Book Review: Devotio, The House of Mus, by William Kelso

There are few historical fiction works that deal with the Roman Early Middle Republic before the Punic wars. Yet this period of Rome’s history is intriguing, as the author of this work put it “The early and mid-Roman Republic has always fascinated me for it was a time when Rome could very well have been erased from History. This was the period of Rome’s finest hour when her rustic and civic virtues were at their best.”
The concept of “Devotio” exemplified these virtues. “Devotio” was a far more serious matter than what we think of its English descendent, “devotion,” today. “Devotio” was a practice in which the leader of a Roman army, usually a Consul, called upon a high priest to let him sacrifice his life so that he could take an enemy army with him to Hades, sparing his own army and saving his country. There was no higher or more venerated act. Some fifty years before the events of this book, Publius Decius Mus, the father of the House of Mus, performed this act, saving Rome from their enemies, the Samnites.
The novel starts out with a lesser, but still noble, act on the part of Gaius, the main protagonist. His family owns a small farm on the outskirts or the Romanized Volscian settlement of Sora. His father was granted the farm as a veteran and a Roman settlor, but he has gotten deeply in debt and stands to lose the farm if the debts are not paid. Gaius, a young man of eighteen has offered to fight in the gladiatorial games at the funeral of Lucius, one of the rich patrons of the city. His opponent will be a champion from among the Volscians. The fight is to be to the death, but if Gaius wins he will gain enough money to pay off his father’s debt.
Events, in the form of an invasion by the Samnites interfere in the plan, and Gaius finds himself fighting alongside Tullus, his proposed Volscian opponent to prevent Sora from falling to the Samnites. He and the Volscian, a dentist’s son, become buddies and abandon the plan to fight each other. In order to get away from the debt collectors, Gaius joins the Roman army.
The Roman army mobilizes to battle the Samnite invaders and Gaius encounters Quintus, a tribune from the House of Mus, the son of Publius Decius Mus and grandson of the Publius Decius Mus who performed the devotio mentioned above. Quintus is clearly uncomfortable in his role as a military tribune and hard put to act the part. He would much prefer to be in Rome hobnobbing with poets and artists. The Roman army is sent to capture the Samnite capital of Bovianum. In the melee the tribune is pushed and stumbles over a body, falling off the wall into the city. Gaius grabs a standard and leaps into the city to come to his rescue. In the aftermath, Quintus adopts Gaius as a client and brings him to Rome. Here he comes to the attention of both Quintus’ father, Publius Decius Mus, and Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus who will share the consulship in both 298 and 296 B.C. Rullianus is the great grandfather of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator of Second Punic War fame.
Rome wins the battle against the Samnites, but the Samnites do not give up. Egnatius, their leader, seeks to ally his people with the Etruscans, Galls and other non-Roman Italians. Quintus’ sister Dacia is married to the ruler of Arretium, one of the larger cities of Etruria. She undertakes to try to keep Arretium friendly to the Romans, but faces an increasingly difficult task as the Etruscans become increasingly hostile. She is a heroine who would have made her grandfather proud.
Devotio is an exciting story that brings to life a little known era in the history of Rome.

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