Updated: Oct 23, 2021
All I have to say is Veni Vidi Vici! M.J Woodman came to the writing table with the vision of this wondrous futuristic Roman inspired world and conquered the pages as she embarked on creating this phenomenal novel. At first I was skeptical with the story and thought this was going to be just another book similar to the Hunger Games plot. I was gladly mistaken as you become immersed with the politics of the elite Patrician society. If there is one thing I can say to those starting this book, it’s: Don’t judge a book / person by their cover because there is so much more that is to be uncovered in the coming pages. Can’t wait to see what happens next?!
(Tap image to read more book reviews on Goodreads)
At one point in our lives, we have all pondered the question ‘What if’? That the exact punch line M. J Woodman used to entice me in reading her book. She elaborates on the concept of ‘What if the Roman Empire never came to an end'. Her readers are thrown into the commotion of a modern civilization under the power of a parallel Roman Empire regime. Woodman does an extraordinary job amalgamating historical Roman elements within her dystopian society to create at universe familiar and different all at once. Let us congregate in a traditional Roman forum fashion to identify some of brilliant historical elements that were woven into this novel’s framework.
For those who have had the ‘fortuna’ to visit the eternal city of Rome, you would have noticed the endless Latin inscription all over the ancient city. Without even visiting the city one can discover that the common language spoken during the Roman Empire was Latin. The use of Latin plays a crucial role in the novel as it helps to enhance the stories environment. Each chapter starts with a Latin title and has the English translation underneath, so non-Latin readers (such as myself) know what the hell is being stated. My favorite title was in chapter six “In Vino Veritas” (Truth in Wine). This is a legendary quote from Roman history, it is attributed with Pliny the Elder a notable Roman author. This quote resonates with many because it acknowledges the fact that people speak and act more freely when under the influence of alcohol such as wine. The quote is usually followed with “in aqua sanitas” (Health in Water) admitting that water will help sober the person back to their normal conservative state. To the average reader they might assume that this chapter title is just another Latin translation but now we know that this specific quote holds a special historical value.
While reading this novel you can also pull some similarities from other influential young adult novels like the Hunger Games. M. J Woodman began writing this novel when she was thirteen during the height of the Hunger Games worldwide popularity. It makes sense that fragments of M. J debut novel ‘Divine’ were influenced by Suzanne Collins novels. We won’t discuss all the similarities but there are three main story elements that I would like to elaborate on.
The Palatine = The Capitol
In the Hunger Games the main city where all the wealthy and privileged civilians lived was known as the “The Capitol”. In Divine the main elite city state where the current emperor and his people of influence live is called the Palatine. Both capital cities only house the richest and most prominent people of society. The Palatine also references a significant location in Rome, Italy where the ‘Imperial palaces of Roman Emperors were built, starting with Augustus’. (1) The city of Rome consists of seven hills and in the center of these hills is the Palatine Hill, known as one of the most ancient sites and is called “the first nucleus of the Roman Empire”. (2) Another important hill in Rome was the Capitoline Hill. The Capitoline “was regarded by the Romans as indestructible and was adopted as a symbol of eternity”. (3) This hill was known for being the home of the temple of Saturn and Jupiter, having important religious significance to the Roman community. (4) In Divine the people worship a monotheistic religion with the divine subject of worship being called “Dominus”. Dominus has the symbol of a snake in a circle formation to symbolize eternity. The Dominus temple can be found on the Divine alternate reality version of the Capitoline Hill. I think this connection with Roman history was a clever way to highlight what M. J. Woodman was inspired by.
Electa = Katniss
Another obvious similarity between Divine & The Hunger Games are its protagonists. Both main characters are rebellious females who strive to help their family anyway possible. Katniss Everdeen did her best to provide for her family through hunting and volunteering as a tribute to save her sisters life. Electa Steel looks out for her family but in a more rebellious nature. She fraternizes with a organization known as ‘Spartaca’ which is a group of people who are trying to dismantle the ruling government. She finds herself in an awkward position where she has no choice but to participate because they begin threatening the well-being of her family. She complies with the organizations demands so she can protect her younger brother from harm. Spartaca is referencing a figure from the Roman Republic known as Spartacus. Spartacus was a gladiator who helped to create a slave uprising within the Roman Republic which fractured the foundation of the government and was the beginning of the end for the Republic (5).
