SPQR VI: Nobody Loves a Centurion

SPQR VI: Nobody Loves a Centurion

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by John Maddox Roberts

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Julius Caesar, as we know, arrived in Gaul (now France) and announced "I Came, I Saw, I Conquered," but when Decius Metellus arrives from Rome, not seeking military glory but rather avoiding an enemy currently in power, he finds that although the general came and saw, so far, at least, he has far from conquered. The campaign seems at a standstill.


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Julius Caesar, as we know, arrived in Gaul (now France) and announced "I Came, I Saw, I Conquered," but when Decius Metellus arrives from Rome, not seeking military glory but rather avoiding an enemy currently in power, he finds that although the general came and saw, so far, at least, he has far from conquered. The campaign seems at a standstill.

Decius's arrival disappoints the great Caesar as well. He has been waiting for promised reinforcements from Rome, an influx of soldiers to restart his invasion. Instead he is presented with one young man ridiculously decked out in military parade finery and short on military skills, accompanied not by eager troops but by one callow and reluctant slave, the feckless Hermes.

It soon develops, however, that Decius's arrival was fortuitous. When Vinius, the army's cruelest centurion (so-called because he commands a hundred soldiers), is found murdered, Caesar remembers that his new recruit has successfully come up with the culprit in a number of recent crimes. Murder is bad for morale, particularly since it seems quite clear that the murderer was one of Caesar's men. Caesar orders Decius to find the killer -- and quickly.

Although evidence points to the son of one of Decius's clients -- a youth who was the particular target of the centurion's brutality, Decius racks his brain to find a way to save him from the sentence of death. The investigation leads Decius to two German slaves of the dead man -- a dwarfish old man and a beautiful woman. They are puzzling; the man is arrogant, the woman haughty--very unlike slaves. There are unanswered questions. It soon becomes clear to Decius that only by finding and punishing the real murderer will it be possible to quiet the rising dissatisfaction with Caesar's unorthodox method of warfare and forestall a mutiny against the mighty Caesar's authority and aims.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The first line of Roberts's (Saturnalia) sixth SPQR mystery, "I blame it all on Alexander the Great," sets the tone for this briskly paced, lighthearted Roman historical. Decius Caecillus Mettellus, the would-be playboy son of an illustrious family, plays reluctant sleuth. "Would-be" because his considerable intelligence causes him to be drafted into the most serious affairs of state. When his worst enemy, who could do him great harm, wins a tribuneship, Decius decides it's time to leave Rome. In addition, the family patriarchs, who are grooming him for public office, want him to have more military service. So Decius and his slave, Hermes, journey deep into Gaul, where Caius Julius Caesar is at war with the Helvetii. Caesar's legion faces an unknown number of the enemy, but the trouble really begins when the legion's most hated centurion, Titus Vinius, gets murdered. Titus's death throws suspicion on eight men, who will be executed unless the guilty party is found. Before leaving to recruit additional legions, Caesar assigns the task of uncovering the killer to Decius, who as usual proves a courageous and methodical sleuth. Roberts deftly recreates his ancient world, constantly reminding the reader that it was a cruel and violent place where people thought and acted a lot differently from us. A double-edged solution perfectly caps a highly entertaining story. (Sept. 24) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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St. Martin's Press
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SPQR Roman Mysteries , #6
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Chapter One

                             I BLAME IT ALL ON ALEXANDER THE Great. Ever since that little Macedonian twit decided that he had to conquer the whole world before he was old enough to shave, every fool with a sword and a decent pair of boots has sought to do the same. In the days of my youth there were a number of would-be Alexanders in Rome. Marius had a go at being Alexander. Sulla tried it. Lucullus tried it. There were others who never even managed to establish a reputation the equal of those men.

