Review: please use this record for the next entry to be posted - January 25, 2012
Review by: Paul Robertson, Bryn Mawr Classical Review - October 5, 2009
This novel is the fourth in a loose series of historical fiction following Jaro's trilogy The Key, The Lock, and The Door in the Wall which build stories around the lives of Catullus, Cicero, and Marcus Caelius Rufus, respectively. This latest volume revolves around Publius Ovidius Naso, better known simply as Ovid. Like its predecessors, Betray the night is concerned with fleshing out the cultural and political worlds of historical figures whom the reader may know only through the extant literature. Also like its predecessors, the book is easily accessible to the general reader, while providing nuggets of scholarship that will please classicists. It is highly readable, effectively broaching historically disputed issues within the parameters of its storyline.
The plot takes as its starting point Ovid's exile from Rome due to the mysterious carmen et error that has long been the subject of scholarly dispute. After Ovid's banishment early in the narrative, the remainder of the novel describes the life and travails of Pinaria, his second wife, who is abandoned in Rome, confused, and determined to seek the causes of her beloved's puzzling exile. She begins her investigative journey as a classic subordinate aristocratic Roman woman, relying for safety and information on the power and patronage of men with familial connections. This naturally and quickly dead-ends, so she must take matters into her own hands while continuing to navigate the increasingly difficult and murky waters of Roman social politicking. Through curiosity, perseverance, intellect, and a little luck, Pinaria pieces together more and more evidence. The full story of course goes much deeper than initially thought and Pinaria finds herself embroiled in issues of the deepest gravity. The ending climaxes are effective and plausible.
The story contains a host of themes that will be familiar to mystery readers: the lonely protagonist on a quest for the truth; tiny pieces of physical evidence that snowball; unexpected shifts in loyalty; secret meetings at night; brief appearances of secondary figures bearing crucial information who are given stock character traits to make them memorable but who nonetheless are completely forgettable; and so on. Like any good mystery, it keeps the reader guessing and several times seems to provide an answer only to take yet another turn heading toward an even grander conclusion. It is certainly a page turner, and those with sufficient time will happily read the book in a single session.
It is not merely a mystery novel, however. Three additional strands stand out, in order of importance: the role and psychology of Roman women, the underbelly and ramifications of Roman politics around the life of Augustus, and the place of poetry in Roman culture. With regard to the first, Jaro uses Ovid's exile to turn our attention to Roman women who are hugely underrepresented in our literary evidence. Aristocratic women in Rome have been the subject of much debate, with some scholars arguing that they were largely absent from social gatherings, subordinate in role and attitude in the home, and generally second-class citizens with no power or influence in the ancient world. Others have found a body of evidence, especially in early Roman art, to argue plausibly that women could be important patronesses, influential in politics, and dominant personalities within the home if not across the entire social landscape. Jaro is aware of these debates, and plausibly psychologizes her female subjects within the cultural mores of ancient Rome. Women were married young, often to men much older, and Jaro effectively describes, for example, the confusion and timidity of a fifteen year-old girl on the eve of marriage to an elder patrician. On the other hand, experienced matrons in well-connected Roman social circles are depicted as brilliant and strong-willed. The apparent contrast between the two accounts is of course a false duality, and Jaro admirably teases out this cultural tension to show the complex roles, actions, and motives of ancient Rome's women.
With regard to the novel's second strand -- Augustan politics -- Jaro again does a laudable job of acknowledging the accomplishments and might of Augustus, while depicting the terror, coercion, and violence that undergirded his reign. Casual readers may be shocked at the unflattering portrait of Augustus, but Jaro's depiction subtly digs at Rome's paternalism while daring to see Rome as it really was in this era: volatile, war-ridden, plague-infested, hungry, fearful, yet all the while proud to the point of arrogance. The popular and rosy-hued characterization of Augustus in the mind of one poet, Virgil, is effectively counterpointed through this story surrounding another of Rome's greats, Ovid, with the dangers of conformity and sycophancy laid bare. Scholars often attempt to tap into the minds of historical figures, and Jaro does a fine job of using the medium of historical fiction to this very end.
Jaro also includes many extended Latin quotations from known verse, with Ovid's work dominant. Modern students of Classics tend to study, and as a result consider, ancient verse as literature. Yet, though verse was undoubtedly studied in private in ancient Rome, it was meant to be sung aloud. Ovid is less an author and more a bard. Recent work on ancient Roman and Greek reading practices has strongly emphasized the aural character of ancient Mediterranean learning and entertainment.1 Thus Jaro's characters frequently and effortlessly recite verse to one another for pleasure or edification. One wishes that even more of this recitation were included, but those with less poetic inclinations will likely find it entirely superfluous to the plot.
