Saturday, May 17, 2014

Italia: Here We Come! Episode 1: The House of the Vestals

As a fairly regular visitor to Rome, I have to admit that I always visit some of the sites every year. This might seem a little strange to some people, who might think that once you have seen something you can tick it off your bucket list and move on. However, many of the sites in Rome offer a constantly shifting itinerary as new features are excavated, restored or finally opened to the public. Others, such as the Colosseum, offer temporary exhibitions every year to keep me returning.

It has been four years since my last trip to the Eternal City, and I am pleased to report that the Italian financial crisis has not had a terrible impact on the major sites in the center of the historical district. Indeed, many new areas are now open for viewing and there has been a massive improvement in signage and facilities throughout the Palatine and Forum. The Houses of Livia and Augustus are still closed up, but it looks as if we may get into them very soon, which will be exciting: they are favorite characters of mine because of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God.

One newly open area was very welcome: the House of the Vestals. Every year I have strained over the barrier to get a glimpse into the magnificent gardens that offer a corner of relief from all that marble! In amongst all those grandiose buildings erected to glorify the men who funded them, it is wonderful to see this haven of pure femininity. This year, for the first time, I got to tread the paths of their garden and imagine the peace and quiet of the one area in the Forum that was run by women.

The Vestals were one of the few priesthoods that were exclusively female, which in itself made them highly unusual. However, they were extremely powerful politically and held a crucial position in the life of the city. They were the guardians of the scared flame of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, which was kept in the small Temple in front of their House. Anyone could use the sacred flame to create embers for lighting a household fire, and so the Vestals provided a vital public function. The flame needed to remain alight at all times, and if it went out it was seen as a sign that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, which was regarded as a terrible omen of bad luck. Any Vestal who allowed this to happen was punished severely by being scourged.

However, this was nothing compared to the punishment meted out for proof that a Vestal had not retained her virginity, which made her sacred to Vesta and worthy to conduct all her duties. Transgressing Vestals were killed by being sealed into an underground chamber with enough food and water for a few days. This allowed their death to be assured without the necessity of admitting that a person had been buried within city limits, which was against the law. It also meant that her sacred blood had not been spilled. Cases against Vestals were rare, but they are recorded by such authors as Livy and Pliny The Younger. The men involved were whipped to death in public, so I am not sure whose punishment was worse. One Vestal who survived an accusation of impropriety was Tuccia, but she proved her innocence by carrying a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta, a feat that became a popular image for depicting chastity in the Middle Ages.

Despite the threat of being buried alive if you were caught doing anything inappropriate, Vestals enjoyed a surprising amount of freedom. The served in the House for a term of thirty years: ten years to learn their duties, ten to fulfill them every day and then ten to teach the new students. After their retirement they were allowed to marry and were given a generous pension. As this often occurred when they were as young as thirty-six years old, they often went on to lead long and productive lives and were considered very prestigious as wives.

One thing that attracts me to the history of the Vestals is their unusual standing in society. Unlike all other women, they could own property, vote and make a will. This unique position outside the normal law, added to their implicit incorruptibility meant that they were trusted to hold important state documents, including peace treaties. They were also tasked with holding the wills of many important men in the city. This meant that they always held a position that was firmly outside normal Roman society, and yet they were vitally important to its proper functioning.

Unfortunately, the rise of Christianity led to the ultimate disbanding of the Vestals in 394 CE by order of Emperor Theodosius I. The eternal flame was extinguished forever and the Vestals faded into history. I, for one, felt honored to finally walk in their footsteps and feel a connection to some of the most unusual and important women in the whole of Roman society.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Italia: Here We Come!

As some of you already know, I will be away from home for the next few weeks because I will be travelling to Scotland to spend some time with my family. Whilst this does not promise to be all that exciting for you guys, we will be travelling to Italy for a couple of weeks during that time, which I am sure you will find much more interesting. My sister chose our destinations and demanded that we include both Rome and Pompeii, so I should have some nice pictures to share. Watch this space!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Blood by Steven Saylor

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.30 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.91 / 5.00

Rome is sweltering under an uncomfortably hot spring sun and trying to recover from the chaos of the proscriptions of the Dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The bloodshed seems to be over for now and the great Dictator’s reforms of the law courts seem to be working, but there is always work for Gordianus the Finder, which is good because his house on the Esquiline is expensive to maintain.

One morning he is summoned to the house of an unknown young advocate, called Marcus Tullius Cicero, to help uncover the truth behind the horrific charges brought against Sextus Roscius the Younger. This farmer from the Umbrian countryside has been accused of patricide, the most terrible crime imaginable: one so hated by the gods that the punishment required by Roman law involves being whipped bloody and then sown into a sack with an assortment of animals before being thrown into the River Tiber. Gordianus’ investigations lead him into mortal danger as he exposes the murderous plotting and family bitterness that has led to the death of a seemingly blameless old man. Unfortunately, Sulla’s favorite ex-lover is implicated in the plot and so the case becomes politically explosive, which is possibly why no other advocates would agree to be involved.

