I’ve been a Lindsey Davis fan for a very long time. Of the truly excellent novelists about the Roman Republic and the Empire, Coleen McCullough, Stephen Saylor, and Lindsey Davis, none of them are as clever and add as much humor to the telling of the tale as Lindsey Davis. None cook up the atmosphere or ethos of the era any better than her either. I’ve read all twenty or so of the Marcus Didius Falco novels and loved them all. Reading Davis is a painless way to learn what life in ancient Rome, and more widely in the Empire, was like in the NT era.
It was thus with some shock that I read the reviews of the first novel of a new series of thrillers by Lindsey Davis, The Ides of April, starring the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, Flavia Alba. The complaints ranged from— ‘this is a humorless tale, and seems to have been written by someone else, or else Davis in a very foul mood’ to ‘this can’t be by Lindsey Davis, it reads like an epic written by a femi-Nazi’. In short, there were more than enough bad reviews to scare me off from the new series. But then I read the reviews of the latest, and second installment in this new series and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever Fury had possessed Davis (or whoever) to write the Ides of April, it seems to have been exorcised in time for the writing of this novel, which definitely does not have as a subplot ‘all men are scum’.
One of the things to admire about the new novel is that it shows that Davis can write just as well and just as insightfully with a female protagonist as with a male one, which is rare amongst writers of fiction. Even great writers are often unable to pull that off. Here is a brief summary of the plot of this new novel from the Amazon ad….
“In Ancient Rome, the number of slaves was far greater than that of free citizens. As a result, often the people Romans feared most were the “enemies at home,” the slaves under their own roofs. Because of this, Roman law decreed that if the head of a household was murdered at home, and the culprit wasn’t quickly discovered, his slaves—all of them, guilty or not—were presumed responsible and were put to death. Without exception.
When a couple is found dead in their own bedroom and their house burglarized, some of their household slaves know what is about to happen to them. They flee to the Temple of Ceres, which by tradition is respected as a haven for refugees. This is where Flavia Albia comes in. The authorities, under pressure from all sides, need a solution. Albia, a private informer just like her father, Marcus Didius Falco, is asked to solve the murders, in this mystery from Lindsey Davis.”
This novel explores what can be called the seamy underbelly of Roman life— namely the life and plight of slaves. The Roman economy did indeed depend on slave labor, quite literally, and one estimate suggests that half or more the population of Rome itself were slaves. Davis goes into great detail to reveal the tenuous and indeed dangerous and often hopeless situation of domestic slaves in this novel, who were indeed property which could be bought and sold, or even killed on the spot, without a second thought. If you want more insight into the domestic slavery of the NT era, which is the only kind of slavery that the NT writers really do address, this novel is a good place to get a sense of things.
I like the central character Flavia Alba, who is portrayed as bright, persistent, strong, and yet vulnerable in assuming the same job as her father once had— ‘informer’ during the ugly reign of Domitian. Yes we have reached the 80s in the novels of Davis, and things have become more difficult after the reigns of Vespasian and Domitian’s brother Titus. This novel does not really bring the Emperor into the picture, and just as well too, because the novel is already sobering enough as it is. Flavia does not have all the same acumen or wit as Falco, but she has more than enough to make her a very interesting lead character, who reveals some of the trials and tribulations of young widows in Rome as well, not to mention opportunities for a bit of romance.
As usual, Davis develops the plot quite well, and keeps us guessing as to who really murdered the newly weds. The household slaves are left in danger of execution, just for failing to come to the aid of their master when he was attacked. A dark cloud hovers over the story from first to last, as man’s inhumanity to man keeps rearing its ugly head.
I can definitely recommend this novel, though it is not quite up to the very high standards of the best Falco novels (see e.g. One Virgin too Many, or Nemesis), but it is still a good read which maintains your interest from first to last, even if you can’t figure out who dunnit!