Wednesday 6 March 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Sacred Flame by Nanette Littlestone

"The author shows the everyday life of the Vestals well, giving us a vivid picture of the duties, festivals, clothing and the austere life the women lead, weaving the detail in well with the story."


Family Drama / Romance

216 BC

This is a romance in an unusual historical setting – the community of Rome’s Vestal Virgins at the time of the Battle of Cannae 216 BC. Livia, handed over as a young child to join the College of Vestals, is looking forward to her release from thirty years’ religious service and to settling down with Kaeso, an honest, good-hearted man who manages her farm, and who loves her. However, two things happen that push her life plans off course; the Chief Vestal falls ill and Livia must take over until the latter recovers, and then Livia re-encounters Gaius whom she last met when he was a child of six and she was sixteen being cared for in his parents’ house when ill. He has always adored her, and she is immediately attracted to the man he has become. Reconciling her feelings for him with the chastity required of her Vestal role is agonising for Livia. The other problem is that Gaius is married.

Republican Rome qualifies undoubtedly as one of Hartley’s ‘foreign countries’. A culture driven by the military ethos and a religion based on augury and divination which regulates both public and private spheres, make the second century BC an alien world for 21st century readers. And in The Sacred Flame Rome is nervous, in a state in crisis: a gifted foreign invader in the shape of Hannibal, allies deserting and political, social and economic dissension at home.

The author shows the everyday life of the Vestals well, giving us a vivid picture of the duties, festivals, clothing and the austere life the women led, weaving the detail in well with the story. I was a little puzzled that one of the characters thought the Aventine was a high-status area; perhaps the author had the Palatine in mind? Another jolt was the suggestion in the acknowledgements that in the earliest days of the Vestals in the regal period, they originated from harlots servicing the males of the royal family. It’s worth noting that Professor Mary Beard’s works on the Vestals conclude they were most likely chaste female members of the royal families.

But this is fiction and source material on the Vestals is sparse. The Sacred Flame is a well-written story with sound plot development and a courageous and well-resolved ending. I do feel that Gaius and Livia were unrealistic in their expectations as portrayed. As educated and privileged members of their society, they would have fully known the consequences of their acts and although afraid, would not have been surprised - but again, this is fiction.

In her assured writing, the author has illustrated the personal angst of the main characters clearly. The effects of the constraints of the time as described in the novel are well portrayed and the emotional joys and dilemmas will appeal well to a 21st century audience. 

© Jessica Brown

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