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More Mysteries of Ancient Rome: Ruth Downie’s Medicus Ruso

Cover of Medicus by Ruth Downie

Looking back over some of my earlier posts, I realized that there is a new series I can add to my reviews of murder mystery series set in the ancient Roman world. These are British novelist Ruth Downie’s stories of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman army physician serving in Britain around the time Hadrian became Emperor. I first learned of this series when I snagged a copy of the third book in the series, Persona Non Grata, through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program, in which publishers provide free copies for a few lucky readers, who promise to publish an online review of the book after they’ve read it. (Quite a good gig, by the way. I’ve gotten several good books this way.) I’ve since read the first two in the series (as Kindle ebooks), and have grown to like bumbling Ruso who, despite being a terrible investigator, nonetheless always gets his man. (You can read my LibraryThing review of Persona Non Grata here.) The fourth  in the series has just appeared in print this month (Caveat Emptor in the U.S. and Ruso and the River of Darkness in the U.K.)

UK cover of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, by Ruth Downie

Before I give my analysis of the series, I’d like to mention something that author Downie acknowledges on her website, namely the fact that the novels go by completely different titles (also, have different cover art and even list the author’s name differently) in their U.S. and U.K., as you can see in the two cover images of the first volume displayed here. All of the U.S. editions have as their titles familiar Latin words or phrases (Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor), while the British versions are all titled Ruso and … (the Disappearing Dancing Girls, the Demented Doctor, the Root of All Evils, the River of Darkness). I attribute this to the fact that the ambivalence contermporary Brits have toward the Latin language. Familiarity with Latin is actually gaining popularity and prestige in the United States these days (think of the “classical education” movement that is gaining ground in homeschooling and private education), while in self-consciously egalitarian Britain Latin is apparently an unpleasant reminder of the bad-old-days class distinction, when the privileged members of the upper (and parts of the middle) class learned Latin as a routine part of their schooling, while the working class remained semi-literate. Presumably, whatever stratum of contemporary British society buys lightweight murder mysteries would be put off by Latin titles. At any rate, I prefer the Latin titles to the rather hokey and contrived Ruso and … versions.

For the sake of easy comparison with the other Roman murder mysteries I’ve discussed, I’ll stick to the same format for the Ruso novels:

  • Period: Early second century, set in the outer reaches of Roman imperial sway (for the most part, Britain), around the time that Hadrian became Roman Emperor (117 A.D.). At this time, Rome was already a well-established presence in Britain, but was still struggling to subdue the natives; in fact, this struggle is an integral feature of the novels, which play on the cultural differences between the Roman and British ways of understanding life and living it. Persona Non Grata, the second in the series, is the only installment so far to take place outside of Britain: in that story, Ruso goes home to southern Gaul to sort out some family problems. It seems highly unlikely that Roma urbs will feature as the setting of any of these novels.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Ostensibly, this is Gaius Petreius Ruso (although he couldn’t succeed without the British Tilla, who starts as his slave and later becomes his wife). Ruso is the eldest son of a provincial Roman family, who for some unexplained reason preferred life as an army surgeon to inheriting his father’s villa and farm (Ruso lets his brother take on the headaches of family obligations, as we learn in the third volume). Ruso is a competent physician, but almost completely lacking in personal ambition, which is probably a good thing, as he (like many modern surgeons) is completely lacking in “people skills” or political savvy; not that he is rude or brusque, but he seems to have an emotional IQ of zero. I doubt I’ve ever known of anyone, in literature or in life, who was so inept at understanding what makes people tick or what motivates human behavior. This, of course, makes him quite an unlikely sleuth, and it must be said that Ruso seems to solve crimes in spite of himself. He succeeds only with the assistance of Tilla, who lacks any interest in investigation but seems to put Ruso onto the right scent without knowing or caring that that is what she is doing.
  • What I like: I like the setting, the juxtaposition of the Roman and Celtic cultures, which provide a wonderful contrast. The reader gets a good sense of why the Romans were never entirely successful at Romanizing the British. Also, I suppose British readers (and Anglophile Americans) will enjoy reading stories set in ancient towns whose Roman roots may go almost unremembered today. The tone of these novels is lightly humorous, but Ruso is by no means the kind of scamp that Lindsey Davis’s Falco is. In fact, much of the humor springs from the irony of Ruso’s bumbling investigation, with every character other than Ruso seeming to know more than he about the mystery at hand.
  • What I don’t like: Although I like the novels overall, I must admit that their protagonist drives me nuts. Ruso’s almost complete ignorance of ordinary psychology and his obtuse inability to ask what seem obvious questions at times seem to defy belief. (Ruso is the kind of person who today would inspire engineer or Aggie jokes.) Fortunately, his feminine sidekick, the earthy Tilla, offsets his left-brained, linear-thinking way of going about things.

