Rubicon: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Rubicon: A Novel of Ancient Rome

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by Steven Saylor

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As Caesar marches on Rome and panic erupts in the city, Gordianus the Finder discovers, in his own home, the body of Pompey's favorite cousin. Before fleeing the city, Pompey exacts a terrible bargain from the finder of secrets-to unearth the killer, or sacrifice his own son-in-law to service in Pompey's legions, and certain death. Amid the city's sordid


As Caesar marches on Rome and panic erupts in the city, Gordianus the Finder discovers, in his own home, the body of Pompey's favorite cousin. Before fleeing the city, Pompey exacts a terrible bargain from the finder of secrets-to unearth the killer, or sacrifice his own son-in-law to service in Pompey's legions, and certain death. Amid the city's sordid underbelly, Gordianus learns that the murdered man was a dangerous spy. Now, as he follows a trail of intrigue, betrayal, and ferocious battles on land and sea, the Finder is caught between the chaos of war and the terrible truth he must finally reveal.

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Bookseller Reviews

When Gordianus the Finder discovers the corpse of Pompey's favorite cousin in his own house, he is not pleased. Nor, to put it mildly, is Pompey. Steven Saylor, the master of classical whodunits, once again creeps through the back alleys of the Eternal City. (A new Saylor mystery, Last See in Massilia, is due next month in hardcover.) Apparently, the Romans have done more for us than just aqueducts.
Library Journal
In Saylors seventh novel set in ancient Rome (e.g., The House of the Vestals, St. Martins, 1997), the reader is once again caught up in a world of murder, intrigue, and history as Gordianus the Finder attempts to solve the murder of Pompeys cousin Numerius. The civilized world of 49 B.C.E. is in turmoil at the onset of the Roman Civil War. Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon River into Italy with his hand-picked troops. Pompey, his chief rival for control of Rome, has fled Rome with his followers from the Senate, and all is chaos as the people leave the city. Gordianuss task is made all the more difficult by his discovery that his son may be involved in a plot against Caesars life. This novel is an excellent blending of mystery and history. Although Rubicon will stand alone, be prepared for demand for Saylors other titles.Jane Baird, Anchorage Municipal Libs., AK
Kirkus Reviews
The seventh in Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series veers again, like Catilina's Riddle (1993), from straight detection to a wider examination of Rome in the grip of civil war. The story starts off, though, like a classic whodunit. Just as news arrives that Julius Caesar, having conquered Gaul, has crossed the Rubicon in daring violation of his charter and has taken the city of Corfinium, Saylor's hero Gordianus the Finder encounters a corpse in his own home. The strangled victim is Numerius Pompeius, a cousin of the proconsul Pompey the Great, who—outraged that his relation has been murdered under the roof of a man not noted for his loyalty to Pompey, and suspicious that Gordianus' son Meto, Caesar's literary adjutant, may represent Gordianus' own allegiance to Caesar—demands that Gordianus discover the killer, and takes along Gordianus' son-in-law Davus with him to Brundisium, apparently Caesar's next target, to insure that Gordianus will stay on the job. Gordianus has no trouble establishing that Numerius was a blackmailing double-dealer, but his inquiries are stymied by the hysterical factionalism around him as all Rome waits breathlessly to see whether Pompey will succeed in holding off Caesar at Brundisium or drawing him into a trap, or whether Caesar will sweep over Pompey as easily as over Domitius Ahenobarbus, the pusillanimous defender of Corfinium. Saylor meticulously re-creates a chaotic world in which Romans endlessly calculate how much loyalty they can invest in a leader who may lose a crucial battle, branding his followers traitors overnight. And Gordianus' journey to Brundisium, together with the secretary of his wily former employer and adversary Cicero, bristleswith menace. What's most memorable, though, is the brilliantly simple solution to the question of who killed Numerius. Once again, Saylor (The House of the Vestals, 1997, etc.) resourcefully uses a single crime to focus the story of a civilization gone mad. (Author tour)

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By Steven Saylor

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 Steven Saylor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2749-9


"Pompey will be mightily pissed," said Davus.

"Son-in-law, you have a penchant for stating the obvious." I sighed and knelt and steeled myself to take a closer look. The lifeless body lay facedown in the middle of my garden directly before the bronze statue of Minerva, like a prostrate worshiper at the goddess's feet.