    Pompey came close to succeeding. Since Rome was a Republic, he couldn't simply inherit an army as Alexander had, and he was too lazy to bother with holding the offices requisite for higher military command, so he just got his tame tribunes to ram legislation through the Assemblies, giving him the authority and claiming that a state of emergency forbade his return to Rome to stand for office. He usually manufactured the emergency himself. Most often, his tribunes gave him command after a better man had done most of the fighting, thus bestowing on Pompey the kill and the loot. But that just shows that Pompey was more intelligent than Alexander. Romans are usually more intelligent than foreigners.

    Enemy leaders seldom checked the Romans. That was done by their political enemies at home. Political infighting was the bane of the Republic, but it probably saved us from monarchy for more than two hundred years.

   And then again, Alexander was usually fighting Persians, which helped him no end. Rome never dealt with a Darius. Alexander faced him twice, and twice Darius ran like a flogged baboon at the first clash, deserting his army, camp, baggage train, and wives. All of the enemies of ns Romans were hard-fighting brutes, who bloodied us severely before agreeing to be reasonable and settle down and pay their taxes. Alexander never had to face Hannibal. If he had, he'd have gone straight back to Macedonia to count his sheep, which is all Macedonians are good for, anyway.

    The unlikeliest contender of all was Caius Julius Caesar, and he came the closest to winning the imperial crown of Alexander. To my everlasting horror, I helped him almost get there.

                                It was a long journey, and a wretched time of year to be making it. Late winter brings the worst weather to the Italian peninsula, and it is no better in Gaul. Of course it would have been much faster to sail from Ostia to Massilia, but I hate sea travel as much as any other sane human being. So with my slave, Hermes, and two baggage mules, I set out from Rome, up the coast through Tuscia and Liguria to the Province.

    I need hardly point out that I was not in search of military glory. I had to leave Rome because Clodius, my deadly enemy, had won a tribuneship for that year and was in a position to do incalculable harm, and there was nothing anyone could do about it for the duration of his year in office. Also, my family was grooming me for higher office and I needed a few more campaigns under my military belt before I could qualify to stand for the praetorship, and when the patriarchs of my family gave orders, they were to be obeyed by anyone bearing the name of Caecilius Metellus.

    In those days, mine was by far the most important of the plebeian families. The gens Caecilia was ancient, incredibly numerous and distinguished beyond words, with a chain of consuls back to the founding of the Republic. My father had held every office on the cursus honorum, plus the non-cursus offices of military tribune, aedile, Tribune of the People, and Censor.

    Of course, I stood every chance of being killed while acquiring my military qualifications. But, as I have said, my family was pestilentially numerous and doubtless a replacement would be found.

    So, I made my way up the coast, taking my time about it; stopping to lodge with friends wherever possible, staying at inns where it was unavoidable; attending local games and festivals where opportunity presented. I was in no rush to get to Rome's latest war. Even in my youngest days I had never suffered from the callow recruit's anxiety that all the excitement would be over before I got there.

    We passed from Liguria around the foot of the Maritime Alps and into the Province, the earliest of our extra-Italian possessions, the greatest virtue of which is that it provides us with a way to get to Spain without drowning. The road passed through a string of Greek colonial towns, in time coming to Massilia. It was a lovely place, as colonies tend to be. When you plan a city from scratch, you can pay attention to things like order, proportion, and harmony. Cities like Rome, that just grow over a period of centuries, sprawl every which way with temples, tenements, and fish markets all jumbled together. Massilia was also about as far north as you could go and get a decent bath. In those days it was still an independent city and calling itself Massalia because Greeks can't spell.

    Technically, this area was at war, so it was time to look military. I already wore my military tunic and boots. We dismounted while Hermes got my panoply from the pack mules. My slave was a well-grown youth, about eighteen at that time, with decided criminal proclivities. Every officer needs an accomplished thief while on campaign, to keep him supplied with the necessities and comforts.

