Fiction books Reviews

Love in the time of the Severans

A review of The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo.

I am always surprised that the Emperor Septimus Severus is less well known in Britain. Born in Africa, he reigned for about 18 years before dying in York. The short lived Severan dynasty contained two of the most notorious bad emperors of them all: Caracalla and Heliogabalus. The family were supporters of the goddess Isis. Severus was also, according to The Emperor’s Babe, an accomplished lover. 

The Emperor’s Babe was written by Bernadine Evaristo and published in 2001. Evaristo is perhaps now best known for Girl, Woman, Other which won the Booker Prize in 2019 and is possibly one of the Prize’s best winners since its inauguration fifty years before.

Her other books have engaged with themes of sexuality, identity and London history. She creates complex characters with an almost impressionistic style that comfortably sits between poetry and prose. 

The Emperor’s Babe was her second novel. It is essentially a coming of age tale and a love story, set in the Roman Empire. To my mind its style resembles a lighter but no less substantial David Jones. At its most effective, it can viscerally describe a range of emotional and physical experiences. Zuleika’s unexpected experience of grief, the sense of a world falling apart and the disbelief, is likened to:

The whirl of colour swam on without me –
shoals of dish around a rock.

Zuelika is a young black woman in London in 211 CE. The daughter of a man from modern day Sudan and a woman from modern day Britain. She is educated and has aspirations to become a poet. At an early age she is married off to an older man, but falls for the charms of the Emperor Septimus Severus.

By this point in the novel, Severus would have been in his 60s. He was in Britain to quell rebellion and bring Caledonia under his control. The war came to a stalemate and the Romans retook the Scottish lowlands. The next year Severus fell ill and died at York. His son Caracalla withdrew Roman forces from the conquered area.

Roman Britain is a colonial space, a ‘jungle… teeming with spirits and untamed humans’. The incongruous word jungle is actually well chosen, designating both a wild space and the location of many novels and films, but also a word with baggage from colonial wars like Vietnam. 

Although the relationship between Zuleika and the emperor is described as consensual, military imagery is used during the sex scenes. Sometimes this is a metaphor and other times, we are not so sure:\

then trace the tip of your sword
down the centre

of my torso. Dare I breathe?
Let your route

map a thin red line?

How consensual can any relationship be when there is such an imbalance of power? It is to Evaristo’s credit that she explores this head on. 

We are under no allusions that this world was anything other than a violent space in which power was expressed through violence and physical coercion. This is clear in the description of Zuelika’s visit to the Games, where she witnesses a brutal execution. Even before she meets Severus, his life story is sketched out “gone from African boy to Roman emperor”:

who would surely one day visit Britannia
this far-flung northern outpost of empire,

defeat the fucking Scots, Pict and Saxon
bastards who make a steady onslaught

on our cities and towns, spear every last man
of them, burn their villages, castrate

their infant sons, occupy their women,
colonize their terra firma, make them speak

our lingo, impose taxes, yay! and thus
bring Pax Romana to this our blessed island.

Imperial power is not just embodied in the emperor. Zueleika’s friend Alba is married to a tax gatherer, a ‘gangster’ whose low level violence brought money into the Imperial coffers.

How complicit is Zuelieka in this?

Zuleika recognises that although they are from different places, both she and her husband are Roman “Civis Romana Sum. It was all I had.” The latin says I am a Roman Citizen, but uses the female form. According to Cicero this phrase could be used across the Empire. For example St Paul used it during a trial. It was also used in a speech by Lord Palmerston to justify British military intervention in the Meditterenean which was based on iffy grounds. 

What does being a Roman mean? Power, citizenship, military service, language? Zuelieka is educated and wishes to be a poet. This is an elite position, which is emphasised in the style itself.  Whereas the direct speech of Zuleika’s parents is written with an accent, emphasising they spoke Latin as a second language, Zuleika’s words are clear. Yet she says:

I’d never write good poetry because what did

I know about war, death, the gods
and the founding of countries?

These things are not relevant:

what I really want to read
and hear is stuff about is, about now,

Yet Zuelika is blind to her own complicated privilege. Or more precisely, not blind but lacking agencyto do anything about it. Although she is a black woman, she is also a member of the elite, an owner of slaves whom she can punish and chastise. Slaves are not totally powerless in this book. Seeking an ally in her new household, Zuelika offers her husband’s slave Tranio a much younger wife (who bears two children, which would of course be owned by Zuelika’s husband). Zuelika also feels alone when she is with her slaves. She can threaten them and dress them in luxury clothes, but she cannot gain their love. Yet ultimately, just as Zuelika wields a quasi-absolute power over the slaves when her husband is absent, he has an absolute power over her as her husband. 

We cannot of course read this book of black woman and totally disconnect it from the period in which it was written and in which we read it. The Black Lives MAtter and #MeToo movements show just how important these themes remain. 

This is a beautiful and affirming book, which can be re-read and examined on many levels. 

It deals with some heavy themes but also abound in playful anachronisms. References abound to “Wild@heart the trendy ‘flower boutique’’”, Don Falernium wine and thinly veiled caricatures of the London poetry scene in the late nineties. One character also says ‘Booyakah’, a popular word of the time, before it was taken up Ali G.

Reading this book, you get to know Zuleika, Roman London and perhaps something of yourself. All life is here – individual and universal.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics