Top Five Roman Murder Mysteries

In terms of detective fiction, the only thing better than a good murder mystery is a good murder mystery with an interesting setting. I have a love of quirky, interesting detective stories with fun settings, from cozies like Riley Adams (Elizabeth Craig)'s Memphis BBQ books, set in a Southern restaurant, to quirky spoofs like Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth books, which are Raymond Chandler pastiches full of evil Druids and victimised fudge box girls set in Aberystwyth, to the City Watch Discworld books, in which our heroes may find themselves trying to produce a million-to-one chance so they can shoot a dragon. So obviously I have a great fondness for detective stories and murder mysteries set in my period of history, ancient Rome.

Spoilers follow; I've avoided actually naming the murderer but there are fairly substantial spoilers floating around. OK, very substantial spoilers. Best not read any of the details if you haven't read the book...

5. The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Dio, an Egyptian philosopher
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The trial of Marcus Caelius Rufus, 56 BC
Is justice served? That depends on your definition of 'justice'.
Why read it? I read this book a long time ago so my memories of it are vague, but it is surely one of the most fascinating Gordianus stories. I read the books out of order; I was particularly keen to read this one, because it was based around Cicero's speech in defense of Caelius. This speech one of the reasons I have intensely disliked Cicero throughout my academic career. In it, he completely destroys the reputation of a woman called Clodia, using a combination of sexism and inferences. Clodia's social life never recovered and she pretty much disappeared from public life after this. Saylor's Clodia is a fascinating creation, largely built from the rather one-sided ancient evidence but managing to be sympathetic at the same time, while this story marks a turning point in Gordianus' increasing disillusionment with his former friend Cicero. The actual murder mystery is something of a separate, though linked, issue, but holds its own among the high politics with its intensely personal context for Gordianus and its genuinely shocking conclusion.

4. The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis
Victim: Sosia Camillina, a relative of Helena Justina
Detective: Marcus Didius Falco
Context: The first years of the reign of the emperor Vespasian, AD 70
Is justice served? No.
Why read it? The first of the Falco novels is also the cruellest, the most cynical, the grittiest and the most bitter - though still written with the wry humour that makes him so beloved of readers. We meet Falco as a struggling bachelor and the murder that forms the heart of this book is by far the most tragic and the most affecting (though I confess I haven't read all the books yet). The case is intensely personal and the solution firmly rooted in its historical context. Although justice is not directly served for Sosia, there is enough resolution and enough characters are brought to justice for related reasons that the ending satisfies, and of course her tragedy is balanced out by Falco and Helena's happy ending. If you like Falco, you must make sure you read this first, character-defining story.

3. 'Some Justice', I, Claudius
Victim: Germanicus Caesar
Detective: All the main characters, really. Livia is the most successful.
Context: The death of emperor Tiberius' nephew and adopted son Germanicus, AD 19
Is justice served? Some of it. Obviously.
Why watch it? This is more a courtroom drama than a detective story, but it still counts as a murder mystery, as most of the main cast spend the episode not just pursuing the case, but trying to work out what actually happened as well. The story is also told in Robert Graves' novel, of course, but the format of this, as an hour-long courtroom drama taking place within one episode, is especially effective. Again, we have here a real and really mysterious death, which in real life may or may not have played out the way it does here. Like Saylor in both his novels listed here, Graves uses the classic historical novelist's technique of taking a real death and a real solution and presenting an alternative, secret explanation - or, in this case, a deeper and more complicated explanation. His solution plays into the way he wants to present his characters later in the novel and is perhaps less shocking than you might think, given the characters involved, but he certainly spins a good yarn. The slow revelation of this solution over the course of the episode, and in particular Livia's crucial dinner conversation, make for a satisfying hour of television and a refreshing change of pace in the middle of a long series.