Electa is also chosen in the governmental ‘Choosing’ ceremony which leaves her to compete with other chosen females for the hand of the future emperor. Electa & Katiness come from poor broken families, they both only have one parent since the other died when they were young. Katniss lives in the poorest region of her civilization known as District 12. Electa also lives in a poor community, she along with the other inhabits of this region are called plebs. The ancient Roman society was broken up into two different classes, the upper-class Patricians and the lower-class Plebeians (6). Electa is the only pleb chosen in the ceremony (which is unheard of) and is stuck competing with four patrician girls from elite families who have trained their whole life for these games.
The Chosen = Tributes
Each of the four chosen females come from prominent families that live in or close to the Palatine. Their family names all have a historical significance to a prominent figure from ancient Rome. Each of the family names indicates a connection to a different Roman dynasty. Let’s identity the figures behind the names:
Trinity Messalla (Valerii)
The family name of Valerii refers to the Roman dynasty Valerian which ruled over the empire for fifteen years from 255 CE to 268 CE. (7)
The last name Messalla was popular during the first century of the Roman Empire. Many people with Mesalla name had important roles in the ancient roman society spanning from senator, general and consul. A famous Messalla was Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus who was a senator and brother to Valeria Messalina the third wife of emperor Claudius. (8)
Valentina Sylla (Cornellii)
The Sylla name is a play on words which is like the name Sulla. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix was consul in 88, 80 BC and also known as a for his successful role being a Roman general and statesman. Known for winning the “first large-scale civil war in Roman history and became the first man of the republic to seize power through force.” (9)
The Cornellii family in ancient Rome was a one of the greatest patrician houses during the Roman Republic. (10)
Aria Glycias (Claudii)
Marcus Claudius Glicia also known as Glycias was the son of a freedman of the gens Claudia. Gens Claudia was a patrician family that had held the highest offices in the Roman state since the early 5th century BC and would go on to form an important part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. (11) The Julio-Claudian dynasty is one of the most famous families in ancient Rome and ruled the Empire for ninety-five years from 27 BCE to 68 CE. (12)
Ember Hadrianus (Fabii)
Hadrianus is the Latin name for the Roman emperor Hadrian who reigned from 117 – 138 CE. (13) The house name of Fabii resembles the second most influential Roman Dynasty the Flavians who brought to life majestic architectural masterpiece the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Roman Colosseum. (12) (14)
This book was a wonderful egg hunt of Roman history facts and I enjoyed how M. J. Woodman used the influence of the Roman Empire and modern pop culture to formulate an alternate reality where the Roman Empire never failed and continue to (sort of) flourish in modern day.
(1) The Atlas of Ancient Rome, Biography and Portraits of the City, Ed. Andrea Carandini, Paolo Carafa, trans. Andrew Campbell Halavais, Princeton University Pressm 2012, pp. 216=17, ISBN 978-0-691-16347-5
(2) Merivale, Charles, A General History of Rome: from the Foundation of the City to the Fall of Augustulus, B.C. 753— A.D. 476. New York: Harper & Brothers (1880), p. 39.
(3) Capitolium in Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (1879) A Latin Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
(5) Historian Barry Strauss on His New Book The Spartacus War (Interview). Simon & Schuster. 2009.
(6) Mathisen, Ralph (2019). Ancient Roman Civilization: History and Sources. Oxford University Press.
(7) Caldwell, Craig H. (2018). "The Roman Emperor as Persian Prisoner of War: Remembering Shapur's Capture of Valerian". Brill's Companion to Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society. pp. 335–358.
(8) Paterculus, The Roman History, p.127
(9) Plutarch, Life of Sulla, 6.10
(10)Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. I, p. 855 ("Cornelia Gens").
(11) Broughton, vol. I, p. 215.
(12) Kidner, Frank; Bucur, Maria; Mathisen, Ralph; McKee, Sally; Weeks, Theodore (2013). Making Europe: The Story of the West. p. 161. ISBN 978-1111841317.
(13) Ando, Clifford "Phoenix", Phoenix, 52 (1998), pp. 183–185. JSTOR 1088268.
(14) "BBC's History of the Colosseum p. 2". Bbc.co.uk. 22 March 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2012.