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The Emperor's Babe

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  483 ratings  ·  63 reviews
Bernardine Evaristo’s tale of forbidden love in bustling third-century London is an intoxicating cocktail of poetry, history, and fiction. Feisty, precocious Zuleika, daughter of Sudanese immigrants-made-good and restless teenage bride of a rich Roman businessman, craves passion and excitement. When she begins an affair with the emperor, Septimius Severus, she knows her ...more
Paperback, 250 pages
Published February 24th 2004 by Penguin Books (first published 2002)
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Average rating 3.71  · 
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K.J. Charles
What an amazing read. A verse novel about a black Roman child bride in 3rd-century London who becomes an emperor's mistress. The text is vivid to the point of fluorescent, mingling details of classical life with casually modern expressions and references (I especially liked this in the placenames, eg they go into the jungle at Bayswater); the cast of characters includes people of all kinds of origins, including the Libyan born emperor and our Sudanese heroine (JUST LIKE ROMAN LONDON ACTUALLY ...more
Anita Fajita Pita
So, "this is a book written in verse" is what you're reading in all the reviews of this book. What you aren't reading is that

this is a book that you forget
is written in verse.

so you just kind of plow through
three quarters of it

until something kind of sings out
and your eyes stutter

and you remember

that this is a book



I don't really have the right words to comment on this story. It's magical and lyrical and full of lust and love and sorrow. The commentary is feminist; it's
Gumble's Yard
Nov 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
I could give him backchat, and anyway
I’d never write good poetry because what did

I know about war, death, the gods
and the founding of countries?

But you see, Dad, what I really want to read
and hear is stuff about us, about now

about Nubians in Londinium, about men
who dress up as women, about extramarital

peccadilloes, about girls getting married
to older men and on that note

Londoninium 211, Zuleika the young daughter of a black Nubian small businessman who fled to London as a refugee following a
Feb 25, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Twoooo.......and a half? Idk.

Wow first of all I think the edition I had definitely had the best cover. But anyway. This book feels like somebody's thesis that didn't get enough of a tightening-up before publication. I love the core idea so much--the main character, Zuleika is the daughter of Nubian immigrants to Roman Londinium, and the book chronicles her life through verse, since she's an aspiring poet--but this really feels like round one of something, where you find an old thing you wrote in
Oct 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When @penguinukbooks offered to send me two books for #BlackHistoryMonth I asked them to surprise me with their choices. Along with "Bone", this one arrived. I flicked through it and was immediately sceptical. I've never read a modern novel in blank verse and wondered to myself how this was going to go down. I needn't have worried. I was so engrossed that the format did not bother me one bit. *

Set in Roman London, the protagonist is Zuleika, born to Sudanese immigrant parents and is sold at age
Karen Wellsbury
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical, poetry
Set in London in Roman occupation, Zulieka is full of life and energy and wit.
The book mixes modern with old to great effect, Zuleika's friends Alba and Venus are just like her both hilarious, touching and sad.
The story of Zuleika's marriage at 11 and love affair at 18 is shocking, and her feelings are expressed so well.
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Zuleika, the narrator of The Emperor's Babe, is the daughter of Sudanese immigrants in London in the very early third century; she is married aged eleven to a Senator, and several years after starts a relationship with the visiting Emperor, Septimius Severus. I knew a little about him from Gibbon, who writes of him rather disapprovingly in Chapter V of Decline and Fall, though is more positive about him in Chapter VI when he goes to kill the Scots.

