What do a senator and a smutty poet have in common?
They’re tracking a murderer through the streets and bedrooms of Rome.
Rome: 96 AD. When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, suspicion falls on his household slaves—a potential death sentence for them all. The emperor Domitian orders Vice-Prefect Pliny to investigate. However, the Roman Games have just begun and for the next fifteen days the law courts are in recess. If Pliny can’t identify the murderer in that time, Verpa’s entire slave household will be burned alive in the arena. Plinius teams up with Martial, a starving author of bawdy verses and hanger-on to the city’s glitterati. Pooling their talents, they unravel a plot that involves Christian “atheists,” worshipers of Isis, sleek courtiers, a vengeful concubine, a child bride, and a paranoid emperor.
Susanne Alleyn: Good day, citizen. Please tell us a bit about yourself! What year is it now for you, and where are you located?
Pliny: As I write this, it’s late October of the year 863 From the Founding of the City, as we Romans count the years. I believe you would call it AD 110. I am sitting in the Governor’s palace in Nicomedia, the capital of the province of Bithynia. And frankly I would rather be almost anywhere else! My chief tax collector has been found with his neck broken, buried in a shallow grave out in the woods. Several people, including his wife, might have liked to see him dead, but it now seems that he was also mixed up with a mysterious secret cult of the barbarian god, Mithras. Meanwhile, corruption is running rampant and the whole province is about to explode if I don’t do something soon. And I am running out of ideas!
SA: What about your early life?
Pliny: I was born 50 years ago at Comum in the north of Italy. My father died when I was young and I was adopted by my uncle. You may have heard of him—Pliny the Elder, the great encyclopedist. Ours was a studious household (he was an indefatigable scholar) and I suppose I’ve inherited my literary interests from him. (I’ve composed hundreds of letters to my friends—quite polished little essays, really, which you might enjoy reading.) But certainly the most dramatic and formative event of my young life was the destruction of Pompeii. We were living on the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius exploded. I was just seventeen. My mother and I barely escaped with our lives. Sadly, my uncle perished. I’ve written all about this in two long letters to my friend, Tacitus.
SA: Tell us something about your family life.
Pliny: I am blessed with a wonderful wife, Calpurnia. She was just fourteen when I married her (less than half my age) and she is devoted to me. As a young bride, she would sleep with copies of my speeches under her pillow whenever I had to be away, and she set my poems to music, which she sang to the lyre—quite untaught except by Love itself. (Lately, though, ever since we’ve come to this wretched province, something is troubling her; she seems distant, preoccupied. I don’t know why. I fear I’m neglecting her.)
SA: How is law and order maintained in Rome?
Pliny: We have no such thing as a police force as you understand it. In Rome, we have the Praetorian Guard and the City Cohorts to maintain order. Most other cities have nothing at all. But the whole notion of detecting crime by looking for clues is really quite an alien notion. That’s why it strikes me as odd how many fictitious Roman detectives you in the 21st century have, considering how few (if any) really existed!
SA: Presumably you are somewhat familiar with our early 21st century, after conversations with Mr. Macbain. What aspects of your world do you think would seem most alien to those readers from the 21st century?
Pliny: Well, that would have to be slavery. Of course, it’s an evil—the Stoic philosophers teach that—but, alas, a necessary one. For us, slavery has nothing to do with race, we’re happy to enslave anyone. But Roman slavery law is very harsh. In my first case, I was motivated by trying to save a whole household of slaves from being executed because it seemed that one of them might have murdered their master (who was a cruel man and deserved it). But that’s how it is. We can’t live without them and, at the same time, we fear them. I must say, I treat mine a lot better than most people do.
SA: What about the history of your era do you think is most relevant to those of us who live in the early 21st century?
Pliny: We are an imperial nation, quite persuaded of our god-given destiny to tell everyone else how to live, and we spend a huge percentage of our budget on the military. Sound familiar?
SA: Alas, yes! So what would you say to 21st-century people who moan and groan and complain about how bad things are in our current economic and political climate. Would you be itching to say “Learn some history and take a look at what’s going on in my world—you’d probably want to stay in yours!” ?
Pliny: Oh, no. On the contrary, we Romans now live under an excellent emperor who shoulders the burdens of government and ensures peace and prosperity for all. No sane person would want to go back to the bad old days of the Republic. Democracy is a nice philosophical ideal but quite impractical and we’re much better off without it! This is the happiest age mankind has ever known, as I believe your historian Edward Gibbon wisely observed.
SA: What was your most fascinating, confounding, or horrifying case over the course of your career so far, and why?
Pliny: If not the one I’m faced with now, then certainly my first case, described in Roman Games, which I alluded to above. Without giving too much away, I was badly taken in by a very clever murderer and it nearly cost me my life. I am embarrassed to recall it. I shall say no more.
SA: In the course of your investigations, have you encountered important personages (whom we in the 21st century would recognize) who played supporting roles in your cases?
Pliny: In my first case, I was assisted (if that’s the word) by the poet Martial. Of course, the man’s a rascal and composes the most filthy verses, but he does know his way around the seamier parts of Rome, which an upstanding senator like myself wouldn’t dream of frequenting. In my current case, my staff officer, Suetonius, is a great help to me. And, then, there is my beloved freedman, Zosimus, without whom I’d be quite lost.
SA: Does the thought of assisting the authorities to send a guilty person to execution, particularly a lingering, gruesome death such as the methods you Romans frequently use, affect your personal feelings about investigating a crime?
Pliny: Oh, we’re quite convinced that the threat of punishment is key for crime prevention. I myself have tortured and crucified a few malefactors. Deplorable, of course, but what else can one do? At least we don’t lock them up in prison for years on end. Barbarous.
SA: How would you describe yourself?
Pliny: I like to think I have the virtues of my nation. Not brilliant, perhaps, not clever like these insufferable Greeklings I have to deal with. But steady and determined and painstaking. By Jove, the virtues that made us great! (Pardon me if I sound a bit stuffy. I do unbend every now and then and I’m really quite a decent fellow.)
SA: I’m sure you are, citizen. And may the gods be with you in solving your current quandary!
Roman Games, by Bruce Macbain, is available in print and as an eBook.
Bruce Macbain holds degrees in Classics and Ancient History and was formerly an Assistant Professor of Classics at Boston University. He decided to stop writing scholarly articles (which almost no one read) and turn his expertise to fiction—a much more congenial medium. Roman Games (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010) is his first published novel. He is currently at work on its sequel, The Bull Slayer. He lives with his wife in Brookline, MA.
Historical Sleuth Interviews will appear around the middle and end of each month. Authors, if you’d like your historical sleuth to be interviewed here, please send Susanne a note with a little information about your books.
Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Palace of Justice, Game of Patience, and A Treasury of Regrets) and of A Far Better Rest, the reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities, all available in paper and eBook via Amazon.com and other major retailers.