Octavia, then his wife Livia, within his family complex. Initially Cleopatra considers vengeance, angered and saddened by the loss of her parents, brothers and home. She is also frightened by the fact that at any time, Augustus has the power to reverse his earlier benevolence and have her killed, like her younger brothers were. However, her determination to follow her mother’s command to “live” and the influence of her surprising friendship with Livia makes her more willing to adapt. Instead of focusing on getting revenge, she instead puts her effort into ensuring her survival.
Later on, Selene is fortunate to leave Rome and govern Mauretania, a small African Kingdom, alongside Juba, the man whom she loves. However, she is never completely free from Rome’s control, since multiple aspects of governing Mauretania require Rome’s support.
Additionally, even though Selene has gotten rid of her feelings for vengeance against Augustus, an opportunity for revenge later resurfaces, forcing Selene to choose between love for her family and loyalty to the Roman Empire.
The best aspect about The Daughters of the Palatine Hill is its unique character representations. While Smith maintained historical accuracy, she also excellently provided a more realistic view of not only what Julia, Livia, and Selene’s lives may have been like; but also how they may have felt about certain situations and events. This alternate perspective is demonstrated the best with Julia.
Most historical records depict Julia negatively, as a spoiled disobedient child and a wild, promiscuous “slut” because she went against her father’s wishes and had numerous sexual partners. Even though Smith maintained these aspects of Julia’s life, at the same time, she decided to deter from the existing extremely misogynistic male perspective of Julia, by placing a greater emphasis on Julia’s own feelings. As a result, Julia quickly becomes a character whom readers sympathize with, especially since it is hard not to feel angry about how she is treated as a pawn rather than a daughter, by her father.
Despite Julia’s great portrayal in this novel, I was not impressed by how Selene was depicted. I have read quite a lot about her and found it hard to believe that she would have given up her thoughts of vengeance so quickly and easily. I also felt that her inclusion as character diminished significantly within the novels’ second part. Selene was a very interesting woman from ancient history and it would have been better if the novel had included more about her governance and life with Juba and children in Mauretania. However, this is just a personal opinion and does not at all decrease the overall enjoyment of Smith’s novel.
Phyllis T. Smith’s, The Daughters of the Palatine is a thrilling novel which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a great and exciting read.