In the time of Julius Cesar, Antyllus is a young slave working in one of Rome’s grotty whorehouses. Having been raised in the brothel, it’s the only life he has ever known, and yet he knows that he is capable of being more than a sexual plaything. He has developed a passion for dance, and even though he has had no formal training, his natural ability is obvious to the rich Senator Gabinius, who encounters Antyllus at a dinner party where the slave boys have been brought to entertain the guests.
Gabinius wastes no time in buying the young man and enlisting the services of Tiberius, the leader of a troupe of entertainers for which Gabinius has been a generous patron. Antyllus begins a grueling training regime and soon achieves some skill, but he is still a slave, and still expected to service Gabinius in his bed each night. He can’t help wondering if this is all he is meant to be.
“Dancing Phaedra” is something of a prequel to Gaius and Achilles. Antyllus made a brief appearance at the start of the previous book, and Gaius makes a few appearances in this story. But this is a very different story from its predecessor. While both books involve the gulf between master and slave, “Gaius and Achilles” was mostly about bridging that gap, while in this story the gap seems beyond closing. Perhaps more importantly, this book is not a romance. At the risk of spoiling the plot, at least a little, Antyllus forms no strong relationships, and there is no ‘white knight’ coming to his rescue. The young man and his struggle is very much at the center of this tale.
Like the previous book, the author has brought the era alive with a richly detailed account of the time and place, although it may not be the kind of scene that popular movies and television shows have made you come to expect. This is a dirty, gritty Rome which was built on slavery. The characters are just as well drawn as the background. Antyllus is a curious protagonist. We can definitely sympathize with his plight and his feelings, but at the same time he can be a somewhat unlikeable character. In large part, because of this, while “Dancing Phaedra” is a very admirable work, it’s hard to say that I really liked it.