Like the Didius Falco series, this series aims more at telling amusing stories than presenting gripping, suspenseful mysteries. The would-be sleuth’s bumpy relationship with his female partner often looms larger than the question of identifying a murderer. Nonetheless, the solution of the mystery running through the story usually manages to tie these two strands together in a satisfying way. Despite my frustration at Ruso’s obtuseness, I’ll keep reading the Medicus series.

Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

Character matters …

Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

… unless you’re Macchiavellian

Livy and Sallust
Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 3 (Marcus Didius Falco mysteries)

The Silver Pigs (Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries)The third series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome with which I am most familiar are those of Lindsey Davis, the investigations of fictional detective Marcus Didius Falco, who lives and snoops during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (father of succeeding Emperors Titus and Domitian, who all together constitute the Flavian Dynasty). Unlike the Roberts and Saylor novels, this series gives insight into the popular culture of the early Imperial Rome, rather than the historical events that contributed to the collapse of the Republic. Falco’s escapades are also considerably more lighthearted and deliberately comedic than those of the other two fictional detectives, which may be why they are so popular.

  • Period: The first in the series, The Silver Pigs, takes place in A.D. 70, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Vespasian (also the year of the razing of Jerusalem), but the central events transpire in Roman Britain. The most recent (20th) addition to the series, Nemesis (only recently released in hard cover) takes place in A. D. 77., toward the end of Vespasian’s reign. The intervening novels take the protagonist to the far corners of the Roman Empire, which in this period was at its greatest expanse.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Marcus Didius Falco, a plebeian with a checkered family background, is a freelance “informer” who works on commission for the emperor, reporting to the emperor’s Chief Spy. Falco is also a free-wheeling scamp who is not afraid to be politically-incorrect: for instance, early in the series, he sets up housekeeping with Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who becomes the mother of his first child. The colorful commoners in Falco’s family and the more conventional and proper aristocrats in Helena’s provide a good overview of the social spectrum of Roman citizenry of the period, and serve to suggest that the early Empire’s pretense of preserving the social and civic mores that had given strength and resiliency to the Roman republic was just that — pretense. Davis seems to suggest that the real vitality of Rome, at this point, lies in the huge plebeian swathe of the population, whose interests, unlike those of the stiff, old Senatorial class, are varied, earthy, and definitely not stuffy. Think of Falco as the Roman equivalent of a modern East-Ender and Helena as the equivalent of the younger generation of the British aristocracy, who want to break out of the quaint anachronism of the social class into which they’ve been born.
  • What I Like: First, these stories are just plain laugh-out-loud funny. You just can’t not like that scamp, Falco, and you can’t help but sympathize with the women (well-bred girlfriend Helena Justina and his common but practical mother) who try to rein him in and keep him on the straight and narrow. To my mind, Davis does a better job than Saylor of showing the contrasting values and habits of the common and the aristocratic classes. Another attractive feature of these novels is the wide range of locales covered, with at least as much time spent in the provinces as in Rome itself.
  • What I Don’t Like: As with Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder stories, my chief quibble is the projection of modern social mores and political attitudes onto citizens of ancient Rome. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a woman like Helena Justina would choose (or be allowed) to take up the role of common-law wife to a low-life like Falco (if he were a member of the Roman nouveau riche, this might be a bit more plausible). Davis admits on her official website that she wanted to create characters and situations that suited her own feminist sensibilities. However, I am more inclined to make allowances for the charming and irrepressible Falco than I am for the dully self-righteous Gordianus. I frankly admit my personal bias in this matter, but would defend it by pointing out that, in the case of Saylor, modern sensibilities may distort our understanding of important historical events, whereas in Davis’s novels they simply provide for a lively cast of characters, none of whom is closely involved with events of historical moment.
There are many other novels, or even novel series, that use Republican or Imperial Rome as their background, but these three series are the ones I know best. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, both as mystery novels and as windows into ancient culture. I’ll summarize my assessments of the three:
  • John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries: Best overall, because it ably balances historic and cultural accuracy with entertainment. Although not as much of a scamp as Davis’s Falco, Decius Caecilius Metellus manages to give us an insider’s view of the ruling class without being stuffily pious about it; he has plenty of youthful adventures, including a long and spirited rivalry with Clodius Pulcher and an on-going friendship with ex-galley slave Milo, who becomes a gang leader in the Roman underworld and chief (eventually deadly) rival of Clodius.
  • Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mysteries: Gives an interesting contrasting view of many of the same events covered in the SPQR novels. While I believe Gordianus’s viewpoint reflects that of some modern historical revisionists more than it does one typical of any Roman of Gordianus’s day, these novels are well-crafted mysteries that can provide many hours of satisfying entertainment. They also, if read in tandem with Robert’s SPQR stories, can provide a glimpse of the spectrum of modern evaluations of important milestones in Roman history.
  • Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mysteries: Probably the most lighthearted of the three, the Falco novels give a glimpse of ancient popular culture that pleasingly complements the more seriously historical focus of the other two series. These novels, set a couple of generations later than the other series, show how the concerns of the Empire differed from those of the waning Republic.
If you have read any of these novels and would like to throw in your own two cents, please do so using the Comments function. Or if you are familiar with other novels that take place in this general period, please leave a comment and say why you would or would not recommend them.