2. The Man from Pomegranate Street, by Caroline Lawrence
Victim: Titus Caesar. Possibly.
Detective: Flavia Gemina, Nubia and Lupus. And Jonathan, sort of. And Aristo.
Context: The death of the emperor Titus, AD 81.
Is justice served? Your guess is as good as mine... probably not.
Why read it? Since The Roman Mysteries are children's books, they are fairly light on murders, at least in the events of the books - recoverable crimes, like theft or kidnapping are more common (the characters' back-stories are another matter all together). The later books in particular do go further into the murder mystery area, with poor long-suffering Nubia's discovery of a dying man in The Slave Girl from Jerusalem standing out as a sign of slowly increasing violence as the characters and readers get older and more mature. The Man from Pomegranate Street, the last novel, goes to slighter darker places again, while remaining suitable for middle grade readers. One of the things I like about this story is that it's not clear whether a murder has occurred - the mystery is, was it murder? It's a really interesting approach, especially since this is a real-life death, and a slightly mysterious one. I also love that Lawrence doesn't go for the obvious solution, but presents several possibilities, some quite shocking to a young reader - while at the same time ensuring that the resolution, as far as there is resolution, offers a level of reassurance (these are children's books after all!).

1. Roman Blood, by Steven Saylor
Victim: Sextus Roscius
Detective: Gordianus the Finder
Context: The dictatorship of Sulla and Cicero's defense of Roscius' son, 81 BC
Is justice served? Er, it's so long since I read it I actually can't remember!
Why read it? It's been well over ten years since I read this book and as you can see, I can barely remember most of the details! It's number one on my list though, because I love the simplicity of the concept so much. Saylor takes an extant defense speech by Cicero and a real murder case and builds a murder mystery from it, offering his own (fictional) solution to the case and using Gordianus to explore the various characters involved, especially Cicero himself and his secretary Tiro. Saylor also examines Sulla and his dictatorship but, reading this long before I ever studied any ancient history, it was the murder mystery and the characters, especially Tiro and Bethesda, that appealed to me. It's also beautifully and evocatively written. I could have lived with slightly less of Cicero's actual speech perhaps - which bored me even before the Pro Caelio sealed my dislike of him - but otherwise, this is a cracking story and essential reading for Saylor fans.


  1. I can't remember either if the bad guy in Roman Blood gets punished, but at least Gordianus gets his client off the hook. They even form a lasting friendship that results in Gordianus getting some property later in life.

    I've always just accepted Clodia's bad reputation without really thinking about it. Cicero's certainly not the only one to smear her. And isn't she generally accepted to have been Catullus' Lesbia? She probably wasn't having it off with her brother (who I think probably was almost as bad as he gets painted in the sources), but she likely wasn't entirely innocent either. She gets a really bad presentation in John Maddox Roberts' SPQR series, obviously heavily flavored by Cicero.

  2. Yes, she's usually assumed to be Lesbia, that goes back to antiquity (I talked about it when I reviewed Counting the Stars I think). But since Catullus is writing fictionalised poetry, that's not really much of a clue to her character. Perhaps she was horrible, we don't know - but the ancient evidence is so fantastically one-sided, whether it's coming from Cicero or anyone else (usually her brother's enemies who can criticise him by criticising her), that we can never really know what the woman was actually like.

  3. Totally agree, Juliette! We'll never know the real Clodia but only see her through the smear campaigns of those who stood to benefit from them and/or her downfall. I wonder, has anyone ever written the story from HER point of view...? Hmmmm.

    At any rate, I love all the books you mentioned. Steven Saylor is a remarkable novelist. I also continue to think of SILVER PIGS as Davis's best Falco book. Gritty indeed. I loved her COURSE OF HONOR though and wonder if she will break away from Falco a bit and gives us more stories like that one.

  4. Re: Clodia, Catullus, and Cicero.

    [I've written a book on the subject, which is now being prepared for print-on-demand by CreateSpace. An excerpt follows. It is directed in particular at Nicklas Holzberg's article “Lesbia, the Poet, and the Two Faces of Sappho: ‘Womanufacture’ in Catullus”, PCPS 46:28-44, which article takes the position that *both* Cicero *and* Catullus were simply making it all up:]

    "Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities." (Bertrand Russell, 1924)

    If Catullus is writing of one of Clodia Metelli’s sisters, where is the evidence that either sister has changed her name from “Claudia” to “Clodia”?