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
Mar 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Audacious, sassy, brassy, bold, polyglot, slangy and sublime...Evaristo's verse novel of a black girl in Roman London who briefly becomes the Emperor's babe is a wonder. All of the decadence of imperial Rome is evoked in its sick, lush glory, the eternal, multiracial slums and gentrifying neighbourhoods of London are painted in noisome detail and a tale of the hidden figures of history, of the girls and women and dark people, from slaves to emperors, we usually don't associate with classical ...more
Sep 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Just fantastic, unique, un-put-downable. Funny, touching, magically charming. Narrative Verse that is lushly poetic and yet completely lviing and functional in the delivery of story - I didn't think anyone could write like this anymore.
Yaiza Canopoli
Mar 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Super interesting book, explores sexuality, gender, and love in an Ancient Roman setting, with modern elements!
Aug 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Heidi by: 50books_poc
First verse novel I've read, and certainly not one that I'd intended to start with. I expected that one day I'd get around to reading some of Stephen Herrick's work, or Elizabeth Fensham, or Eva Sandall. But I was shelving books at work and came across this book by Bernadine Evaristo, a name I'd heard a lot on 50books_poc. And I looked at the blurb and read a little bit of the book, and it was like the book reached out and grabbed me. It's the most amazing combination of language and setting and ...more
Meghan Cooper
Feb 21, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Budding readers who are bored of the same conventional books
Recommended to Meghan by: Friend who absolutely loves this book
This book is written entirely in verse and it looks at how a young girl in roman times is forced into a marriage with an older man. It is full of symbolism and excellent decriptions. I thought it was really different from other books and I thought it was well written. On the other hand this book could have flowed better and could have moved at a faster pace. I also didn't understand some parts of the book so I didn't get lots of the full meaning.
Wilde Sky
A novel in verse set in Roman London.

This was a random pick from my local library - I struggled through this book and I found the format / verse was a big distraction from the plot.
Oct 25, 2014 rated it liked it
You gotta love the main character heroine. She's streetwise, quick as a whip, and honestly her voice, the things that she thinks and says, it's all just good fun. You laugh and you buy her character in her frustrations and her drive. However, I will say I was not too fond of the time skips. I feel like Evaristo subtly talks about important things.

Just an example, after Zuleika declares she will make the emperor his, suddenly not even a section or two later, we have Severus eating at her home and
Feb 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I found this on the clearance rack. The review (Kirkus Reviews) quoted on the cover said it was "like an episode of Sex and the City written by Ovid." I don't care for Sex and the City, but Ovid was enough to get me to read it. It was a quick, fun, sexy read. I cried. I appreciated the chance to read some fiction written from the perspective of a black lady under the Roman empire. I'm not typically a "chick lit" sort of person, and there were many moments when I found the interactions between ...more
Anu Hirsiaho
Dec 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A classic of postcolonial feminist fiction-by some standards it could even be called chicklit, though the level of language is too demanding for the novel to be treated only as entertainment. The Nubian presence in the Roman empire is a relatively unknown chapter, so the story of black Zuleika as a well-kept child-bride and mistress was titillating. I saw this book at the time of its publication but was not up to reading it, because of the poetic form and partly archaic language. Now I'm really ...more
Nov 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
i am obsessed with this, i can see flaws but i'm still obsessed, this book still gets a million stars from me!! so funny and clever and consistently brilliant.
Zen Cho
Feb 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: by-poc, historical, poetry
I really liked this! It could have been gimmicky but it wasn't -- it was smart and sharp and very funny. You love Zuleika, but you never pity her.
A very special book.

The year is AD 211. But if you happen to live in London circa AD 2018, you'll come across Zuleika's modern-day sistaz every day. In the tube, on the streets, at the cinema or the shopping mall. Dark and sassy, loud and boisterous, they will on occasion get on your nerves, their incomprehensible patois will leave your ears ringing with tinnitus. But for all that, they are full of life, brimming over with the stuff, and they help to make this city what it is, a cauldron of
Feb 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was torn between rating this with 3 or 4 stars. Ultimately, I went for 4 stars because I would recommend it to someone.

Like a few books I've read recently, 'The Emperor's Babe' has a fascinating premise but didn't manage to keep me interested the whole way through (and it was only took about an hour to read). The story follows Zuleika... *minor spoilers ahead*