    First, I pulled on the lightly padded arming tunic, with its pendant skirt of decorated leather straps and matching straps hanging from the shoulders. Then Hermes buckled on my cuirass. There are two ways to acquire great muscles: one is through years of strenuous athletic exercise. The other is to buy them from an armorer. I had chosen the latter course. My cuirass was embossed with muscles that Hercules would have envied, complete with silver nipples and a meticulously sculpted navel. A Gorgon's head scowled frightfully from between the massive pectorals, warding off evil.

    Hermes attached my red military cloak to the rings flanking the Gorgon and unpacked my helmet, carefully mounting its crest of flowing white horsehair. The helmet was of the Greek style, with a peak that jutted out above my eyes, the bronze polished to blinding brilliance and decorated all over with silver acanthus leaves. Or perhaps they were ivy. Or even oak or olive. I have forgotten with which god I was trying to curry favor when I bought the armor.

    Hermes latched the cheekpieces beneath my chin and stepped back to admire the effect. "Master, you look just like Mars!"

    "So I do," I agreed. "I may be an incorrigible civilian, but at least I can look like a soldier. Where is my sword?"

    Hermes found my dress sword and I buckled it around my bronze-girt waist like one of Homer's heroes. My position was unclear, so I left off the sash of command. We remounted and rode into the town, where I was received with suitable awe, but the nearest Roman official had disturbing news. Caesar had marched north into the mountains to deal with some people called the Helvetii. They had a town called Genava near Lake Lemannus. All officers and reinforcements were to report to his camp with utmost haste.

    This was an unexpected development. I had never heard of an army moving with such speed as Caesar's. He must have double-timed them all the way from central Italy to be at Lake Lemannus so soon. Knowing Caesar's lifelong reputation for indolence, I took it for an ominous sign.

    So we rode on without even pausing for a bath or a good night's sleep. Our days of leisure were over, for Caesar had thoughtfully provided relay stations where his officers could acquire fresh mounts and have no excuse for tardiness. The punishment was unspecified but it was as certain as death, for only a Dictator has power like a Roman proconsul in his own province.

    Our path took us north up the Rhone Valley, on the east bank of the river. The landscape had its attractions, but I was in no mood to appreciate them. Hermes, usually so insufferably cheerful, grew subdued. Massilia had been a civilized place, but now we were going into the Gallic heartland, where few but traveling merchants had penetrated before.

    We passed a number of small, neat villages. Most of their houses were round, made of wattle and daub and roofed with thatch. The more pretentious buildings were framed in massive timber, the spaces between the timbers being filled with wattle, brick, or stone, all whitewashed to contrast pleasingly with the dark timber. The fields were well laid out, separated by low, drystone walls, but without the geometric rigor so familiar from Roman or Egyptian fields.

    The people we passed watched us with curious interest but without hostility. The Gauls love color and their clothes are vividly patterned in contrasting stripes and checks. Both sexes wear massive jewelry, bronze among the poor, solid gold among the wealthy.

    "The women are ugly," Hermes complained, noting the freckled complexions, snub noses, and round faces, so different from the long, heavy features admired by Romans.

    "Believe me," I assured him, "the longer you are here, the better they'll look."

    "These don't look so frightening," he said, trying to keep his spirits up. "The way people talk, I expected savage giants."

    "These are mostly peasants and slaves," I told him. "The military class don't dirty their hands much with farming or other labor. Wait until you see the warriors. They'll live up to your worst expectations."

    "If the Gauls are that bad," he said, "what are the Germans like?"

    The question was like a dark cloud across the sun. "Them I don't even want to think about."

    Caesar's camp wasn't hard to find. A Roman camp in barbarian territory is like a city dropped from the sky into the wilderness. It sat there, rectilinear as a brick, next to the handsome Lake Lemannus. Actually, the word "camp" fails to do justice to what a Roman legion erects every place it stops for the night. First the surveying team, marching an hour or so ahead of the legion, finds a suitable site, where they mark out the perimeter, the gates, the main streets, and the praetorium. With little, colored flags they mark out the squares where each cohort is to be situated.