A plot spoiler: the central argument of the book -- and indeed Jaro does call it an argument -- is the existence of a plot to overthrow Augustus or his successor, implicating such notables as Cassius Severus, Julia the Younger, and Ovid himself. Helpful endnotes cover a variety of relevant historical issues, such as ancient astronomy, and Jaro here illumines her narrative choices on the basis of her own research. The exact reasons for Ovid's exile remain unknown, however, and given the historical context and figures at play these reasons have been the source of endless research and speculation. Jaro does not completely buy into any particular theory, explicitly preferring a combination of ideas drawn from both primary and secondary literature. Those with strong knowledge of the debates will recognize several elements of the dominant conspiracy speculations at play in the novel. That said, those who strongly believe Seneca the Elder's characterization of Ovid as unconcerned with politics and Ovid's banishment as likely the result of a combination of Augustan moral legislation, Ovid's predilection for provocative amorous verse, and overall ill timing, will likely find the plot stuffed with wild fantasies for the sake of story.
In terms of the novel's portrayal of Rome, some objections do arise. While Jaro does an effective job showing the tensions of wealthy and powerful women and their roles in ancient Rome, by picking aristocracy as her subject matter Jaro limits herself to a very small percentage of Roman women. Her tack is laudable, but she does little to open a window on the lives of the other ninety-nine percent of women. One cannot understand the role of women in ancient Roman society -- and indeed this seems to be a central goal of the novel -- by merely focusing on the upper crust of a severely hierarchical society. This, however, seems to be a conscious tradeoff of historical context for narrative drive: while the story focuses on a tiny group of Roman citizens, it is this very tiny group that generates the highest political intrigue, betrayal, plots, etc.
In this vein, the book falls short on issues of breadth and depth of character. It is fast moving and an easy read, but as a tradeoff the setting often becomes breezy, the characters one-dimensional, and revelations often become voluble to the point of disbelief. The powerfully visceral nature of ancient Rome often plays mere secondhand to driving the plot, though to her credit Jaro does identify interesting tidbits surrounding the social culture, such as the rise in female reclining at banquets.2 Nonetheless, the dialogue, while again highly serviceable in a fast plot, feels entirely modern. Statements such as 'yeah' permeate the dialogue in a city where manuals were written and closely studied about proper ways to walk, carry oneself, and speak to those in higher or lower social positions. The research that went into the work is appreciated and enlightening, but the reader does not feel displaced to a culture so far removed from our own in distance, time, and custom. It feels as though this plot could be transplanted to any major city at any time and be just as effective. This may very well be an advantage to a casual reader more interested in a page-turning mystery, but readers with a deep investment and interest in the historical context will find the 'Romanness' of the setting lacking.
A final quibble arises in the formatting of the book. Several passages lack proper spacing, or even any spacing at all. Dialogue is complicated by erratic attribution and punctuation. It is unclear whether the latter issue lies at the feet of the editor and press or the author, but it does require some cleaning.
Overall, the book is well written and enjoyable. The engagement with Roman history is both effective and accurate, and Jaro continues to deserve credit for her novels in this field. While the density of the Roman environment leaves something to be desired, lovers of mystery and Classics will not be alone in finding much to applaud.
1. See the recent work of David Konstan. See also Tim Whitmarsh, The Second Sophistic (Oxford: 2005). For ancient references, see for example Plutarch's 'How a Youth Should Listen to Poems'; Theophrastus fragment 696 Fortenbaugh; Porphyry scholium bT on Iliad 449a. The debates permeating Thucydides reflect this cultural norm, which appears likewise throughout Philostratus' 'The Lives of the Sophists'.
2. Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 2003).
Review by: Aaron Godfrey, S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook - September 1, 2009
Half a century ago, Mary Renault sparked renewed popular interest in ancient Greece with her novels that were beautifully written and historically accurate. The fact that the protagonists were fictional by no means impaired the historical authenticity. Rome has had no such muse until recently.
Benita Kane Jaro has written three novels about the last days of the Roman Republic. The Key tells the story of the poet Catullus and his affair with Clodial Lesbia from the point of view of his friend Coelius Rufus (well known to Classics people because of Cicero's speech) defending him against charges brought by Clodial. Coelius Rufus appears again in The Door in the Wall which describes the turbulent decade of the First Triumvirate and the complex and changing relationships. The Lock describes events of this period from the point of view of Cicero, a major figure during that restless period of Roman history.