... through her rough and tumble childhood on the streets of Roman London, through to her forced marriage, aged 11, to an older,
Josa Young
Nov 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So much to love about this free flowing poem of a novel about Zuleika - daughter of Nubian immigrants washed up in Londinium in the 3rd century AD. She's married off to a lardy Roman businessman called Felix at 11 - 'I have the deepest fondness for my husband of course/ sort of, though he spills over me like dough / and I'm tempted to call Cook mid-coitus / to come and trim his sides so that he fits me... The sly, rollicking, street wise voice of Zuleika comes swinging through on every page, ...more
Thomas Hale
Aug 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
A verse novel (novel in verse?) from the point of view of a young black girl in 3rd-Century Roman Britain. Starting as a child bride and fighting against the restrictions of her society, race and upbringing, she falls in love with the visiting Emperor. She's backed by a couple of friends, who are written with as much character and charm as the rest of the cast. I wasn't expecting there to be a transgender character, let alone such a prominent one, and while she is written rather broadly it was a ...more
Carrie CJ
Aug 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Penelopiad meets The Crimson Petal and The White only in VERSE and I love love LOVED it. What I love most about writing like this is how Bernadine Evaristo (who I cannot WAIT to discover more of) manipulates the verse form so that the prosaic becomes beautifully poetic. Predominantly breezy, occasionally crude but because of that I think it's more poignant, not less, whilst at the same time never feeling contrived or just a bit vulgar for the sake of it. It's a very all or nothing narrative ...more
Isobel Ramsden
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Set in Roman London, this is the story of a multicultural, thoroughly Romanised city and a girl growing up there, Zuleika, whose parents came to Britannia from Libya. Aged just twelve, Zuleika is married off to a repulsive Roman against her will but Felix is a wealthy businessman and her new status gives her certain advantages, including learning to read and write. Written in verse, this inventive and witty novel brings the past vividly to life - warts and all. Frequent allusions to Roman ...more
Apr 28, 2019 rated it liked it
If you are a fan of poetry, this book will delight you. It's a fast, easy read with an entire world of imagination based on some actual fact. The author mixes it up a lot with her prose keeping it original and funny -- yet there were points in the book that I would get confused or be like "Gucci" in Roman times?? Still, it's definitely one of the most original books I've read with a main black female character. If you are not a fan of poetry, you probably won't like the way the book is written ...more
I read this before when I was far too young to understand everything in the book.

I feel it's very dated with the way it smushes 2000 ish colloquialisms with latin.

I'm not great with non standard formatting either so it was never destined to be my favourite book
Louise Witts
There was much about this to like, but I wasn’t gripped by it. I more or less ignored the poetry format. I liked reading about London, and what they ate etc, but wondered how well researched it was - some bits Jarred and I doubted the truth.

Still, interesting and different. Probably 3.5 stars.
Peter Tillman
Progress report:
Liked this one from the start. Finally, a use for my HS Latin class! Surprising how much comes right back: amo, amas, amat and all that -- which has context in the book Zen Cho called it: "smart and sharp and very funny."
Would give 3.5 stars, if I could.
May 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great fun and very well written.
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Bernardine Evaristo is a British writer, born in Woolwich, south east London to an English mother and Nigerian father. She has written novels in various mixes of prose and poetry; she has also written poems, radio plays, and theatre plays. Among her other honours, The Emperor's Babe was chosen as one of the Times' "100 Best Books of the Decade" and Evaristo was named a Member of the British Empire ...more
“To leave a whisper of myself in the world, my ghost, a magna opera of words.” 5 likes
“my fingers penetrated your bushy hair, pulled it up in tufts, squeezed the tension out of your head, to your quiet, grateful groans. I untied the Gordian knots in your shoulders with juniper oil, pummelled your back with my fists, knuckle each vertebrae down to your coccyx, knead your hard buttocks, rub oil into your legs, bathe your tired feet, squeeze them until your tingles shoot up my arm, I chew each toe in turn until it is softened, bite into your soles like a joint of pork, you cannot help but giggle, sir, I turn you over, with my palms, rotate your temples, trace the curves on your face, touching yet not, three fingers inside your mouth, let you suckle, baby, from belly to breast, I massage your chest in concentric circles, pinch your nipples, nibble gently, set my belly-dancer tongue on to them, take your hands, my love, tie them above your head, with your belt, I sit astride my steed, take the reins, my flexible muscles holding you in, flexing like strong fists, tighten and release, teasing you, taming you, your eyes are shut, you have died and gone to Olympus, smiling, I slap it off, so hard my hand hurts, your eyes shoot open like a dead man dying, I slap you again, you feign amusement, your eyes suggest so this is slap and tickle? I take your riding crop, fold it, lash your chest. ‘Take that!’ I hiss. ‘How dare you humour me. Who’s the boss now?” 2 likes
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