Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.05
Benita Kane Jaro, Betray The Night: A Novel About Ovid. Mundelein, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2009. Pp. 312. ISBN 9780865167124. $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Paul Robertson, Brown University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1586 words
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).