Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Assassins of Rome

There are three basic approaches to writing historical fiction. Historical novels can fictionalise a real event; they can tell an entirely invented story that has an historical setting, or they can fill in the gaps in real events or solve a real historical mystery with fiction. Steven Saylor's Gordianus books nearly always take this third approach, inserting Gordianus into real events or court cases, while Lindsey Davis' Falco books tend more towards fiction, but occasionally include real events or mysteries, often in the background.

One of the most fun things about Caroline Lawrence' Roman Mysteries series is that the series as a whole covers all three approaches, from stories like The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, which is entirely fictional, to The Secrets of Vesuvius, which is largely based on historical record. This novel uses elements of the third approach. The story is entirely fictional, but the setting is a fictional speculation on a real unknown - what exactly Vespasian and Titus used the remains of Nero's Golden House for. An entirely female community of Jewish slave women is, perhaps, a rather surprising solution, but it is probably fair to say that stranger things have happened.

This book is filled with gorgeous descriptions of Rome, and one of my personal favourite aspects was they way Flavia and Nubia travelled all over Rome in a litter! This may seem a bit weird - let me explain. When I was little, The Horse and His Boy was my favourite Narnia book (well, other than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and I loved the whole sequence in Tashbaan, where Aravis rides with her friend Lasraleen in her litter, and I always wanted to do that myself. Now, obviously, this was very un-politically-correct of me. The thing is, when you're six years old and the book you're reading features two talking horses as main characters, you don't really think about the fact that a litter has to be carried by other people, usually slaves. Clearly, being a grown-up, I would never do such a thing, but it is a fun thing to read about and the six-year-old me would have been thrilled!

Of course, another of the good things about these books is that they don't let you forget how awful it is to be a slave. When I was in my late teens and reading Robin Hobb's fantasy series (most definitely not suitable for children) I was shocked when a main character was given a slave tattoo, so I can only imagine how over-sensitive child-me would have reacted to Jonathan's branding here. There is also a pretty clear reference to the rape of an entire city, which may go over the heads of some children (I hope).

On the other hand, some of the details of this story were not as bad as the TV version, which surprised me greatly, since I would normally assume children can take more in a book than visualised on the television. Jonathan's uncle Simeon is not blinded here, but is able to explain himself to the Emperor in time to escape unharmed, and Jonathan's mother assures him that she is not Titus' lover, only his friend. The Emperor comes off rather better and Susannah stays where she is through choice, hoping to influence him. This would have left child-me much, much happier! Josephus also comes off better here, which makes grown-up me happy too.

There's an interesting line about halfway through the book - Sisyphus, the secretary (I kept wondering if his name was significant, but he seemed happy enough!) says 'I'm a Greek, we're not afraid of strong women' - unlike the Romans, who are, especially those from the East. This is certainly true as far as the Romans are concerned, though I think they were equal parts fascinated and appalled by Livia, Cleopatra and the others, and some strong imperial women were greatly admired (Octavia, Agrippina the Elder, Antonia the Younger).

The reference to the Greeks is very interesting. Classical Athens itself was, I think, an awful place to be if you were a woman - rich women were kept inside, allowed out only for religious festivals and funerals, in upper quarters and considered utterly inferior by men (scholarly opinion does vary on the extent to which this was true - personally, I tend to think Athens was a pretty sh***y place to be if you were a woman). Greek literature, however, is pretty ripe with strong women. Clytemnestra and Medea are to be feared, as murderers, but Penelope, Antigone, Electra and Hecuba are all admired. In the first century AD, when the book is set, the Greek genre of the romance novel was taking off, and the heroines in these are pretty strong too. So I think the really interesting point is, would a Greek of the first century AD end up with a view of women that was polar opposite to his forebears, as the original contexts of some of the texts were lost and only the strong, interesting female characters remained? It's certainly something to think about next time I teach Gender in Ancient Rome!

Titus is almost implausibly nice to everyone in this book, but this is tempered by allusions to his behaviour in the past, which I found very interesting. I haven't yet read all of the Falco books, but in the ones I've read, Titus tends to come across pretty well all the time, to contrast him with his horrible brother Domitian. Here, Domitian's brief appearance doesn't reveal anything terrible about him, while Titus, although he has reformed and is behaving very well, is clearly described as not always having been so nice. It's lovely to see these more complex characterisations here. Our heroes do not know that Suetonius will eventually paint Titus as good - though, importantly, only when he was Emperor, not before - and Domitian as bad, so it's good to see them discover this gradually.