Davus turned in a circle, shielding his eyes from the morning sunlight and peering warily at the four corners of the peristyle roof surrounding us. "What I can't see is how the assassin got in and out without any of us in the house hearing." He wrinkled his brow, which made him look like a perplexed and much overgrown boy. Built like a Greek statue, and just as thick; that was Bethesda's joke. My wife had not taken kindly to the notion of our only daughter marrying a slave, especially a slave who had been brash enough, or stupid enough, to get her pregnant. But if Davus had a penchant for the obvious, Diana had a penchant for Davus. And there was no denying that they had produced a beautiful son, whom I could hear even now screaming at his mother and grandmother to be let out into the garden, crying as only a two-year-old can. But Aulus could not be let out to play on this bright, mild Januarius afternoon, for there was a corpse in the garden.

And not just any corpse. The dead man was Numerius Pompeius, who was somehow related to Pompey — one of the Great One's cousins, though a couple of generations younger. He had arrived at my house, alone, half an hour earlier. Now he lay dead at my feet.

"I can't understand it." Davus scratched his head. "Before I let him in the door, I took a good look up and down the street, like I always do. I didn't notice anybody following him." When Davus had been a slave, he had been a bodyguard — an obvious choice, given his hulking physique. He had been trained not just to fight but to keep a lookout for danger. Now as a freedman and my son-in-law, Davus was the physical protector of the household, and in these perilous times it was his job to greet visitors at the door. Now that a murder had occurred within the house, practically under his nose, he took it as a personal failure. In the face of my silence, Davus seemed determined to interrogate himself. He paced back and forth, using his fingers to tick off each question.

"Why did I let him in? Well, because he announced himself as Numerius Pompeius, Kinsman of the Great One. And he came alone — not even a bodyguard to worry about — so I didn't see any need to make him wait outside. I let him into the foyer. Did I ask if he had any weapons? It's against the law to carry weapons inside the city walls, of course, but nobody pays attention to that these days, so yes, I did ask, and he didn't make any fuss at all and handed over his dagger right away. Did I search him for more weapons, as you've told me to do, even with citizens? Yes, I did, and he didn't even protest. Did I leave him alone, even for a moment? No, I did not. I stayed with him there in the foyer, sent little Mopsus to tell you there was a visitor, then waited until you sent back word that you'd see him. I escorted him through the house, back here to the garden. Diana and Aulus were out here with you, playing in the sunny spot at Minerva's feet ... right where Numerius is lying now ... but you sent them inside. Did I stay with you? No, because you sent me inside, too. But I knew better! I should have stayed."

"Numerius said he had a message for my ears alone," I said. "If a man can't safely have a private talk in his own home ..." I looked about the garden, at the carefully pruned shrubbery and the brightly colored columns that lined the surrounding walkway. I gazed up at the bronze statue of Minerva; after all these years, the face that peered down from her great war helmet remained inscrutable to me. The garden was at the center of the house, its heart — the heart of my world — and if I was not safe here, then I was safe nowhere.

"Don't chastise yourself, Davus. You did your job."

"But I should never have left you unguarded, even for —"

"Have we reached a point where a common citizen needs to mimic Pompey or Caesar, and have a bodyguard standing over him every moment of every hour, even when he's wiping his ass?"

Davus frowned. I knew what he was thinking — that it was unlike me to talk so crudely, that I must be badly shaken and trying not to show it, that his father-in-law was getting too old to deal with ugly shocks like a corpse in the garden before the midday meal. He stared up at the rooftop again. "But Numerius wasn't the danger, was he? It was whoever followed him here. The killer must be half lizard, to scurry up and down the walls without making a sound! Did you hear nothing, father-in-law?"

"I told you, Numerius and I talked for a while, then I left him for a moment and stepped into my study."

"But that's only a few feet away. Still, I suppose the statue of Minerva might have blocked the view. And your hearing —"

"My ears are as sharp as those of any man of sixty-one!"

Davus nodded respectfully. "However it happened, it's a good thing you weren't out here when the assassin came, or else ..."