    When the legion arrives, the soldiers stack arms and get out their tools and their baskets for shifting earth. They dig a ditch around the whole perimeter and heap the earth into a wall just inside the ditch. The wall they palisade with the sharpened stakes they have been carrying on their backs all day. They post sentries and only then do they go into the now-fortified camp to erect their tents; one eight-man section to each tent, ten sections to the century, six centuries to the cohort, ten cohorts to the legion—all laid out in a grid so unvarying that, roused in the middle of the night by an alarm, every man knows exactly which direction to turn and how many streets he must pass to take his assigned place on the rampart. In a sense, a Roman legionary, no matter where he is, is always living in the same spot in the same city.

    Just seeing a Roman military camp makes me proud to be a Roman, as long as I don't have to live in one. It has been said that some barbarian armies have given up just watching a legion set up camp. Next to Caesar's legionary camp was the somewhat less rigorous but still disciplined and orderly camp of the auxilia, the troops levied on the allies or hired as mercenaries: the archers, slingers, cavalry, skirmishers, and so forth. Roman citizens fight only as heavy infantry, helmeted and armored, with the big, oval shield, the heavy pilum that can be hurled at close range clean through an enemy shield, and the short sword that is awesomely effective in the hand of an expert.

    "Look at that!" Hermes said exultantly. "Those barbarians will never attack a place this strong!"

    "This is what Roman might looks like," I told him, not wanting to dampen his spirits unnecessarily. Inwardly, I was less confident. A single legion and a roughly equal number of auxilia was not much of a force to pit against a whole barbarian nation. Perhaps, I thought, these Helvetii are not a numerous folk. That should have disqualified me for the office of augur then and there. It is with such comforting fictions that I frequently bemuse myself.

    Beyond Caesar's camp, hazy in the distance, I could just make out a sprawling, disorderly town, doubtless Genava. The men were also at work on another project; an earthen rampart that stretched from the lake out of sight in the direction of the nearest mountains. It lay between the camp and the town, and I calculated its purpose to be to discourage the Gauls from trying to overrun the camp with their favored tactic of a headlong charge. I fully approved. The more barriers there were between myself and those savages, the better I liked it.

    Our path took us to a spot perhaps a quarter of a mile from the legion camp, where a work party toiled atop the long rampart under the supervision of an officer. Their spears were propped in tripods with their shields leaning against them, helmets atop the spear points. The slender javelins and narrow, flat shields identified the men as skirmishers. Their officer grinned broadly when he saw us.

    "Decius!" It was Gnaeus Quintilius Carbo, an old friend.

    "Carbo! I can't tell you how happy I am to see you here! Now I know we'll win." I slid off my horse and took his hand, which was as hard as that of any legionary. Carbo was a long-service professional, from the rural gentry near Caere, and about as old-fashioned a Roman as you could ask for. Old frauds like my father and his friends put on a show of being traditional Romans, but Carbo was the genuine article, a man right out of the days of Camillus.

    "I felt you'd show up, Decius. When I heard that Clodius was tribune and you were betrothed to Caesar's niece, I knew it was just a matter of time before you'd join us." Carbo, bless his iron-bound, martial heart, thought that I would be eager for action and renown.

    "What are you doing out here?" I asked him. "Are you in charge of engineering?"

    "No, I'm a commander of auxilia for this campaign." He nodded toward the party working atop the wall. "These are some of my men."

    "You?" I said, astonished. "You've campaigned with Lucullus all over Asia and marched in his triumph! You should have a legionary command. Why would Caesar put a man of your experience and seniority in charge of skirmishers?" I felt it was an insult to him, but he shook his head.

    "It's not that sort of army, Decius. Caesar doesn't do things like other commanders. He's put some of his most experienced men in charge of the auxilia. You've seen this terrain, these forests? Believe me, it gets worse as you march toward the Rhine. You can't march legionaries through that in any sort of fighting order. You have to take them through the valleys and to do that you have to have plenty of flankers out to clear the woods to either side of the line of march. Gauls like to fight at the run, too, so the advance skirmishers have to be the best, otherwise the barbarians will be on top of you before you see them coming. Auxilia are important in this war."