This title was my first excursion into the wonderful world of mysteries set in Ancient Rome. I had always been a little wary of the genre because of my familiarity with the subject matter and my difficulty overlooking inadequate research. I cannot quite remember what made me try this particular title, but I was immediately impressed by the little details that brought the Eternal city to life. Early in the book, Gordianus explains that one of his neighbors empties her family’s chamber pots into the alley leading up to his house every single morning, whilst the neighbor on the other side always collects the ‘offerings’ to put on his garden. This may not seem like a very attractive view to paint of the glories of Rome, but it reassured me that we would be travelling through the real city and not a glorified version of it. If you have ever seen the HBO series, Rome, you will have a better idea of the reality of living in the great city: it would have been crowded, dirty, noisy and very, very smelly!

As with many other books in this genre, Mr Saylor chooses to mix his fictional characters with some of the most renowned Romans of the era. In this case, we are introduced to the great orator, Cicero, in his preparation for the first major case of his career. At this stage, Cicero is seen as a jumped-up nobody from nowhere, who can hardly begin to compete with the well-established veterans of the Roman law courts. However, this does place him a singularly useful position when it comes to the way he handles the case: he has nothing to lose in revealing the politically dangerous truth. In this, we get to see a glimpse of why Cicero became such an influential figure in Rome and then again during the Renaissance, when the rediscovery of his works influenced many of the great thinkers of the time.

Mr Saylor portrays Cicero as a rather joyless intellectual with debilitating digestive problems and an almost permanent air of disappoint. However, he does allow the great orator to shine when he steps onto the rostra to deliver his speech in defense of his client: he transforms from a rather uninspiring, strangle-voiced wimp into a charismatic and compelling advocate of great skill and daring. I enjoyed this choice because it gave us a Cicero who was imperfect rather than over-idealized and too perfect. I am also familiar with the power of charisma that transforms some people when they step onto a stage: I have seen actors who would be dismissed as tramps on the street hold an audience captive with the smallest of gestures once they are in the spotlight. Making Cicero human actually works to make his remarkable oratorical skills seem all the more extraordinary.

The other historical figure to be included as a major character is Tiro, Cicero’s famous slave / secretary who is credited with inventing a form of shorthand to record his master’s speeches. Although there is no historical evidence to give us Tiro’s date of birth, it is assumed that he is slightly younger than his master. The author gives us a sheltered, idealized young man who worships and adores his master but is always constrained by his status as a slave. He also gets to suffer the torments of young love, but in a way that seems convincing and is eventually revealed to be crucial to both the case and the story.

Our hero, Gordianus, is not revealed in great depth in this opening title of the series. We first encounter him with a crippling hangover, which he dispels with some exercises in mental deduction, in a manner rather reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. He is of indeterminate age, although he seems to have had the chance to travel to some of the other great cities in the Empire and develop a list of clients that keeps him alive, more or less. Unlike Lindsey Davis’ Falco, he does not have a massive family to weigh him down and provide comic relief, nor does he suffer from eternal bad luck. He does, however, have a beautiful woman in his life: the enigmatic and passionate Bethesda, his Egyptian slave. Their relationship is tender and obviously has a lengthy history so that most of their communication is non-verbal. I found this depiction of a long-standing relationship to be very interesting and remarkably realistic. It is obvious that Gordianus and Bethesda love each other, but there is always the barrier of their different social positions between them.

Of the other characters that populate the story, the great stand out to me was Eco, the mute boy. I have no idea why Mr Saylor decided to take this character in this direction, but he is certainly compelling. As the witness to a horrible murder he is both eloquent and horrified as he tries to communicate what he saw. He is old beyond his eight years, with few prospects ahead of him, although he makes a surprising reappearance at the very end of the book when he takes the first step onto a better path. He triggers an instinctive response in both Gordianus and the reader, who are touched by the pathos of both his courage and the rage he displays at his own inability to communicate and protect his mother. Having read further into the series, I know that Eco grows into an impressive young man, but it was interesting to see how striking he is as a mere slip of a child.

The plotting seems somewhat simplistic at first, as the details behind the case seem remarkably obvious from the beginning. However, as Gordianus peels back layer after layer of lie and misdirection, we see that our initial idea was far too simplistic and that a complex set of influences led to the present situation. The case itself does not prove to be the end of the mystery, and the final reveals come right at the end of the book. These turn the case almost on its head, and yet I had no sense of being cheated or manipulated by the outcome. Instead, my sense of justice was appeased and I felt that we had reached a satisfying resolution.

The Rome that we visit in this title is perhaps a little more dark and depressing than in some of the other series that I have read. We are given a window into the miserable lives of prostitutes and how slaves are treated like animals. Indeed, the number and variety of slaves that Gordianus questions exposes the seedy underbelly behind all the pomp and luxury that was Roman high society. Their treatment is a very stark contrast to his own relationship with Bethesda, which is respectful and caring.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the late Roman Republic, and especially anyone who is interested in Cicero. However, I do not think that an interest in Roman history is necessary to enjoy the underlying mystery.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The King’s Gambit by John Maddox Roberts

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.00 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.84 / 5.00

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is expected to rise through the ranks of Roman political office, just like his father. He subjected himself to the minimum military service and received an ugly scar on his chin from a Spanish spear for his pains. Now he is the commander of the local vigiles, responsible for fire fighting and cleaning up after the rampant law breaking in his district, the Subura, an area stuffed to bursting point with brothels and tall apartment blocks just waiting to collapse. Even worse: he has to get up before dawn every day to hear his men’s report of the nighttime unpleasantness before receiving his clients and then parading across town to pay his respects to his father. He just hopes that as he gets more important he will be allowed to have breakfast in bed and stay there until a reasonable hour.

