Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.24

Letter: More New Books with Ancient Settings

For some previous titles, cf. BMCR 3.4 (1992), 338. The most gorgeous new item is Roman Nights (St Martin's Press, NY, 1991), a novel by one Ron Burns, billed in the blurb as a UPI editor, Philadelphia Bulletin columnist, Los Angeles Herald Examiner crime reporter, and (now) novelist. His story is set between the last days of Marcus Aurelius and the murders of Commodus, then Pertinax. The protagonist functioning as privatus dickus is Livinius Severus, a minor noble, lawyer, and Stoic. His job is to solve a series of gruesome murders of Stoics, a nice thought (the murders, that is, not the solving). Lucan and Thrasea turn up as Stoics. So do characters with odd names, e.g., Cinna Catalus (sic). Most deliciously for devotees of the Petronian question, so do Trimalchio (as mine host, with some pastiche and filchings from the Cena) and 'his whore' Fortunata, with whom our hero has some jolly times, including one night of five couplings -- penile servitude, indeed! There is much quoting of Marcus Aurelius' 'just published' Meditations, and at one stage 8 rolls of papyrus are found containing Juvenal's Satires, with copious 'dirty' quotation from the sixth.

In France, Pierre Grimal has just brought out Les Memoires d'Agrippine (de Fallois, Paris, 1992), a fictional recreation of one of the most regrettably lost ancient documents of them all, the Memoirs of Nero's mum, whose doings would eclipse those of Fergie and Diana. So far, I've only seen the review in Le Canard Enchaine (5/8/92), but it sounds yummy. Incidentally, anyone visiting England in the near future might still be able to see a rare performance of Handel's early (1709) opera, Agrippina, with American soprana Susan Roberts in the title role -- one reviewer compared her to Bette Davis.

Falco is back, in Lindsey Davis' The Iron Hand of Mars (Hutchinson, London, 1992: I imagine there is an American edition), this time sleuthing in Germany, sent by Vespasian to look into the fates of Civilis and the XIVth Legion, with flashbacks to the hapless Quintilius Varus. Women play a big role in this new adventure.

Those more attracted to Greek settings may like A Choice of Murder (Owen, London, 1992) by Peter Vansittart, a reworking of Plutarch's account of Timoleon, suitably embellished to make a proper novel.

A mammoth new novel on Augustus is scheduled to appear later this year by Alan Brien. This author is a British journalist and humorist who (I suspect) may not be well known in North America, but Calgary libraries (not likely to be unique in this) contain his earlier titan, a novel about Lenin.

I've saved the bad news until last. The ineffable Colleen McCullough has recently inflicted volume two (The Grass Crown) of her threatened multi-volume saga on the late Republic on to a suffering world. I did my best to kill the thing off while reviewing the inaugural The First Man in Rome in The World & I (March, 1991), 406-12, but who am I to repel this march of Thornbirds in Togas?

Barry Baldwin
University of Calgary

Ed.'s note:

As I read this letter, it seemed to me that we got to the bad news pretty early on. Would it be fair to ask whether any of these exercises do more than use Roman costumes to provide cheap thrills, with lashings (painfully evident in this account) of sexism? This series started because I called attention to Saylor's Roman Blood, which seemed to me both a decent murder mystery and a serious attempt to do justice to Cicero's Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino, and though it is a light enough sort of book, I still think it has merit. (Saylor has a new one in the bookstores called Arms of Nemesis, with a Spartacan theme but less closely tied, it would appear, to any specific text, but I've not yet had time to look at it.) Rather like the south central LA murder mysteries of Walter Mosley, who puts a lot of social history between the lines, or the early Tony Hillermans, while he still had fresh things to say about the Navajo.

JO'D 26 September 1992