    "I'd say that any sort of soldier is important if this is Caesar's whole force."

    "That's right. I don't suppose you have any reinforcements following you?"

    I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "Just my body slave, Hermes. Do you have anything you want stolen?"

    He made a sour face. "I suppose it was too much to hope. Pompey's supposed to be raising two more legions for us, but we've seen no sign of them."

    Pompey and Crassus, Caesar's colleagues, had secured him his extraordinary five-year command of Gaul and had promised to support him. If he trusted those two, I thought, he might be waiting a long time for his reinforcements.

    Carbo looked me over with an even more sour expression. "And Decius, do yourself, me, the army, and the immortal gods a favor and get out of that parade rig before you report to Caesar. This is not like the other armies of your experience."

    "Really? I thought I was pretty well turned out." For the first time I noticed that Carbo wore a plain, Gallic mail shirt and a pot-shaped bronze helmet devoid of decoration, just like any legionary except that his sword hung on the left side instead of the right and he had a purple sash of command around his waist. Even as I noted this, we heard a series of trumpet notes from inside the camp.

    "Too late," Carbo said. "There's commander's call. You'll have to report immediately. Prepare for a little ribbing."

    We set out on foot for the camp, Hermes behind us leading the animals.

    "How long is this rampart you're building?" I asked Carbo.

    "It stretches from the lake to the mountains to contain the Helvetii, about nineteen miles."

    "Nineteen miles?" I said, aghast. "Is this Caius Julius Caesar we're talking about here? The same Caesar I knew in Rome, who never walked where he could be carried and who never lifted a weapon heavier than his voice?"

    "You're going to meet a different Caesar," he promised me. And so I did.

    We entered the camp by the southern gate and walked up the Via Praetoria, which led straight as an arrow's path through the center of the camp to the praetorium, the inner compound containing the commander's staff tent, surrounded by its own low earthen rampart. The Via Principalis intersected the Via Praetoria at right angles; beyond it lay the quarter occupied by the higher officers and whatever troops they cared to keep separate from the regular legionaries, decurions, and centurions. Usually, these were extraordinarii, men with more than twenty years in the ranks who had no duties except for combat. I noticed an unusual number of tents ranked beyond the praetorium and asked Carbo about them.

    "A special praetorian guard Caesar has organized. They're mostly auxilia, both foot and cavalry." Other generals used praetorian guards, usually as bodyguards on campaign, but often as a special reserve to employ at crucial moments in battle. From the size of Caesar's guard, I assumed that their purpose was the latter.

    Before the praetorium, along the length of the Via Principalis were ranked the individual tents of the prefects and tribunes. At the juncture of the two streets stood the legion's shrine: a tent containing the standards. Before it stood an honor guard, and since the weather was good the standards were uncovered on their wooden pedestal. The guards stood motionless with drawn swords, and from their short mail shirts and small, circular shields you might have taken them for auxiliary skirmishers; but their position and the lion skins covering their helmets and hanging down their backs proclaimed that these were signifers and the aquilifer, among the most important officers of the legion, raised from the ranks because they were the bravest of the brave.

    We saluted the eagle as we passed, and I noted that the rectangular plaque below the eagle, with its dangling horsetail terminals, read: LEGIO X. That was comforting. The Tenth was rated by everyone as the best. By everyone except the other legions, that is. I knew a number of men who served with the Tenth, both officers and rankers. If I had to be out here with only a single legion around me, I couldn't have asked for better.

    Two of the praetorian guards stood before the gap in the waist-high rampart that surrounded the praetorium; men armed with thrusting spears, bearing light armor and shields. The rampart was more a symbolic partition than a real defense. In the middle of its eastern wall was the high platform from which the general could address the forum, an open space where the legion could assemble, and where the traders did business with the legion and the local farmers could hold markets on specified days.

