Lindsey Davis’ A Capitol Death

Lindsey Davis’ A Capitol Death June 21, 2019

This novel will not be published in the U.S. until the end of July ($26.00 in hardback), but that does not stop me from ordering in from Amazon U.K. where it’s been out for some months now. This is now the seventh novel in Davis’ Flavia Albia series, the sequel to her long running series about Flavia’s father Falco. Flavia has taken up the family business, by which I mean being a sleuth. And here is the summary of the plot of this one courtesy of Amazon….

“A man falls to his death from the Tarpeian Rock, which overlooks the Forum in the Capitoline Hill in Ancient Rome. While it looks like a suicide, one witness swears that she saw it happen and that he was pushed. Normally, this would attract very little official notice but this man happened to be in charge of organizing the Imperial Triumphs demanded by the emperor.

The Emperor Domitian, autocratic and erratic, has decided that he deserves two Triumphs for his so-called military victories. The Triumphs are both controversial and difficult to stage because of the not-so-victorious circumstances that left them without treasure or captives to be paraded through the streets. Normally, the investigation would be under the auspices of her new(ish) husband but, worried about his stamina following a long recovery, private informer Flavia Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, steps in.

What a mistake that turns out to be. The deceased proves to have been none-too-popular, with far too many others with much to gain from his death. With the date of the Triumphs fast approaching, Flavia Albia must unravel a truly complex case of murder before danger shows up on her own doorstep.”

The novel has the usual complexities of a Davis ‘who dunnit’, and it starts quite slow, rather like a complex investigation would— lots of questions, not a lot of answers, meanwhile people keep getting thrown off the Tarpeian rock. However the last hundred or so pages (of 383) are all on fast forward, so hold on to your hats and keep up, as a lot happens. I love Davis’ wit and humor, and she knows oodles about ancient Rome of the first century, in this case at the end of century under Domitianus. Not a nice man. For me, the most fascinating part of the novel (apart from the story itself) is her detailed description of the purple dye industry, used to make the famous imperial purple garments of various sorts. Here is some of what she says about the matter (and Bibliophiles should perk up at this point as it is of direct relevance to understanding Lydia in Acts 16).

The imperial purple dye is extracted from the murex shell of a mollusk (the cheaper knock off is using madder root). “These mollusks, varying in size but not a large species were seriously spiny, with pointed tails…we watched them opening shells with special small stone hammers, then nipping out glands…At the point of extraction, the glands emitted a secretion that was colorless and odorless, but we were told exposure to sunlight would quickly transform the secretion so its ability to color rapidly perished. For this reason, the people worked inside dark hutments. Retrieving the glands seemed an easy task, which even the youngest children managed at speed, turning out hundreds every hour. But the glands were tiny. To obtain useable quantity of color required hundreds of thousands. Salt and potash were added; the mixture was heated for three days, though must never reach the boiling point. The dye remained very unstable in the vat, easily affected by light or air, which would make the results blue rather than the coveted deep purple….a good source of wool had to be available close by; other fabrics such as linen, cotton, or silk shrugged off the color, but wool absorbed it best. It was steeped in dye baths for seven to ten days, with repeated immersion to give the best color….The deepest regal purple required prolonged soaking in the strongest liquor. Since it took thousands of shells to make an ounce of dye, we understood the extraordinary cost and how purple robes became a symbol of divinity.” (pp. 222-24 excerpts). And oh by the way, the dye stank to high heaven, and the garments dipped in it stank, and it stained the workers hands indelibly! Even many months later, the garments smelled of sea life, a high price to pay for wearing royal purple (and did I mention wearing wool in summer was very hot in Italy)? The Emperor had a corner on the market of this sort of production, and one needed authorization to produce official royal purple garments, a practice that began centuries earlier in Tyre, hence the name Tyrian purple.

Learning such things in the pleasant form of a historical novel is not merely painless, it’s delightful, and of all the writers about ancient Rome and its Empire (cf. Saylor, McCullough etc.) Davis is clearly the most entertaining and enjoyable, and sometimes laugh out loud funny. I commend her work to you, but start with the Falco novels first.


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