Tour’s Books Blog

April 19, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: SPQR XI: Under Vesuvius by John Maddox Roberts

John Maddox Roberts writes mysteries featuring Decius Caecilius Metellus that have followed his career serving Rome in various capacities over the years.  The books follow him from his mandatory military duty, where he and Giaus Julius Ceaser get to know each other, back to Rome where he slowly works his way up the ranks of various elected offices.  SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus designating the era of Roman history in which the story takes place) XI Under Vesuvius is the eleventh book in the series.  Decius has won the prestigious one year term as preator pereginus, the second highest office in the Imperium along with preator urbanus.  The preator unbanus is required by law to stay in Rome for his term of office.  Luckily, as preator pereginus, magistrate for cases involving non-citizen, Decius is free to travel and leave the stifling heat of the Roman summer.

Since he is kind of a wandering magistrate, Decius takes full advantage of the offer of the use of a villa owned by the famous orator Quintus Hortensius Hortalus in Campania.  The sprawling estate sits just outside the city of Baiae on the Bay of Naples.  Feted all along his route south, he sardonically assumes it is really his wife Julia’s favor they wish to curry.   Julia is Ceaser’s niece and helps – or meddles, depending on your perspective – in Decius’ ‘cases.’  The Metellus family has a long history of service to the Imperium, but they aren’t as important as the Ceaser’s family.   Ceaser is not yet dictator, but he has much of the country nervous and the wise citizens want to take the measure of the great man’s niece.

Finally the entourage makes it to the spectacular villa.  A tour of the grounds leads them to a Temple of Apollo and the daughter of hereditary Greek priest, Gorgo.  A handsome young man, Gelon, mounted on a caparisoned horse arrives with his guards.  The animosity toward him seems all out of proportion even though he is obviously a Numidian (North African, usually Berber).  Gelon is the son of Geato, a shrewd and highly successful slave trader that specialized in skilled workers for household, business or trades.  Though all upper class citizens owned slaves, they looked down on traders on principle, foreign traders even more.  The trade was legal and the fact they all purchased their household and business slaves from him made no difference.  Diocles, the Greek priest at Apollo’s Temple obviously loathed him and wanted him nowhere near his daughter.

Julia is scandalized by the ladies dress at an introduction function the leaders of Baiae stage to welcome the preator.   Several women wear near transparent Coan cloth gowns and others dress in silks, outrageous displays of wealth and suggestiveness that would have been totally unacceptable in Rome.  Decius is loving it.  In the following days, after the local court issues are dealt with, Decius meets Gaeto the Numidian, Gelon’s father.  It is his wife, Jocasta, who is dressed in silks.  After a few days of travel to hold assizes in surrounding towns, including Pompeii, he pays a visit to the practice grounds of a gladiator training facility.  Here he is approached by a Greek business man, Diogenes, a dealer in costly perfumes, to place a bet on the outcome of a fight – a gladiator with two swords against a spearman with a shield.  The knowledgeable Greek even gives Decius the swordsman at 5 to one odds.  He pays up cheerfully and even presents Decius with a box containing expensive perfumes for Julia.

I accepted the gift.  “You are a generous man and a good loser, Diogenes.”

He smiled again.  “I am Greek.  We are good at losing.”

He took his leave, and when he was gone Hermes said, “He arrived with his losses already counted out and bagged.  Decius Caecilius, I do believe you’ve just been bribed.”

“No, I’ve just won five thousand sesterces.  That Greek may think he’s bribed me, but he’s wrong.”

The evening of a formal banquet arrives and Decius, along with Julia, Decius, Antonia and Circe and some formal household members head to the home of Norbanus, the mayor and his wife, Rutilia, one of the ladies in the notorious Coan cloth .  Along the way they are entertained by satyrs chasing nymphs.  It occasions some bawdy speculation by the ladies about the satyrs’ attributes.

Julia squinted toward the hairy Dionysian.  “Surely it’s not real.” (Romance readers who enjoy ‘the big reveal’, mark that one down!)

The banquet is attended by all the local businessmen, including Gaeto, Diogenes and his business partner Manius Silva, even the priest Diocles.  Surprise at finding the wine iced in the midst of summer turns the conversation to the sumptuary laws.

……….this was a censorship year, the one year in five when a pair of beady-eyed old senators whipped the public morals into shape. ……………..He cracked down on violators of sumptuary laws; those who wore silk in public or wore more rings per finger than the law allowed, or spent too much on weddings or funerals, and other threats to the Republic.