Betray the Night, her fourth work, proposes several possible solutions to one of the oldest literary mysteries - the exile of the Roman poet Ovid to Tomis (Constanza, in modem Romania), the remote end of the Empire, in 8 A.D. Jaro describes with unsparing clarity the temper of Augustus' Principate and the early years of the Common Era. Despite the positive view of his achievement, Rome was a cruel and militaristic place, full of informers, where conspiracies flourished and were ruthlessly put down.
Betray the Night tells the story of Ovid's exile, and of Rome, from the point of view of his wife, Pinaria, who has been left behind to look after his affairs and to intercede with the powerful in the city to bring her husband back from exile. All together, it is not a pleasant picture - one of intrigue, betrayals, repression, and fear - at many levels, it is an accurate one.
History has been kind to Octavian/Augustus. His forty-six year reign brought peace and stability to Rome after a century of upheaval, but at a price. Too often, death or exile of those suspected of conspiracy befell them, often on the word of a single unreliable informant.
Jaro takes us through the palaces and alleyways of Rome as Pinaria searches for the real cause of her husband's exile. All the reasons given by various scholars are examined and left open still as possibilities. The author is equally open in speaking of the brutality and fear that kept the Empire functioning efficiently for centuries.
Betray the Night is part lyrical description of Rome and part detective story with clues that do not quite give closure to the problem. Among the more important aspects of the work is a sympathetic description of the position of women in Rome - the many obstacles that prevented them from being able to function independently. In most cases, their influence was behind the scenes and they were subject to the wishes, first of their fathers, then their husbands. Widows and unmarried women often had guardians appointed to manage their affairs. Women from prominent families were chess pieces used to strengthen family political alliances, and had no voices when they were divorced or when it was decided that a more important alliance was to be made. It should be noted that women's names came from the feminized version of the father's clan - the middle name of most Roman citizens. Thus, Marcus Tullius Cicero's daughter would be Tullia, and Gaius Julius Caesar's daughter Julia, etc.
The work contains several exquisite and sensitive translations from Ovid's poems, done by the author, and as a whole, beautifully written. Despite a few inconsistencies in the narrative, Betray the Night is a satisfying work, one which reflects considerable scholarship and will give the reader an accurate picture of what Rome was really like in the concluding years of Augustus' Principate.
Aaron W. Godfrey
S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook
Forum Italicum, Vol. 43 No. 2 Fall 2009
Review by: James Cox, Midwest Book Review June 2009, Vol. 9, No. 6 - June 1, 2009
Betray the Night
Benita Kane Jaro
1570 Baskin Road, Mundelein, IL 60060
9780865167124, $25.00, www.bolchazy.com
A woman in Rome had little to do when crisis struck. "Betray the Night" tells the story of Pinaria, wife of famed poet Publius Ovidius Naso, as she tries to bring her exiled husband home. But a woman alone doesn't seem to have much say in society, and her desire to reunite with her husband seems all but impossible... A fine historical novel of the challenges of women in Rome, "Betray the Night" is entertaining and with its research, educational.
Review by: India Edghill, Historical Novels Review - May 31, 2009
By the year 8 CE, Augustus Caesar has ruled Rome for over thirty years, and the Republic is slowly becoming an empire. In that year a political conspiracy against Augustus results in the exile of the renowned poet Ovid to the far end of the empire, (Ovid says he was banished for "a poem and a mistake.") Ovid realizes his only hope of returning to Rome is to leave his wife Pinaria behind to plead his case to Augustus. A good Roman wife, Pinaria obeys and finds herself enmeshed in plots and counterplots as ancient families cling to their fading glory and new men struggle to rise to power. As Pinaria investigates the reasons for her husband's banishment, she finds herself in danger from both political and personal enemies and finds betrayal where she least expects it.
Betray The Night is a compelling novel; the atmosphere of fear and repression is almost palpable. Pinaria's growth from a traditional Roman matron, concerned only with the affairs of her household, to a politically and financially savvy woman, is convincing as is the portrayal of ancient Rome in all its glory and squalor. The author's meticulous research never interferes with her ability to tell a page-turner of a story. Fans of HBO's Rome and PBS's I, Claudius should enjoy this book. I have only one real gripe with it: the author's decision to refer to the women of the Augustan house (soon to be the imperial family) as "princesses." In a city where a man could be a god, but never king, seeing the word "princess" used to describe a high-horn Roman lady made me wince every time I saw it. But other than that, it's a terrific read .
Historical Novels Review
Issue 48, May 2009