The Arch of Titus, commemorating the sack of Jerusalem

I enjoyed this book a lot - it won me over early on with a dream that made use of Penelope's loom, combining some of my favourite themes! And Flavia describing the under-construction Colosseum as 'colossal' made me smile (and yes, the author's note at the back makes clear that the name comes from the statue, not the amphitheatre itself, but Flavia doesn't know that!). It's also clearly set up for a sequel - I'm glad I know that this is not the end of the story, as poor Miriam and Mordecai being in the dark still would be rather frustrating otherwise. The children are sensible as ever, allowing grown-ups to help them and accepting help when they need it, and their use of their musical ability is a nice touch, as this particular skill turns out to be extremely useful.


  1. Titus was very popular in Rome, which certainly doesn't exclude political ruthlessness or a bloodthirsty attitude toward conquered peoples. Of course, they were a little bewildered by his affair with a foreign woman several years his senior, but you can't have everything. That perception of him might have changed had he lived longer. In the Falco books, he is a nice enough fellow, though a tad clueless about ordinary people and rather lazy. There are occasional glimpses of steel underneath, though.

    As for the position of women in classical Athens, there are a lot of questions and uncertainties. The primary sources come from a rather narrow class with a distinctive viewpoint. It's not even entirely clear whether they are describing fact or an aristocratic conservative ideal. There are clear indications of middle and lower class citizen women selling in the marketplace and even upper class women seem to have had plenty of opportunities to acquire lovers. Not that their position was great, but they may have been no worse off than Roman matrons of the late Republic.

  2. Like I said, the nature of women's lives in Classical Athens is the source of quite a bit of debate and I personally take the view that it was not a nice place to be. Lysias 1 makes it pretty clear that certain women only left the house during religious festivals, another legal speech refers to a woman kept inside so much they need the evidence of slaves to prove her existence, various medical and philosophical texts make men's view of women pretty clear, Aristotle thought that when a woman looks into a mirror during her period the mirror turns brown and never even bothered to ask the nearest woman if that was actually true and Thucydides says women's greatest virtue is never to be talked about.

    Most of this would probably apply to the upper classes, since poorer or middle class women would need to work, but personally, I'd rather be a woman in 1st century AD Rome than 5th century BC Athens.

  3. I would be inclined to take Lysias 1 with a grain of salt, since it was in Euphiletos' best interest to give the jurors the impression that he kept a tight rein on his wife. I'm not entirely convinced that one meeting at a funeral and a few notes passed by a maid would really be sufficient to launch a long-term affair. That other speech almost sounds like it was one of those model exercises.

    The medical and philosophical texts that we have are predominantly Hellenistic, but they certainly grew out of classical attitudes and knowledge. The medical writers usually claimed they had their information from women (mostly prostitutes), but that seems unlikely in most cases.

    Aristotle was, I suppose, trying to explain why mirrors tarnish. How he explained tarnishing in other metal surfaces, I don't know. But then, just about the nicest thing I can say about Aristotle is that he isn't Plato.

    As for Thucydides, I think most Romans would have agreed with him. Generally speaking in the ancient world, if people were talking about a woman, they weren't saying nice things about her.

    None of which is to say you're wrong. Roman women probably did have it a little better, if only because their men actually talked to them.

  4. I see no reason why it wouldn't launch an affair, if the marriage was unhappy. As far as we know, the other speech I referred to, Isaeus 8, was a real court case. For more texts suggesting women kept ‘protected’ indoors, see, e.g. Demosthenes speech 47.53, 58-61, 49.48, 57.30ff.

    Aristotle was discussing dreams - the mirror section comes in his treatise on dreams. He was explaining how things seen during the day are reflected in dreams and used the period-mirror thing as an example to illustrate his point. And whatever he was getting at doesn't excuse the fact he never bothered to ask a woman if it was actually true (it's not, guys!)

    Many Roman men would indeed have agreed that women should be seen and not heard. My preference for Rome is partly down to pure personal taste, but Rome also produced a few notable women who were praised for their virtues, from Cornelia to Octavia to Antonia to Julia Domna, and Classical Athens, not so many.

  5. Juls, I assume you have "won" this debate, since DemetriosX has given up!



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