    Where is the evidence that either of her sisters is married at a time when Catullus is already old enough to begin an adulterous affair?

    Where is the evidence that Caelius has an affair with either of Clodia Metelli’s sisters?

    What is Catullus praising Cicero for, in an epigram with obvious allusions to Lesbia, if not his success in Pro Caelio?

    If Lesbia has no real-life correlate in Clodia, why does Apuleius cite her as such in defending his own use of pseudonyms for real people in his writings?

    If Lesbia bears no more than a faint resemblance to a freed slave of Catullus’s acquaintance who happens to be named “Clodia”, why does Catullus hide her real identity behind a pseudonym – yet viciously attack the likes of Caesar by his real name?

    If Cicero’s Pro Caelio is the vicious sliming of the wholly innocent widow of an esteemed colleague of the Jurists themselves, why is not Cicero run out of Rome on a rail (permanently, this time) – as any defense attorney would be in like circumstances?

    If Catullus is merely ‘riffing’ on existing literary motifs, why is he savaging friends (or their relatives), not to mention Caesar and Mamurra, by name?

    If Clodia’s Caelius did not know Catullus in Verona when both were young men, why does Catullus not give this other “Caelius” a pseudonym?

    If the second prosecutor of Caelius is a “P Clodius” other than Clodia’s brother, why does Cicero style his name as he does the name of Clodia’s brother many times in his other writings, including private correspondence?

    If Catullus’s poems hostile to Clodia are merely versifications of Cicero’s accusations in Pro Caelio, whose orations is he versifying in his other hostile poems?

    Commentators and other readers alike are free to extract from the source documents whatever meaning may make the most sense to them. It happens, though, that the most unambiguous reading is that Clodia Metelli is substantially as Cicero describes her, whatever liberties he may have taken as a defense attorney, and that she is Catullus’s Lesbia, whatever poetic liberties he may have taken. This reading best fits the documents, requires the fewest extra-documentary assumptions, and raises the fewest unanswerable questions.

    From the perspective of poetic sense, the identification of Clodia Metelli as the real-life “Lesbia” illuminates Catullus’s artistic achievement. For, if “Lesbia” is Clodia Metelli, then the “Rufus” song-poems (69 and 77), the “Caelius” song-poems (58 and 100), the “Cicero” song-poem (49), Pro Caelio itself, and – it is my strongly held thesis – the “Caecilius” song-poems (35 and 67) together form a fascinating mosaic-in-verse, with Clodia Metelli at its center. But, if Lesbia is someone else, we are left with a pile of unrelated ‘tiles’.

    Ergo, “Lesbia” is beyond (reasonable) doubt the real-life Clodia Metelli, the learned Sapphic Muse whom Catullus loved, lost, and, as a result thereof, launched them both into literary immortality. Unless Catullus were to abandon the use of a pseudonym entirely, I do not know how he could make more apparent this identification. To be sure, the scholarly consensus that this identification cannot be made without at least some reservation demonstrates that Catullus’s objective in using a pseudonym for Clodia has been successful all along. QED.

  5. If it is further accepted that Catullus is more interested in immortalizing himself by writing about Clodia than in disseminating to a Roman audience mere slave-girl gossip regarding otherwise obscure figures from Brescia and Verona, then it is obvious who is the ‘mystery woman’ of Carmina 67.

  6. Re the ending of "Roman Blood" (spoilers ahead): The murderer got away without being punished by official justice, but he was murdered in turn just after that. The quick investigation and solving by Gordianus of this murder is a sort of coda to the novel.

    I am a big fan of Saylor's novels and other works about this time period, so I am enjoying having discovered this blog.) I wanted to ask, have you read Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series? There are my favorite books set on this epoch, covering the whole period 110 - 30 BC with compelling, epic storytelling and an amazing amount of background research.


  7. Not yet, but I have a volume of it (a middle volume I think) sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read!


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