15 January 2010

Review of The Roman Mysteries

Caroline Lawrence's The Roman Mysteries is a series of 17 detective stories set in the Roman Empire between June 78 and October 81 AD, i.e., basically in the reign of Titus. The detectives are a group of four children: Flavia Gemina, daughter of Marcus Flavius Geminus, sea captain; Jonathan ben Mordecai, her Jewish Christian neighbour; Nubia (formerly Shepenwepet), a Nubian slave bought by Flavia and later freed by her; and Lupus, a mute beggar boy taken in by Joseph and his family. The books seem to be aimed at an audience of children from 8 or 9 year olds to the early teens, though older readers will also get a great deal of pleasure from the series. They stories have been televised but I haven't seen the programmes, only read the books. Inevitably in a review of the whole series, there are SPOILERS in what follows. (picture of well in Ostia Antica from wikicommons is in the public domain)

The first book in the series, The Thieves of Ostia, gives the impression of The Famous Five meet Falco, with a rather heavy-handed Christian message at the end. Some readers might find this offputting, but they should definitely persevere. We are taken through a series of historical events: the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii, the opening of the Colosseum, an epidemic and fire that struck Rome in the early part of Titus's principate, and (in flashback) the sieges of Jerusalem and Masada by the Romans. Amongst the historical figures we meet are Titus and Domitian, Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Josephus, Quintilian, Queen Berenice, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, and John, the beloved disciple. Jonathan, Nubia, and Lupus all have back stories, which are gradually revealed in various story arcs running through the books. A linked long term story arc is the tracking down of a criminal mastermind who kidnaps and enslaves children. The geographical area covered includes Ostia and the bay of Naples in Italy, mainland Greece, the Greek islands, Roman Asia, Egypt, and North Africa.

The main characters' family and other connections mean we get to see many different aspects of Roman life at all levels of society, from beggars and poor provincials to the Imperial family. We find out about science and medicine (Jonathan's father is a doctor and Flavia Gemina is a great fan of the Elder Pliny and his Natural History), gladiatorial and other games, education, literature, and oratory and legal procedure. Cultural riches are brought out in the children's lessons with their tutor, Aristo, but the harsh realities of life are not ignored: long before the first book Flavia's mother had died in childbirth and Jonathan's sister Miriam, who marries Flavia's uncle Gaius, suffers the same fate in The Slave Girl from Jerusalem; Lupus is mute because his tongue was torn out. The books each contain a Final Scroll in which the author discusses historical, literary and social references. The series is particularly interesting in its treatment of two issues, slavery and religion. (picture of page from 14th century codex of Pliny's Natural History from wikicommons is in the public domain)

Slavery is a major problem for modern fiction set in ancient Rome. How do you give a realistic picture of a member of a slave-owning society without forfeiting the reader's sympathy for him or her? Caroline Lawrence manages this very well. How somebody treats their slaves is a powerful indicator of their moral worth. In The Thieves of Ostia, Flavia spends the money she received for her birthday on buying Nubia because she feels sorry for her. Pulchra, a minor character who appears in several books, starts off in The Pirates of Pompeii as a spoiled brat who mistreats her slaves but she matures in later books as she deals with her problems of loneliness and parental neglect and starts to treat her slaves more humanely. Less convincing is the attitude of Jonathan's father, who refuses to own slaves, thus obliging his children to do household chores. This definitely struck me as anachronistic.

A major story arc running throughout the series is the kidnapping and enslavement of children, first by Venalicius, a slave dealer based in Ostia, and then as the leader of a criminal ring, the powerful Magnus. The realities of a slave's life are not glossed over. We are told that good looking children, girls and boys, amongst the enslaved children are separated out from the others -- and older readers will know what their fate would be, even though this is not explicitly stated. Slaves are subject to humiliation, beaten, and forced into work in carpet factories which blinds them. Other slaves are much better treated, such as Flavia's father's two house slaves Caudex and Alma, though it is never suggested that they might be freed. Sisyphus is a slave secretary to Flavia's uncle, the senator Cornix. He wins his freedom from Cornix in a bet, though he continues to work as Cornix's secretary as a freedman.

Religion is another interesting feature of the books. Both the traditional Greco-Roman religion and Christianity are taken seriously. Flavia and her family believe in the traditional Roman religion. They have a nice line in "swearwords": Great Juno's Peacock, Great Jupiter's Eyebrows, etc. Flavia's family perform sacrifices, make vows to the gods, and consider omens. Lupus's mother dedicates herself as a priestess of Apollo. What Nubia's religion back home was, we never find out. One of her major functions in the book is as a foil for explanations of Roman religion and other aspects of life she cannot be expected to know about as a recent immigrant. Jonathan's family are Jews who have been expelled from the synagogue as Christians. Although Jonathan's father quotes Jesus early on as declaring all foods pure, Jonathan still has qualms in a later book about his father's reaction if he goes to a pig butcher's on the Sabbath. (Udimu's photograph of Roman mosaic from Hinton St. Mary via wikicommons licensed under Creatie Commons)

Jonathan has prophetic dreams, and reflects on his religious feelings as his experiences change him in the books. Although in the first book the theme of repentance and forgiveness seems to be added on rather clumsily, it proves to be a common theme running through the books right up until Jonathan finds peace, relieved of his misplaced guilt over the fire in Rome in which 20,000 people lost their lives. In the penultimate book, after meeting John, the beloved disciple, Lupus, Nubia, and Aristo, the children's tutor, become Christians and Flavia tries to believe, but in the end cannot. Nevertheless, they all find meaning and purpose to their lives.

All in all, this is a rich series full of adventure through which the reader will learn a lot about life in Roman times and along the way will also find a lot to reflect on in the similarities and differences in life and thought between Roman times and our own. It is well worth reading the whole series in order to see how the themes and story arcs work themselves out.

1 comment:

Gary Corby said...

And I very much recommend the Roman Mysteries, because they are way cool.

A fantastic introduction to ancient history for kids, plus they're fun to read.