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 2 (Roma Sub Rosa)

The mystery novels that got me started on this topic are those by Steven Saylor, a series called Roma Sub Rosa (a Latin term for something done secretly). Paradoxically, one of the things I like about Saylor’s series is also the thing that most sets my teeth on edge: it covers the same period and the same historical events as those dealt with in Roberts’ SPQR series, but from a distinct outsider’s point of view, which contrasts rather strongly with that of John Maddox Roberts’ aristocratic insider, Decius Caecilius Metellus. The titles chosen for the two series indicates the essential differences between them: SPQR (the motto of Republic: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome) seeks to acquaint the reader with the values that made the Roman republic great and whose collapse led to the Republic’s demise and the rise of the military dictatorship we call the Roman Empire, while Roma Sub Rosa presents the post-Machiavellian view that Rome’s government was always the private club of a powerful elite who arranged things to their own satisfaction and mutual benefit through secret and often unsavory insider deals.

Catilina's Riddle: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)The Catiline Conspiracy (SPQR II)So it might be best for anyone interested in gaining insight into the last generation of the Roman Republic, how and why it collapsed, to read both series, taking into account the different assessments of the state of Rome at that time which are implicit in each author’s treatment of the historical events. One might read, say, Roberts’ The Catiline Conspiracy and Saylor’s Catilina’s Riddle and see one of the most notorious and significant political intrigues of the late Roman Republic from two very distinct points of view, one sympathetic to the republican point of view (which saw Catilina and his co-conspirators as dangerous monsters) and the other from a more “modern” view that sympathizes with the young Roman patricians who were willing to pitch in with Catilina and conspire to murder their own fathers in their beds.
I have to admit that I find Saylor’s mysteries less congenial than Roberts’, mostly because he goes out of his way to present a “minority viewpoint” which, presumably, is intended to seem more “realistic” to modern readers (whom the author seems to expect to be cynical about political figures). However, Saylor’s novels are well-crafted and engaging as mysteries, regardless of what one may think about their political perspective, so I recommend them. Here is an overview of the series, using the same general categories as those I used to describe the SPQR series:
  • Period: This series covers roughly the same span as that of the SPQR series, with the first novel, Roman Blood, finding the detective protagonist assisting Cicero on one of his early career-enhancing legal successes, defending Sextus Roscius against a charge that he murdered his own father; the latest novel, The Triumph of Caesar, takes place during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship and the events leading up to Caesar’s assasination.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Unlike Roberts’ Decius Metellus, Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder is definitely not a representative of the political elite; a plebeian by birth, he takes on investigations that political bigwigs find necessary but beneath their dignity. This lead character seems to have little in with the common virtues, viewpoints, or values typical of Romans of that time, and thus strikes me as un-Roman and rather anachronistic: for example, he has a tendency to make slaves not only members of his household, but also of his family — he marries his half-Jewish/half-Egyptian concubine, adopts two boys he had previously purchased as slaves, and manumits a handsome household slave who has impregnated his daughter so that the two can be married. Annoyingly, Gordianus the Finder is presented as the kind of anti-establishment egalitarian multi-culturalist that politically-correct modern Americans are supposed to admire but, fortunately, he is also a cracking good investigator with a knack for getting involved in fascinating political subterfuge while somehow managing to remain morally detached from it.
  • What I Like: Gordianus, despite his attitude of moral detachment, manages to get himself and his family of apolitical commoners entangled in some of the most fascinating and complicated high-flown historical intrigues of the late Roman republic. And even Gordianus doesn’t get to keep his position on the moral high ground — in the eighth of the series, Rubicon, it is revealed that even Gordianus is not above a dastardly deed or two to preserve his own interests.
  • What I Don’t Like: The thing that always grates on me when I read these novels (and sometimes others with historical settings) is the anachronistic projection of modern attitudes onto characters intended to be sympathetic to modern readers, attitudes which would not have been typical of Romans of the period. For instance, even plebeians like Gordianus could be as class-conscious and snobbish as any patrician; most were contemptuous and suspicious of former slaves, who sometimes became quite rich and influential. Saylor seems to be bent on historical revisionism of a rather tendentious kind — Gordianus always seems to find sympathy for figures whom history has shown to be socially destructive, self-aggrandizing archvillains. For instance, his beloved elder adopted son, Meto, becomes an ardent follower of Catilina and later becomes the right-hand man of Julius Caesar, but Gordianus finds no fault with either choice, other than to rue the fact that his boy has embraced military life. In fact, while sharing a hot bath with Catilina, Gordianus himself is almost seduced (sexually and philosophically) by Catilina, a spoiled aristocrat who plotted to attack the city of Rome from within and without, using an army of escaped slaves to attack the city while within Rome’s walls young aristocrats won over to Catilina’s self-serving cause were to murder their own fathers in their beds and set fire to the city. Leading Romans who survived Catilina’s conspiracy (including the historian Sallust) regarded him as something like a cross between Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, but Saylor manages to portray him as a kind of 1960s American radical, a charismatic and sexually magnetic figure who may have been a sociopath, but who should be admired for trying to shake up the Privileged White Man’s Establishment. On the other hand, Saylor projects a much lower opinion of Cicero, who survived an attempt by Catilina to assasinate him as a political rival and who afterward, while consul, discovered and foiled Catilina’s plot against the Republic; Cicero is presented as a self-serving coward and an obnoxious blowhard who had the dumb luck to stumble upon Catilina’s plot, and then used it to inflate his own political ego for decades afterward. These novels would be better off without Saylor’s/Gordianus’s perverse moralizing.

