Proud maidens flicking their stolas to the side. Brooding gladiators with sculpted cheekbones and strong sword arms. All Romans have spirits as tough as a legionnaire’s sword, but they can also melt with a lover’s glance. Surprisingly, Romans do not appear among the more common heroes and heroines in romance novels. A few notable exceptions, however, prove that Italian inamoratas are worthy of any love story.
Lynn Bartlett’s Defy the Eagle features a star-crossed romance between Caddaric, a fierce Celtic warrior, and Jilana, the daughter of a Roman merchant, who meet one another in war-torn Roman Britain. When Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, rises up against the Roman Empire in the first century C.E., Caddaric fights for his people. He and Jilana face innumerable tribulations that come up against their fated love.
Despite some historical inaccuracies—for example, “Jilana” is not a Roman name, nor is “Caddaric” a Celtic one—Defy the Eagle allows Jilana and Caddaric’s angsty amour to leap off the page. Raised in two disparate worlds and thrust together by the tides of war, the pair positively oozes sexual tension, both on and off the battlefield and in the bathhouse. Add in a rogue Druid or two, Jilana’s embittered Roman fiancé, Lucius, and the compelling story of Boudicca’s quest for independence, and you’ve got a recipe for romance.
Like Defy the Eagle, Nadia Aidan’s Centurion’s Honor features a powerful native queen set against a Roman colonial backdrop. This time, though, Matron Anan Septinius reigns in Dahomey—located in modern day Benin in Africa—under the yoke of Rome. Anan resents the Romans’ presence in her homeland, but she can’t resist the allure of a few flirty foreigners.
Centurion’s Honor gets more down and dirty than Eagle. When sexy centurions Cassius and Titus entwine their long limbs in a guy-on-guy romp, the reader salivates as their six-packs grate against one another. Sometimes, Anan lets down her guard to join them for a tripartite romp in the hay. Who says the ancients didn’t know how to have good raunchy fun?
A colonial Roman setting proves alluring to readers because it automatically positions one side against another. One character will hail from the indigenous population of the land, pitting himself or herself against the hated conquerors. When he or she gets to know the Roman victor, though, individual personalities connect; they rise above the political fray to connect spiritually—and sexually.
Not all Roman romances focus on colonial conflicts. Some have grimy gladiators square off with impeccably dressed maidens until they fall head over heels in love. In her short novel Mask of the Gladiator, Georgie Lee sets her characters against a tumultuous political setting. In 41 C.E., the tyrannical emperor Caligula was assassinated and was succeeded by his uncle Claudius.
Determined to survive such calamitous events, the brawny gladiator Titus captivates the noble Livia Duronius. Caught up in each other’s arms, Titus and Livia succumb to their lusts, not realizing that the other’s identity might surprise—and alarm—the other. Mask features steamy sex scenes, but slightly less graphic ones than those in Centurion’s Honor. When Livia strokes Titus’ muscled biceps, the reader swoons in desire, as gladiator and matron wrap themselves around each other.
Ancient Rome provides a complex political and social background for a romance novel. As the Romans spread “civilization” across the known world, they trod countless native tribes underneath their hob-nailed sandals. Various resistance movements, from Britain to the East, sprang up against Roman rule. It’s natural that people from opposite sides of the colonial fence might be attracted to one another.
The strict Roman class system also allows for a Romeo and Juliet-style romance. Far from a “princess and stableboy” fling, individuals realize that that structure’s rigidity is meaningless when it comes to love. After all, who cares about the details when your paramour is the handsomest gladiator in the Empire?
Carly Silver recently graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College, Columbia University, and the Columbia Publishing Course. A lifelong lover of romance novels, she also develops and writes humanities content and curricula for middle and high school academic courses for Shmoop.com.