Book Review: The Scent of Hyacinth by Sharrie Siebert Goff

The Scent of Hyacinth is a sequel to the Arms of Quirinus, the first book in a series of historical fiction books about the Kings of Rome. The first book tells the story Romulus, the founder and first King of Rome, and this one tell of his successor, the long-reigning Numa Pompilius.

Sherrie Siebert Goff weaves the myths surrounding the early days of Rome into a tale of Numa and the wood nymph Egeria that he was said to have consulted constantly during his reign. Egeria is actually the daughter of the infamous traitoress Tarpaeia, who, before she was executed, arranged for her infant daughter to be raised by Carmenta, a wise woman who lives in a rustic cottage in Aricia. Carmenta teaches her herbal remedies and the charms and spells that later societies would consider witchcraft. She is befriended by Robur, a neighbor boy and they fall in love, but Robur’s step brother Caius has designs on Egeria. They are befriended by a young man from Cures, Numa Pompilia who helps Egeria escape to Rome to get away from the ignoble Caius. Numa cannot marry Egeria because he is betrothed to Tatia, the daughter of Tatius, the assassinated Sabine King, but they become long term friends and lovers. Egeria, for her part is determined to remain independent and tries to develop a perfume trade based on scents of hyacinth and other flowers.

The story is told in the first person by five successive characters, Robur, Egeria, Numa, Prima the daughter of Romulus, a Vestal Virgin, and Dauna a potter and close friend of Egeria. The stories are neatly interwoven.

From the beginning Rome was required to balance and assimilate several different cultures. Early Rome was a mixture of Latin, Sabine and Etruscan cultures and after the disappearance of Romulus the Romans faced civil war or dissolution if they did not find a way to reconcile the various factions. Numa Pompilius was a Sabine, but was considered a moderate and his elevation enabled the reconciliation of the Latin and Sabine factions. He points out to the priests of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus that the three god they serve represent the concepts of Sovereignty, War and Abundance, the pillars of the city of Rome. The Gods are drawn from differing cultural traditions but together form the triad upon which Roman culture is based.

 The ability to deal with cultural diversity thus characterized Rome from the very beginnings and distinguished the Romans from the Greeks and other cultures of the time that could not handle diversity. This talent for assimilating and drawing the best from various culture goes a long way toward explaining the stunning success of the Roman Empire.

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