Mistress of Rome begins with a 15 year old Thea, slave girl to Lepida Pollia. Thea is constantly put down and abused by Lepida. She's also used by Lepida's father from time to time. Lepida is a very jealous girl, who is also 15 when our story begins. This is the age of gladiators and a new star is rising: Arius. He's a real brute of a man, he doesn't follow other gladiators' leads by cultivating public favor...which makes him even more favored by the public. He wants nothing to do with people - he's a savage. And Lepida wants him. And in an effort to win his attentions, Lepida has Thea running as her messenger. Which backfires big time when Thea breaks through Arius's inner walls and they fall in love.
But jealous Lepida cannot leave the lovers alone. Since she can't have Arius, no one can. And she ruthlessly sells Lepida to a brothel in a coastal Roman town. This destroys Arius. And he becomes even worse than he was before.
Meanwhile, Thea is rescued from the brothel by a music lover, who trains her with different instruments and refines her singing voice. Thea is transformed into Athena and eventually becomes the lover to Paulinus, Lepida's husband's grown son, who Lepida wants to seduce, not realizing his mistress is Thea. Once Lepida seduces her husband's son, she quickly turns her sights onto the Emperor himself. Which is too bad because Thea unwillingly catches Domitius's eye as well.
So here we have Lepida who believes she should be the center of attention, and she finds her dreams thwarted at every turn by her slave girl. This creates a deep hatred in Lepida and she sets out to destroy Thea.
This is the very basic plot for the Mistress of Rome. There is soooo much more going on and I know there's no way I can do this book justice - it was so intricate and all the political machinations crossed pathways and each character was connected to the other without even realizing. But at it's heart is Thea and Arius, and throughout their separation, we are totally rooting for these characters to get together. And I was so caught up in all the plots and intricacies to this book. So rich!
The only thing I have to say negative about this book is that the beginning is a bit slow. But just plow through that (it's not horrible, just a bit tedious) and you are very richly awarded with this amazing story.
There's a rich cast of characters, and each one is well drawn. The Emperor Domitian is a frightening man - Thea does not go unscathed by catching his eye. But Arius. I loved him. I just wanted to watch Gladiator after reading this book (so I did). And the setting! I could clearly see Rome and the fighting arena and it was just so lush.
For a debut effort, Mistress of Rome was truly engrossing.