A Murder on the Appian Way
By Steven Saylor
Published by Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc.
Read by Scott Harrison
This is actually Book Five of Steven Saylor’s acclaimed series “Roma Sub Rosa” which involves the mysteries solved by Gordianus the Finder, a plebeian known to all the lawyers in town for his ability to ferret out the facts they need to try their cases even though sometimes those facts turn out not to be what they had hoped for.
I reviewed the first book of the series, Roman Blood a while back, but this is actually the first book of Saylor’s I ever read. The fact that I could jump right in without becoming confused by references to earlier adventures is a testimony to Saylor’s writing. Some authors might achieve that by not having their characters develop from book to book so that even if some reference to an earlier story is made it just does not matter. Saylor’s Gordianus and his situation, however, do change from book to book. He adopts children, marries his slave/lover who gives birth to their daughter. He inherits a farm in Etruria and later trades it (sort of) for a house in a fashionable district in Rome, leaving his father’s house to his eldest son and so forth.
Gordianus’ prestige in Roma also has grown as he goes from one case to another and he has come to the attention of the most powerful men and women in the city. His occupation is still not one any “respectable” person (for that read “Patrician”) in Roma might pursue, but he is the go-to guy when you’re in trouble and he has managed to cultivate some friends among the patrician-class citizens. One of these is the historically notorious, Clodia Pulchra Prima (sometimes referred to by scholars as Clodia Metelli so as not to confuse her with her niece who was briefly married to Octavian).
Clodia figured heavily in a previous story in which Saylor gave his own spin to the trial in which Clodia accused Marcus Caelius Rufus of trying to poison her. In real life, the accusation may well have been true. Caelius was an interesting character and a typical petty-minded politician of his time. He eventually met his own end in battle against Caesar, but not during that trial when he was still allied with Cicero. With Cicero’s help Caelius discredited Clodia. The accusations against Clodia might well have been true too, but she mostly disappears from the historical records following that trial and there is neither verification nor vindication available.
However, she remains one of the most interesting people male or female in Late Republican Rome, known for her many affairs and not without her supporters. It is thought by many historians that the poet Catullus referred to her frequently in his poems as Lesbia although recently this has been questioned.
While little is known of Clodia following the Caelius trial, Saylor does not go out on any dangerous limbs by bringing her back from her self-imposed seclusion a few years later when her brother, the even more notorious Publius Clodius Pulcher, is killed by the men of Titus Milo when they happened to pass each other on the Appian Way.
History tells us that this meeting was probably by chance, but we also know that at least from the time of the Civil War between Sulla and Marius that Roman politics was a battle between the populists and those who supported the Optimates (the “Best People”). Clodius, was born a patrician with the name Claudius, but had himself adopted into a plebeian family and respelled his name in the more common plebeian manner in order to run for the office of Tribune. And he was a powerful, if disruptive, influence in Roman politics.
Just as Caesar and Pompey later came to oppose each other, Clodius and Milo were frequent and bitter opponents, so when Milo is accused of Clodius’ murder, the plebeians of Rome rioted, built Clodius’ pyre in the Senate House which subsequently caught fire and burned down.
It is in this mass confusion that Pompey the Great hires Gordianus to learn the truth of Clodius’ death even as he promises Clodia that he will do the same. Saylor has a few certainties garnered from historical documents in which to set the story, but they are sufficient to make room for Gordianus and his son to seek out the “facts” of the case. I suppose someone had to investigate. It might as well have been our old friend Gordianus.
Saylor writes an interesting and compelling story as told from Gordianus’ point of view and makes the ancient world, immortalized in the fragmentary documents of contemporary historians and the later re-written speeches of Cicero, come to life even for an audience who may previously had no knowledge of Roman history.
And even as the historical events of the book unfold, Gordianus must also deal with his own growing family. It can be argued that Gordianus is not representative of Roman attitudes concerning fatherhood and family, and that he is too modern in outlook, but it is this modern attitude that makes him such a sympathetic character to Twenty-first Century readers.
I consider the whole series as a must-read, but A Murder on the Appian Way is arguably the best story among a collection of excellent novels.
When I reviewed Roman Blood, I, Claudius, Casear’s Commentaries and probably others works that either were written by Romans or where about them I have jokingly commented that of course all Romans spoke with a British accent. I suppose this is because so many adaptations have been done in Great Britain. Scott Harrison is not British so he does not read any of Roma Sub Rosa with a British accent. And that’s really quite okay.
Well, maybe the patricians spoke like Brits, but hearing Harrison read I am willing to let the plebeians sound like Yankees. Why not? So while it took a while to get my mind around Romans sounding like fellow Americans, I was used to it by the second chapter.
I mentioned in my review of Roman Blood that Mister Harrison did a creditable job reading that book. I think he did a better job with this one although I still thought he could have used just a bit more differentiation in the voices of Saylor’s characters. Harrison’s pacing, however, remains pleasant and he continues to be easy to listen to, making the auditory experience of A Murder on the Appian Way a pleasant experience.
Definitely I recommend this book whether you read it or listen to it.