Best Whodunits of Ancient Rome
Private Eyes of the Past
Some of the best fictional detectives do their sleuthing in togas.
These four sleuths are from Ancient Roman times.
Gordianus and Decius, from the days of the Republic, and Falco, from the first century, are typical gumshoes (or gumsandals), cynical investigators who would have been quite at home with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
The fourth detective is Libertus, a logical puzzle solver in Roman Britain, and a man who would enjoy a nice cup of tea with Miss Marple.
Falco the Informer - Lindsey Davis
The resourceful, bantering Marcus Didius Falco is the narrator in a series of novels by Lindsey Davis. Using the style of modern detective stories Davis portrays the world of the Roman Empire under Vespasian. The tone is arch and satirical, at times uproariously funny, but the historical information provided is carefully accurate.
A lot of the joy in reading Falco comes from the easy familiarity you feel with the settings. None of us have visited Rome in the 1st century, but in the series you really feel as if you know these places - just as you know your own city.
So you roam the Aventine with Falco, then cross to the seamy side of town over the Aurelian Bridge to the Transtiberina, usually shadowed by various numbers of thugs.
Falco himself is a dab hand at writing. In , he goes undercover as a playwright to Syria and writes The Spook Who Spoke, a Plautine comedy, tentatively identified as the prototype for Hamlet. Last Act in Palmyra
The Silver Pigs - First in the Falco series
If you want to start at the beginning and meet the retired soldier, now Private Informer, this is the first of the hilariously written Falco series.
"It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the streets unshod.
People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist, and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women."
Gordianus The Finder - Stephen Saylor
Gordianus the Finder citizen of Rome, circa 80 BCE, is a professional finder, a "consorter with assassins and a professional ferret". This gumsandal is a touch more respectable than Falco, but only a touch.
A hard-boiled and clear-eyed detective-narrator, Gordianus the Finder is the perfect guide to Rome, bringing its mysteries to light and its monumental characters to life, even as he cuts them down to size.
Steven Saylor bases most of his novels on real cases - such as Cicero's first case in the trial of Sextus Roscius against the charge of parricide.
Roman Blood is modeled on the actual killing of Sextus Roscius and Cicero's defense of his son for the crime.
Gordianus is fluent, logical, and easy to follow as the story unfolds casually, without any over-indulgences and plenty of detail.
What makes this book stand out from the pack is that Saylor immerses the reader into the Roman world in a most convincing manner. You will see, hear, and smell Rome in a way that makes you feel you've been there.
The historical figures who make appearances (including Cicero and his slave Tiro, both in staring roles) are well drawn and believable.
Decius the Younger and SPQR - John Maddox Roberts
SPQR is a set of Latin initials for Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning 'The Senate and People of Rome', which was the official name of the Republic.
Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, is the nephew of Metellus Pius and member of an important family of the Roman Senate. He narrates these stories in flashback-form when he is older, and writing during the reign of Augustus Caesar.
Decius also has some interesting companions. His slaves Cato, Cassandra, and Hermes, his friends, the Greek gladiatoral physician Asklepiodes and the gangster/politician Titus Annius Milo. Then there are his determined enemies, the siblings Clodia and Clodius.
Along the way, he is often helped by his father, as well as by Cicero and a young Julius Caesar.
In later books, Decius is betrothed and then married to the (fictional) niece of Caesar, Julia Caesaris. The dates are all listed at the end of each book in the ab urbe condita calendar system.
SPQR Oracle of the Dead
Decius Caecilius Metellus, this year's magistrate for cases involving foreigners, is living the good life in southern Italy, happy to be away from Rome, a city suffering war jitters over Caesar's impending actions.
When the priests of Apollo are all killed, the countryside looks to explode in violence as Greeks, Romans and native Italians of several conquered nations bring out old enmities. Decius is caught squarely in the middle, desperate to find a way out that will pacify the district and, incidentally, save his own skin.
This riveting series began with the Edgar Award-nominated SPQR and has gone on to international success in 13 languages.
Libertus - Rosemary Rowe
If you're a fan of Hercule Poirot, you'll enjoy the Libertus mysteries created by Rosemary Rowe.
Former Celtic warrior, now a Roman citizen and respectable tradesman, Libertus is a clear-thinking, methodical man with an almost uncanny ability to see the patterns underlying perplexing events. He fits pieces of the puzzle together in the same way that he creates his mosaics, piece by piece, shape by shape.
His wealthy patron, Marcus Septimus Aurelius, the most important magistrate in late second century Britain, frequently calls on Libertus to solve baffling murders.
Libertus, a freedman and pavement-maker, has a reputation for solving crime. When his influential patron asks for his help in a politically-sensitive murder case, Libertus is in no position to refuse. When the main suspect is also found murdered, the plot thickens.
And it all goes downhill from there
A traditional country house mystery translated to the Roman world, even featuring the mandatory body in the bibliotheca.
Roman Britain of 186. Our detective is named Libertus because he is a freed slave. He is also a Celt, with a skill for making beautiful mosaics.
The most unpleasant Germanicus was feared and hated, so much so that it wasn't really too surprising he would wind up murdered. But now his ghost is to be equally feared as, with his head and hand incinerated, there's no place to put the coins to pay for the ferryman to carry his soul to the land of the dead.
Libertus the freedman is called in to help solve the mystery of the murder in the library.
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© 2008 Susanna Duffy