"Or else I might have been strangled, too?" I touched my fingers to the rope that still circled Numerius's neck, cutting into the livid flesh. He had been killed with a simple garrote, a short loop of rope attached to each end of a short, stout twisting stick.

Davus knelt beside me. "The killer must have come up behind him, dropped the garrote over his head, then used the stick to twist it tighter and tighter around his throat. A gruesome way to die."

I turned away, feeling queasy.

"But a quiet way," Davus went on. "Numerius couldn't even cry out! Maybe he managed a gurgle or a grunt at the start, but then, with his air cut off, the only way to make a sound would be to bang against something. See there, father-in-law, how Numerius gouged his heels into the gravel? But that wouldn't make much noise. If only he could have banged a fist against the bronze Minerva ... but both hands are clutched to his throat. That's a man's instinct, to try to tear the rope from his neck. I wonder ..." Davus peered up at the roof again. "The killer needn't have been a big fellow. It doesn't take a great deal of strength to garrote a man, even a big man, so long as you take him unaware."

I nodded. "Pompey will have to be told. I suppose I must do it myself — make the trip outside the city walls to Pompey's villa, wait for an interview, give him the bad news, then let him deal with the matter as he chooses. Here, help me roll the body face-up."

From inside the house, I heard my little grandson shouting again to be let into the garden. I looked toward the doorway. Bethesda and Diana peered out anxiously. It was something of a miracle that they had so far obeyed me and stayed out of the garden. Bethesda started to speak, but I held up my hand and shook my head. I was rather surprised when she nodded and withdrew, taking Diana with her.

I forced myself to look at Numerius's strangled face. It was a sight to give anyone nightmares.

He had been young, in his twenties, probably a bit older than Davus. His broad, blandly handsome features were now discolored and distorted and almost unrecognizable in a rictus of agony. I swallowed hard. As I used two fingers to shut his lids, I saw my reflection in the black pool of his staring eyes. No wonder my wife and daughter had obeyed me without question. The look on my face was alarming even to me.

I stood, my knees crackling like the gravel beneath my feet. Davus sprang up beside me, as supple as a cat despite his size.

"Pompey will be mightily pissed," I said gravely.

"I said that already!"

"So you did, Davus. But bad news keeps, as the poet says. The day is young, and I see no need to rush across Rome to bring Pompey the news. What do you say we have a closer look, and see what Numerius may be carrying?"

"But I told you, I searched him when I took his dagger. There was only a small moneybag around his waist, with a clip for his scabbard. Nothing else."

"I wouldn't be sure of that. Help me take off his clothes. Be careful; we shall have to put everything back exactly as it was, before Pompey's men come to claim the body."

Beneath his well-cut woolen tunic, Numerius wore a linen loincloth. It was wet with urine, but he had not soiled himself. He wore no jewelry except for his citizen's ring. I took off the ring and examined it; it appeared to be solid iron, with no secret compartments or hidden devices. There were only a few coins inside his moneybag; considering the chaotic state of the city, it would not have been prudent for a man without bodyguards to carry more. I turned the bag inside out. There were no secret pockets.

"Perhaps you're right, Davus. Perhaps he was carrying nothing of interest, after all. Unless ... Take off his shoes, would you? My back aches from bending over."

The uppers were made of finely tanned black leather stamped with an intricate design of interconnected triangles, closed and fastened by thongs that wound around the ankle and calf. The soles were quite thick, made of several layers of hardened leather attached to the uppers by hob-nails. There was nothing inside them. They were warm and carried the scent of Numerius's feet; handling them was more intimate than handling his clothing or even his ring. I was about to hand them back to Davus when I noticed an irregularity in the layered sole, at the heel. The same irregularity appeared at the same spot in both shoes. There were two breaks in the middle layer of the sole, about a thumb's length apart. Near one of the breaks was a small hole.

"Do you have the dagger you took from Numerius?"

Davus wrinkled his brow. "Yes. Ah, I see! But if you mean to cut into his shoes, I can fetch a better knife from the kitchen."

"No, let me see Numerius's dagger."

Davus reached inside his tunic. I handed him the shoes and he handed me the dagger in its sheath.

I nodded. "What do you notice about this sheath, Davus?"

