Book Review: Call to Juno by Elizabeth Storr

Call to Juno is a magnificent novel of the war between Rome and it close neighbor, the Etruscan city of Veii which took place between 406 and 396 BC. It is dramatic, impeccably researched and a compelling read.
Storr renders the cultural and religious practices of both Romans and Etruscans in stunning detail. The ancients had a wide choice of which gods to worship and the heroine of the story, Caecilia, chooses to adhere to the religion of Fufluns, equivalent to the Greek good Dionysus, on the basis that in his follower’s ideation, family members are reunited in the afterworld. This, unfortunately leads her to neglect the goddess Uni, (Roman Juno). Efforts to placate the goddess will come too late.
Caecilia was married to the Veientine Vel Mastarna against her will, to secure a peace between the two cities. Mastarna was twenty years her senior and was a widower. She comes to love him, however, and when war breaks out, once again, between Rome and Veii, she chooses to remain by his side, incurring the enduring wrath of her Roman kinfolk. She bears him three sons and a daughter.
Although separated by only ten miles, Rome and Veii were very different linguistically and culturally. Latin was an Indo-European language spoken by people in Latium and related to other indigenous languages of Italy. The Etruscan language, on the other hand was an isolate, belonging to no family of languages. Genetic studies of the people of Etruria reveal that they probably migrated from someplace in what is now Turkey. The Etruscans developed an advanced and sophisticated culture and probably considered the Romans backward. There were profound difference between the two cultures in how they viewed women. Women were far more respected among the Etruscans and Caecilia found, as the wife of a prominent Veientine, that her status was far above anything she could have enjoyed in Rome.
The Etruscans are also more liberal than the Romans of the time in matters pertaining to sexual pleasure. Early Republican Rome was puritanical both in terms of extramarital relations and homosexual relations. Caecilia’s cousin Marcus Aemilius is deeply in love with his childhood friend Claudius Drusus, but he knows that he must never reveal these feelings in any physical way. Pinna, the concubine of the Roman Dictator Marcus Furius Camillus lives in fear that he may find out that she was once officially enrolled as a prostitute. She knows that such a thing will cause Camillus to throw her out into the street.
Homosexual relationships are common and only mildly frowned upon by the Etruscans. When Semni Vulca, a low born Etruscan woman gets pregnant in a religious ritual she is rejected by her husband but still finds a place in the royal palace as a wet nurse.
One question the book brought to mind is whether Republican Rome ever executed a woman for treason. Women were executed for poisoning their husbands or, in the case of Vestal Virgins, for being unchaste, but in my reading of Republican Roman history I have never encountered the case of a woman being executed for treason. Even the traitor Tarpeia was killed by the Sabines she sought to extract payment from. In the case of the massacres surrounding the Gracchan brothers none of their female relatives were killed. Sulla listened politely to the pleas of young Julius Caesar’s female relatives and rescinded his proscription, and in the time of proscriptions during the second Triumvirate, Hortensia got away with fomenting a tax rebellion among the Roman matrons. It would seem that the very misogyny of Roman dogma-the firm notion that women were feeble minded-served to protect Roman women from being executed for political crimes.
I enjoyed Call to Juno very much and am pleased to have discovered a new historical fiction author whose books I look forward to reading.

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