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 1 (SPQR)

I just finished reading Rubicon, by Steven Saylor, and thought I would discuss one of my favorite “just for fun” genres: murder mysteries set in ancient Rome. There are three series by different authors that I am familiar with (there are also some other series I’ve sampled), which I can recommend for different reasons. Right now, I’ll just briefly describe the three series and what distinguishes each one; perhaps another day I’ll go into more depth on particular novels.

SPQR series, John Maddox Roberts

The first is the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts, which I began reading about 15 years ago, a couple of years before I first began studying the Latin language and the culture of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”), an official motto of the Roman Republic which can still be seen on manhole covers in Rome to this day. This remains my favorite series of the three, perhaps because it first introduced me to the daily life and the cultural ideals of the Roman Republic (at that time, like most people, I didn’t even know the difference between the Republic and the Empire). When I began reading, there were three novels in print; now, the novels now total a baker’s dozen, and several related short stories have been published as well.

  • Period: The last generation of the Roman Republic (70-46 B.C.). The series opens in the year of the consulates of Crassus and Pompey, the same year that Cicero achieved one of his first major legal victories (prosecuting the corrupt provincial governor Verres), and the year that the poet Virgil was born. The most recent novel occurs in the months leading up to the assasination of Julius Caesar on the Senate floor. Thus, the series covers what is probably the most interesting and dramatic period of Roman history, when the civic virtues that had allowed Rome to become great are crumbling under the weight of greed and personal ambition, to collapse ultimately into the long period of civil war that led to the ascension of Octavian (a.k.a. Caesar Augustus) and the birth of what we now call the Roman Empire.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, son of a obscure branch of an old Roman family of senatorial class. Decius is a bright young man with an insatiable curiosity that often gets him involved in bringing to light secrets that a more politically-astute (or ambitious) young man would avoid. In the first novel, Decius is just taking his first step on the cursus honorum, or career ladder of public service that respectable men of his social class were expected to follow. As the series goes along, Decius’s career advances as the political situation in Rome declines; at some point he marries a (fictional) niece of Julius Caesar.
  • What I Like: There’s almost nothing I don’t like about this series. Here, briefly, are a few specifics: Authenticity — Decius is a political and cultural “insider,” therefore he understands, sympathetically but not uncritically, Roman republican virtues and figures; Portrayal of key historical figures is realistic without being “post-modernly” cynical of their motives; Diversity of locale: some of the novels take place in other parts of the Roman world, not just the urbs itself; all of the major historical events of the period are dealt with; also, the author provides a glossary of terms relating to Roman life that are likely to be unfamiliar to readers; indirectly, the reader learns a lot about this fascinating period of history; finally, the tone of the novels includes appropriate humor without being irritatingly “jokey.”
  • What I Don’t Like: Not much! I’m just sorry I’ve only read about 6 of the 13 novels so far.