He frowned, suspecting a test of some sort. "It's made of leather."

"Yes, but what sort of leather?"

"Black." He saw that I was unimpressed and tried again. "It's decorated."


"It's stamped — and the same pattern is carved on the wooden hilt of the dagger."

"Yes, a pattern of interlocking triangles."

Davus peered at the shoes in his hands. "The same pattern as on his shoes!"

"Exactly. Meaning?"

Davus was stumped.

"Meaning," I said, "that whatever shop made the shoes also made the dagger. They're a set. Rather unusual, don't you think, that the same shop should produce such dissimilar goods?"

Davus nodded, pretending to follow my thoughts. "So — are you going to pull out the dagger and cut open the shoes, or not?"

"No, Davus, I am going to unlock the shoes." I left the blade in its sheath and studied the hilt, which was carved from the hard black wood of the Syrian terebinth, attached to the metal by bosses of ivory. The triangle design ingeniously concealed the hidden compartment in the hilt, but it slid open easily once I found the right place to press with my thumb. Inside the compartment was a tiny key, hardly more than a sliver of bronze with a little hook near one end.

"Son-in-law, hold up the shoes with the heels facing me." I started with the shoe on my left. The irregularity in the heel, the two breaks I had noticed in the center layer of leather, proved to be a narrow door, with a hinge at one side and a keyhole at the other. I inserted the tiny key into the tiny hole. After a bit of fiddling, the door gave a little snap and sprang open.

"Extraordinary!" I whispered. "What workmanship! So delicate — yet sturdy enough to be trod on." I took the shoe from Davus, held it under the sunlight and peered down into the narrow chamber. I saw nothing. I turned the shoe over and knocked it against my palm. Nothing came out.

"Empty!" I said.

"We could still cut into it," said Davus helpfully.

I gave him a withering look. "Son-in-law, did I not say that we must put back all of Numerius's things exactly as they were, so that Pompey's men will see no signs of our tampering when they come to fetch him?"

Davus nodded.

"That includes his shoes! Now hand me the other one." I inserted the key and fiddled until the lock sprang open.

There was something inside. I withdrew what appeared to be several pieces of thin parchment.


"What does it say, father-in-law?"

"I don't know yet."

"Is it Latin?"

"I don't know that yet, either."

"I see Greek letters and Latin letters both, all mixed together."

"Clever of you, Davus, to spot the difference." Davus had lately been taking instruction from Diana, who was determined to teach him how to read. His progress had been slow.

"But how can that be, Greek and Latin letters both?"

"It's in some sort of code, Davus. Until I figure out the code, I can't read it any better than you can."

We had stepped from the garden into my study, and now sat across from each other at the little tripod table by the window, peering down at the thin pieces of parchment I had extracted from Numerius's shoe. There were five pieces in all, each covered with writing so tiny that I had to squint to make out the letters. At first glance, the text appeared to be pure nonsense, a collection of random letters strung together. I suspected the use of a cipher, with the added complication of mixing Greek and Latin characters.

I tried to explain to Davus how a cipher worked. Thanks to Diana, he had mastered the basic idea that letters could represent sounds and collections of letters could represent words, but his hold on the alphabet was tenuous. As I explained how letters could be shuffled arbitrarily about, then unshuffled, his face registered mounting bewilderment.

"But I thought the whole point of letters was that they didn't change, that they always stood for the same thing."

"Yes. Well ..." I tried to think of a metaphor. "Imagine the letters all taking on disguises. Take your name: The D might masquerade as an M, the A as a T, and so on, and altogether you'd have five letters that didn't look like any sort of word at all. But figure a way to see through those disguises, and you can unmask the whole word." I smiled, thinking this was rather clever, but the look on Davus's face was now of confusion verging on panic.

"If only Meto were here," I muttered. The younger of my two adopted sons had turned out to have a genius for letters. His natural gifts had served him well in Caesar's ranks. He had become the general's literary adjutant. To hear Meto tell it, he had done much of the actual writing of Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars, which everyone in Rome had been reading for the last year. No one was more brilliant than Meto at cracking codes, anagrams, and ciphers.

But Meto was not in Rome — not yet, anyway, though expectations of Caesar's imminent arrival continued to mount day by day, causing jubilation in some quarters, terror in others.

