Character study: Drusus

November 14, 2009

(Spoilers abound.)

Drusus, or, to give him his full name, Drusus Novius Faustus, is another member of the imperial family. He is a cousin of Marcus’, and appears to be a decade or so older (ie in his late twenties). Drusus is the primary antagonist of the series (at least in the first two books); in Romanitas he is the instigator of Marcus’ parents’ death, plotting with the Emperor’s wife Tulliola to bring about the end of that branch of the imperial family, while in Rome Burning he is at the centre of a conspiracy to discredit Marcus and his attempts to prevent war with Nionia.

Drusus’ antagonism can be traced back to two things, one personal, and one political. As the oldest nephew of the Emperor, you’d expect him to be first in line to become the next emperor, but his uncle passes him over in favour of the younger, more charismatic and idealistic Marcus. It’s not hard to view many of Drusus’ actions as the vindictive vengeance of a jealous rival. In Rome Burning, it is revealed that Drusus heard a prophecy by the Oracle at Delphi that he would become emperor. (In actual fact, the wording of the prophecy is somewhat ambiguous, and I think Drusus took it to mean what he wanted it to mean.)

Drusus’ rivalry with Marcus can also be traced to profound political differences. Marcus was raised by anti-slavery abolitionists. He grew up in a house with no slaves (and is intensely uncomfortable being served by slaves at dinner in the imperial palace) and his experiences in Romanitas (running away, living in secret with escaped slaves, and falling in love with the runaway slave Una) only serve to increase his hatred of slavery and desire to abolish it. Marcus also recognises that the more hawkish members of the Roman political establishment are advocating war in part to create a new source of slaves. Drusus, on the other hand, is quite happy with the institution of slavery, is pro-war and opposed to Marcus’ diplomatic efforts with Nionia. So for this reason, he would also like to be emperor: he feels he would do a better job.

Drusus is a thoroughly creepy and repellent antagonist. He is single-minded and selfish: although he often works with others (most memorably, with the Emperor’s wife, Tulliola, in Romanitas), ultimately he is only out for himself. He kills Tulliola without a second thought, seconds after sleeping with her, in order to keep her quiet about his role in Marcus’ parents’ death.

When he interprets some lines in the Delphi Oracle’s prophecy as referring to Una, he attempts to kill her himself. That scene was one of the most uncomfortable in Rome Burning, if only for the visceral physicality of it. It’s one of the most successful and chilling scenes in the whole series, and McDougall manages to perfectly convey the suffocating horror that Una feels as a smaller, weaker woman fighting off an attacker who physically overpowers her. I hesitate to speak for all women, but the fear of being in such a position myself has occasionally crossed my mind (usually when walking home alone at night, or if I’m alone with a guy whom I don’t trust – yes, it has happened), and McDougall describes such fears and feelings with great accuracy.

It’s partly because he dislikes Una so violently that I detest Drusus as much as I do: nobody attacks my favourite character and gets away with it! However, McDougall does take some steps to humanise Drusus. He does appear to genuinely love (as much as such a person is capable of loving) Tulliola, but it is a selfish, all consuming obsession, rather than any more noble feeling. After Tulliola dies, Drusus buys a slave woman who looks exactly like her and, well, you can imagine what he does to the slave woman. This doesn’t do much in fostering readers’ sympathy for his plight, as you can imagine. But it does help to move him away from purely cartoonish villain territory.

I suspect few readers will like or sympathise with Drusus. He appears to be a catalogue of all things despicable: violent, misogynistic, selfish, a conspiracist, a supporter of slavery and war. But McDougall tempers this with just enough hints that much of Drusus’ unpleasantness could’ve been averted if the imperial system was less flawed. So while we react with fear and disgust at Drusus’ cruelty, our thoughts are inadvertently deflected towards contemplating the cruelty of the family and system that shaped and nurtured him. Drusus is the canary in the mineshaft of Rome, not the mineshaft itself.

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