This particular morning, a pair of seemingly unrelated murders and a case of arson should be easily solved, but someone higher up the chain of command wants Decius to avoid investigating the whole sorry mess. This makes him suspicious, as do the connections he finds between these events and some of the most distinguished men in the Republic. Then there are the sudden and unexpected attentions of the beautiful Claudia, a woman with many ‘interesting’ friends and some frankly scandalous attitudes. When Decius is knocked unconscious so that someone can steal a seemingly unimportant token in the shape of a camel’s head, he becomes determined to uncover the truth.

Unlike Marcus Didius Falco, the hero of Lindsey Davis’ series, the leading character of the SPQR series is from a wealthy and influential family. Although the Metelli are not one of the founding, Patrician, families, they have almost as much power in Rome. At this time, about 70 BCE, the Republic is plagued by the political aspirations of such characters as Pompey the Great and Crassus, reputedly the wealthiest man in the whole Roman world. Such famous imperialists as Catilina and Julius Caesar are junior officials with great ambitions and the famous orator Cicero has just burst upon the scene. Against this background of famous names we follow a much more obscure man in his pursuit of the truth, even though it endangers both his own life and his family’s reputation.

However, this book does not present a rarified view of the Roman Republic at this time. It is essentially the same stinking cesspit as we see through Falco’s eyes, although we do get to see a little more decadence and luxury. In some ways, the revelations about the famous names and important people makes the world seem even shabbier, because we expect so much more from these historical figures. Some do seem to live up to our perception of them, such as Cicero, but the others are disappointingly normal, scrabbling about for personal prestige, wealth or power. This is certainly not a book to read if you want to be overawed by the majesty that was Rome.

In a similar way to Falco, Decius is not your typical hero. He hates getting up whilst it is still dark and resents the many things that he has to do because they are expected or simply the ‘done thing’. After spending a few days following his rounds of client calls and maintaining political relationships, it is easy to see why he would be bored witless. This perhaps explains why he is so interested in investigating the deaths in his area, although he seems to possess a very proper sense of Roman justice that motivates his efforts to uncover who has killed some of ‘his’ people. He is burdened by the history of his family and also by its sheer numbers, although he does benefit from some rather useful connections because of it as well. His relationship with his father is particularly well drawn and is a constant point of frustration and humor for our hero.

Whilst Decius has no partner to help him in his investigations, he does make use of a very interesting character that acts a little like a medical examiner. Asklepiodes is a Greek physician who has made it his life’s work to catalogue the wounds created by every weapon he can find. In order to study a wide variety he has travelled across the Republic to work in a wide range of gladiator schools. At the moment he is working for one in Rome and aids Decius in his interpretation of the various wounds found on the dead bodies. Whilst he does not wander into Quincy territory and is restricted to discussions of deathblows, he is a refreshingly modern character to encounter in this setting. He provides some vital clues that allow Decius to unravel the conflicting evidence that he sees without our hero seeming to be far too knowledgeable about foreign fighting techniques.

Another excellent supporting character is Milo, a young man who used to be a professional oarsman and who now works for one of the biggest gangs in the city. This highly competent ‘heavy’ is a rather unusual character, who Decius is drawn to because of his eternal optimism and clear-headedness. He is certainly intriguing, especially as I know that he is destined for a rather hectic political career in the years after the book ends. It will be very interesting to see how his character progresses in the later titles of the series.

The plot clips along at a decent pace and leaves very little down time for description and scene setting, and yet the atmosphere of the city and time are conveyed very well. We are given quite a bit of detail about many aspects of Roman life at the time, but they do not feel too much like information dumps. There is a Glossary at the back to further explain some terms, but the feel is of Decius relating his life history to someone unfamiliar with Rome. He provides enough detail to allow understanding, but does not let the world building slow the story. Even so, the author conveys a great deal about the lives of low-ranking Roman officials, freedmen and slaves. He also makes the patron-client relationship accessible to a reader who has never even heard of this arrangement.   

I guess that my only criticism of the title would be that the sexual encounter that Decius shares with Claudia is so obviously a trap that I wanted to slap the lad around the face. However, I can understand that a young man might not think too much about why a beautiful woman suddenly wants to have rampant sex with him. He certainly suffers for his lack of caution and it does provide him with more clues to solving the puzzle, but it did feel a little out of place to me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this title, and series, to anyone who enjoys a good mystery story, especially if political intrigue is of interest. The Roman setting is excellent and will leave you with a better understanding of the daily life of the city at this turbulent time.