It’s not difficult to work out why we are so fascinated with Ancient Rome and why we love to read detective stories set in this cruel, bloodthirsty and uncertain time – it is possibly because fictional detectives (or informers or ‘finders’) can be created who have a sympathetically modern outlook in what was, for most people at the time, a chaotic, terrifying world where common people had few rights : unless you were one of the powerful minority (ie you had money and the status conferred by money), you could only try to keep your head down and stay away from trouble. Also, Ancient Rome is so well documented that authors are presented with a ready-made backdrop, in a manner of speaking, with a huge store of knowledge available about the period .
Human life has always thrown up the same problems and mysteries and our passion for certain historical settings means that several authors have realised the literary potential of the Roman Empire: in the best of the resulting crime novels, knowledge and understanding of Roman civilisation are used, not just to provide a colourful background and interesting angles but often to shed new light on real historical events and to show that perhaps the Romans were quite a lot like us in many ways. The detectives seem like our contemporaries, appealing to readers’ twenty-first century sensibilities. They don’t share the general enthusiasm for savage butchery; they respect women (most Roman detectives are men, for obvious cultural reasons) and love their partners and children; they tend to scepticism in political matters.
Lindsey Davis is probably the best –known author. Marcus Didius Falco, the hero of her long-running series is an upwardly mobile informer or secret agent who is often employed by the Emperor Vespasian and his sons although many of his cases involve the normal work of a detective. His large and colourful family provide much entertainment and some of the story-lines and Falco’s self-deprecating humour keep the overall tone light. That’s not to say these books shouldn’t be taken seriously: they are historically accurate and full of fascinating details about life in Rome, its different neighbourhoods, its sports and culture and its food. After the first three novels in the series, alternate books have been set in different parts of the Roman Empire: including Britain, Falco’s least favourite place. Falco is a character who develops and matures as the series progresses and responsibilities begin to weigh on his shoulders.
1. The Silver Pigs (1989)
2. Shadows in Bronze (1990)
3. Venus in Copper (1991)
4. The Iron Hand of Mars (1992)
5. Poseidon’s Gold (1993)
6. Last Act in Palmyra (1994)
7. Time to Depart (1995)
8. A Dying Light in Corduba (1996)
9. Three Hands in the Fountain (1996)
10. Two for the Lions (1998)
11. One Virgin Too Many (1999)
12. Ode to a Banker (2000)
13. A Body in the Bath House (2001)
14. The Jupiter Myth (2002)
15. The Accusers (2003)
16. Scandal Takes a Holiday (2004)
17. See Delphi and Die (2005)
18. Saturnalia (2007)
19. Alexandria (2009)
20. Nemesis (2010)
Falco on His Metal (omnibus) (1999)
Falco on the Loose (omnibus) (2003)
Steven Saylor’s stories of Gordianus the Finder are set in an earlier period, the time of Cicero and Caesar: many of the plots feature true events. They are more serious in tone than the Falco novels and Gordianus is a more introspective, self-contained hero, involved in affairs of state but increasingly content to be with his odd little family which includes an Egyptian ex-slave and an adopted son who is mute. This is a very good series.
Roma Sub Rosa
1. Roman Blood (1990)
2. Arms of Nemesis (1992)
3. Catilina’s Riddle (1993)
4. The Venus Throw (1995)
5. A Murder On the Appian Way (1996)
6. The House of the Vestals: The Investigations of Gordianus the Finder (1997)
7. Rubicon (1999)
8. Last Seen in Massilia (2000)
9. A Mist of Prophecies (2002)
10. The Judgement of Caesar (2004)
11. A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder (2005)
12. The Triumph of Caesar (2008)
With David Wishart we return to a breezier, more jocular approach, but unlike Falco, Marcus Corvinus is a well-to-do, wine-loving, gourmandising amateur who is reluctantly drawn into investigations on behalf of friends and connections. These are the years of Augustus and Tiberius and in his earliest cases Corvinus is involved with historical characters like Sejanus and Ovid. The comedy is broad and the tone light, but the mysteries are good and the background impeccable.
1. Ovid (1995)
2. Germanicus (1997)
3. The Lydian Baker (1998)
4. Sejanus (1998)
5. Old Bones (2000)
6. Last Rites (2001)
7. White Murder (2002)
8. A Vote for Murder (2003)
9. Parthian Shot (2004)
10. Food for the Fishes (2005)
11. In at the Death (2007)
12. Illegally Dead (2008)
13. Bodies Politic (2010)
R.S.Downie introduced us to Ruso the Medicus in 2006. Ruso is a divorced army doctor who is trying to make a new life in Britain. We meet him in Deva (Chester) in AD 118 (during Hadrian’s reign), in the first of a well-received series. Conditions are grim and the weather is foul: matters don’t improve in either respect in the second novel, when the action moves north but Ruso is a well-drawn character as is his partner in these investigations, Tilla, a local girl. In the third book, Ruso is summoned back to Gaul, to help his impecunious family. The latest book brings the action back to Britannia, with an interesting look at how the Romans co-existed with the native tribes.
1. Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (aka Medicus 2006)
2. Ruso and the Demented Doctor (aka Terra Incognita 2008)
3. Ruso and the Root of All Evils (2010)
4. Ruso and the River of Darkness (2011)
Rosemary Rowe (the pen-name of Rosemary Aitken) also sets her mysteries in Roman Britain, around AD 186. Commodus was Emperor at this time, having first reigned jointly with his father Marcus Aurelius. The sleuth is Libertus, a Celtic freedman and expert mosaic-maker in Glevum (Gloucester). The first in the series could be described as a country-house murder and while these books don’t wear their scholarship as naturally and easily as some of the others, they are enjoyable.
1. The Germanicus Mosaic (1999)
2. A Pattern of Blood (2000)
3. Murder in the Forum (2001)
4. The Chariots of Calyx (2002)
5. The Legatus Mystery (2003)
6. The Ghosts of Glevum (2004)
7. Enemies of the Empire (2005)
8. A Roman Ransom (2006)
9. A Coin for the Ferryman (2007)
10. Death at Pompeia’s Wedding (2008)
11. Requiem For A Slave (2010)
12. The Vestal Vanishes (2011)
The darkest, most graphic novel, in terms of the cheapness of human life and the cut-throat (literally) nature of Roman politics, is Bruce MacBain’s Roman Games (2010), in which an investigation into the death of an informer is carried out at the request of the paranoid Emperor Domitian by none other than Pliny the Younger.
If you are really keen on reading fiction set in Ancient Rome (or thereabouts), Steven Saylor has written two non-detective novels: Roma (2007) and Empire (2010). Robert Harris has also turned his attention to this period, in Pompeii (2003), Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009).