A tantalising half-sentence in Suetonius’ biography says that after his wife died, Vespasian ‘took up again with Caenis, his former mistress and one of Antonia’s freedwomen and secretaries, who remained his wife in all but name even when he became Emperor’.
To a would-be romantic novelist struggling to find an original setting, this was the archetypal secretary-to-boardroom plot — a true story, with a decent hero, not to mention a heroine who must have had a sterling character. The political events familiar from ‘I, Claudius’ are viewed from a close vantage point, but without the traditional male, aristocratic bias which some people even today try to impose on all things classical. A love story in which young lovers come together a second time in their middle age would be highly unusual at any period.
Even though people who read this novel thought it my best, the Roman setting deterred publishers for ten years. When it did finally appear in the UK, many readers enjoyed it even more than the Falco series. The script was originally turned down in America — causing a unique protest from US readers who mobilised on the Internet and forced a rethink; this may be a ‘first’!
It was The Course of Honour that gave me the idea for Falco. Most obviously, researching the historical background to Rome — so vibrant and so notoriously dangerous — inspired his working milieu. In fact, though, professional writers are often led by sheer desperation. I had given my all to Antonia Caenis, with whom I closely identified: a single woman in a society geared to families, an intelligent woman working in a hostile male environment, a sceptical woman viewing the idiocies of politics through helping to administer them. When The Course of Honour went to the back of the wardrobe, I was broke – but I had found my courage as an author. Without that, The Silver Pigs would never have been written. Without Falco, my story of Caenis would not have seen the light of day …
The book carries no formal dedication, but it is, in Veronica’s words, for all the girls in all the palaces who sleep on flea-ridden pallets on stone ledges in cold cells, and who live by the hope that one day they will rise to a better place. They will know who I mean.
“Oh, Antonia Caenis…Welcome to freedom – And welcome to me!”
chosen by reader, Helene Ilg