There has always been a faction among us who attribute the virtue and success of our ancestors to the great simplicity in which they lived.  They think that we’ve been corrupted by things like soft beds and hot baths.  If we just go back to living in huts, they say, sleeping on the ground, eating coarse barley and hard cheese, we could regain our ancestral virtue.  These men are deeply insane.  Our ancestors lived simply because they were poor.  I, personally, do not want to be poor

The wry humor of Decius peppers this story told in the first person.  They chat with the locals about the activity of Vesuvius and other matters when Decius is summoned.  Gorgo, the priest’s daughter has been found murdered.  Immediately, the crowd believes Gelon responsible.  At the murder scene, Gaeto approaches Decius for help and all he can do is arrest the young man for his own protection and keep him at the preator’s villa till the trial.  He tells Gaeto to find a good lawyer.

Next day, a search of her quarters – that had obviously been cleaned out – they find a scroll with a love poem in Greek and a very expensive gold necklace.  Julia is convinced the poem is written by someone who speaks Greek as a first language, not a Roman who is literate in Greek.  The poem is as suggestive as those by Sappho.

While Gelon is in custody, a second murder happens – Geato the Numidian is found dead by his staff.  He’s been stabbed at the back of the skull with a small knife.  There’s no sign of struggle.  As with Gorgo, Decius is unconvinced and again sends for the horse master, an old army man that served under an uncle of his.  Again the prints of a shod horse, likely a filly, are found outside the walls of the compound.  The same tracks found outside the temple grove where Gorgo was murdered.

Decius decides to allow Gelon to attend his father’s funeral, so he, the Numidian along with his tribal bodyguards and Decius’ guards and lictors go to Geato’s villa for the rights.  On the way back to the preator’s villa, they are set on by a large group of bandits.  Decius didn’t wear a sword, his dignity of office did not permit it, but being a former campaigner he made sure one was on his saddle.  He joins the fight, gets a second sword and tries some of the moves he saw the gladiator use.  Once beaten off, leaving 4 in the party wounded and two of the Numidian bodyguards dead, Decius is furious knowing full well this was no accident.  He sends his lictors to Baiae to get the town leaders.

The locals claim there is always an increase in bandit activity when Vesuvius ‘gets frisky.’  Furious with their attitude, Decius tells the locals they are, “… the most useless pack of soft-assed degenerates on the whole Italian peninsula!”  Just to make things worse he is then informed a third body is found!  One of the slaves that attended Gorgo at the Temple of Apollo, the one Decius wanted to question – Charmain. Decius declares martial law and calls in troops to enforce his authority.

There is yet another killing before the story winds up.  Gelon does go to trial and he loses despite a good lawyer – Tiro, the freeman of Cicero.  But it is Julia who spots the clue that unravels it all.  The denouement has a surprise twist.

Roberts is a very solid writer who makes his characters seem alive.  Under Vesuvius is a good entry in this series, tough I think The Tribune’s Curse is the best so far.  The political maneuvering that goes on, blatant bribery and many other elements of Roman society are an interesting part of all of his stories, as are his observations on people’s behavior and society’s mores. I find Roberts and his character Decius shrewd and his wry wit entertaining.  Aside from the fight with the bandits and a few calls on witnesses, Decius is far less ‘active’ in the investigation than in previous books thanks to his more elevated status.  Julia keeps reminding him to remember the dignity of his office, so he must leave the investigation to others, mostly his freeman Hermes.  That’s a draw back as there’s less action than usual.  Also, all the murders are never ‘seen’ by the reader, just discovered, so there is no ‘being there’ is in the story.  Most authors move to third person for actual crime, but in this case, it might have given away the ending which had a satisfying twist you didn’t see coming and then a final death.

Julia doesn’t get a big part here, though she’s key to the solution.  The character of Gelon is never really developed, nor are several other somewhat minor characters.  Roberts’ word building and plots are as reliable as John Sanford’s are for the modern police procedural.  His plots are one of his strong points.  The other is the painless lesson in the social and political life of Romans at the time when Julius Ceaser is coming into power.  It also reminds us how little human nature has changed in 2000 years.  Decius is a progressive thinker for his era, but his behavior stays within reasonable limits of the time.

Roberts’ use of the Roman terms for offices, ranks, and positions can be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with Roman history and Roman naming conventions for people.  Most can be worked out in context and Roberts’ provides a glossary at the back of each book.  Wikipedia helps if you want more information.  (I can also recommend having a handy family member who makes Roman history a hobby.)

Historically, he stays accurate enough you’d need to be expert to pick up errors.  While certainly not over long or difficult, his books require more attention than many because the historical context and the large cast of characters take a bit of getting used to.  There is a cast of major characters and their roles at the front of his book to help you keep order.

My Grade: B+ (4.25*)

Who would enjoy this book:  Fans of Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor and Robert A. Bell, Jr. – though for me, I think Davis and Roberts write the most entertaining and interesting stories.  The rating on this book is R.  (Those Romans got up to some interesting things, but Roberts keeps lurid details out.)

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