"There are rules about solving ciphers," I muttered aloud, trying to remember the simple tricks that Meto had taught me. "'A cipher is simply a puzzle, solving a puzzle is merely a game, and —"

"'And all games have rules, which any fool can follow.'"

I looked up and saw my daughter standing in the doorway.

"Diana! I told you to stay in the front of the house. What if little Aulus —"

"Mother is watching him. She'll keep him out of the garden. You know how superstitious she is about dead bodies." Diana clicked her tongue. "That poor fellow looks awful!"

"I wanted to spare you the sight."

"Papa, I've seen dead bodies before."

"But not ..."

"Not strangled like that, no. Though I have seen a garrote before. It looks a lot like the one used to murder Titus Trebonius a few years ago, the fellow you proved was strangled by his wife. You kept the garrote as a souvenir, remember? Mother threatened to use it on Davus if he ever displeased me."

"She was joking, I think. Such weapons are as common as daggers these days," I said.

"Davus, are you doing a good job of helping Papa?" Diana moved to her husband's side and laid a slender arm over his brawny shoulders, then touched her lips to his forehead. Davus grinned. A strand of Diana's long black hair fell across his face, tickling his nose.

I cleared my throat. "The problem appears to be a cipher. Davus and I have practically solved it already. Run along, Diana, back to your mother."

"Isis and Osiris, Papa! How can you possibly read such fine writing?" She squinted at the parchment.

"Contrary to prevailing opinion in this household, I am neither deaf nor blind," I said. "And it is unseemly for girls to speak impiously in front of their fathers, even if the deities invoked are Egyptian." A passion for all things Egyptian was Diana's latest rage. She called it a homage to her mother's origins. I called it an affectation.

"I'm not a girl, Papa. I'm twenty years old, married, and a mother."

"Yes, I know." I looked sidelong at Davus, who was completely absorbed in blowing wisps of his wife's shimmering black hair away from his nose.

"If solving a cipher is the problem, Papa, then let me help you. Davus can go stand watch in the garden, to make sure no one else comes over the rooftop."


Excerpted from Rubicon by Steven Saylor. Copyright © 1999 Steven Saylor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven Saylor is the author of the long running Roma Sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder, as well as the New York Times bestselling novel, Roma and its follow-up, Empire. He has appeared as an on-air expert on Roman history and life on The History Channel. Saylor was born in Texas and graduated with high honors from The University of Texas at Austin, where he studied history and classics. He divides his time between Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas.

Steven Saylor is the author of the long running Roma Sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder, as well as the New York Times bestselling novel, Roma and its follow-up, Empire. He has appeared as an on-air expert on Roman history and life on The History Channel. Saylor was born in Texas and graduated with high honors from The University of Texas at Austin, where he studied history and classics. He divides his time between Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas.

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Rubicon (Roma Sub Rosa Series #7) 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Samplin More than 1 year ago
Sped right through it. It seemed shorter than some of the others in the series. Saylor's books flesh out life in the ancient city and bring historic events into perspective. I've learned more history of the first century BCE from Saylor than I ever did in a textbook. Having been to Rome, I can somewhat picture places and I often refer to an old map of Rome in the second century CE from National Geographic. I love the fictional characters, especially Rome's favorite PI and the interplay with the real people. Took this one on vacation and didn't put it down for two days.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved it! I read voraciously, but I just discovered Saylor. His word pictures of ancient Rome are wonderful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When Pompey's favorite cousin is killed in Gordianus' garden Gordianus must find the killer or lose his son in law to Pompey's army. When I read this book I couldn't figure out who it was until the end. So there's one word to describe saylor's novel 'addictive'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Poor Gordianus, he has to contend with turmoil and upheaval, and old age. One has to hand it to him, though. Once again, he manages to fend off the collapse of the Republic and avoid destruction at the hands of the powerful. Steven Saylor manages the Shakespearean feat of personalising a public tragedy. Gordianus and Meto's difficulties make Caesar and Pompey's power struggle a meaningful, immediate catastrophe. Neither Saylor nor Gordianus take sides and give us the Titans warts and all. This series never fails to surprise and challenge our assumptions of the mystery genre.