    Naturally, we were the last to arrive. A large table had been set UP before the big general's tent and all the senior officers were grouped around it. These were the tribunes and prefects, the officers of auxilia, and a single centurion. This last, I knew, would be the centurion of the First Century of the First Cohort, known in every legion as the primus pilus: First Spear. Alone among the officers he wore bronze greaves strapped to his shins, archaic armor abandoned centuries before by other foot soldiers but retained as a sign of rank for centurions. At the moment we entered, he was gesturing toward something on the table with his vinestaff, a three-foot stick the thickness of a man's thumb and another badge of the centurionate. As we walked in, he looked up, and his face froze.

    Caesar was leaning on the table, looking at what I now saw was a map. Behind him stood his twelve proconsular lictors, leaning on their fasces. In Rome, the lictors wore togas, but here they were in field dress: red tunics with wide leather belts dyed black and studded with bronze nails, a custom dating to the time of the Etruscan kings. As the staff fell silent, Caesar looked up and straightened, then he took on his familiar, hieratic pontifex maximus demeanor. Slowly, solemnly, he drew a fold of his military cloak over his head.

    "Gentlemen," he pronounced, "cover your heads. It is a visitation from Olympus. Victory must be ours, for the god Mars has descended to be among us."

    The assembly broke up into raucous laughter so loud it probably alarmed the sentries. Even Carbo laughed so hard he got hiccups. I hoped my helmet hid the worst of my flaming face as I stood like an idiot with my arm still fully extended in salute.

    "I don't suppose you brought any reinforcements, Decius?" Caesar said, mopping the tears from his face with his cloak.

     "I am afraid not, Proconsul."

    "I suppose it was too much to hope. Well, we were all in need of a good laugh, anyway-. Join us, Decius. Titus Vinius was about to give us a report on the state of the fortifications and enemy action against it. Continue, First Spear."

    Enemy action? I thought. There was no host massed out there in the usual Gallic prebattle fashion. A line crawled across the map from the mountains to the lake and it was toward the lake that the centurion pointed with his vinestaff.

    "Weakest spot's here where we run into the lake. The ground is swampy there and they come around the end of the wall through the shallows, do what damage they can, and run back the same way. They can flank it just as easily from the mountain end, but they're too lazy to go that far. Plus, in the swamps we can't chase 'em with our cavalry."

    Caesar looked up at Carbo. "Gnaeus, I want you to put together a small force of picked auxilia; good swimmers who aren't afraid of water. No armor, not even helmets. Just hand weapons and light shields. I want an end to these attacks by web-footed Gauls."

    "They'll be on duty tonight, Commander," Carbo said. I cleared my throat.

    "Mars wishes to speak," said Lucius Caecilius Metellus, a distant relative of mine, nicknamed "Lumpy" for a couple of prominent facial wens. He wore a tribune's sash over his plain armor.

    "Good to see you here, Lumpy," I said, giving him a big smile. "Where are the hundred sesterces you owe me from the Cerealis races two years ago?" That shut him up.

    "You have a question, Decius?" Caesar said.

    "Please bear with me, Commander, since I have just arrived. There is no barbarian army outside the walls, so I presume the Helvetii are still treating with us. How can they do that while sending raiders to harass us?"

    "These aren't coastal Gauls who know how to conduct themselves like civilized people," Caesar said. "Their envoys speak for the people as a whole, but they think it is to be understood that some of the young warriors will come out at night to send arrows and javelins into the camp. To them it's no more serious than a spirited horse vaulting a fence into another man's field."

    "They like to catch sentries and roving patrols," said Titus Vinius, the First Spear. "They're head-hunters, you know. You'll find big heaps of skulls in the deep woods where their holy groves are."

    He was a typical old soldier trying to scare the new recruit, but he was wasting his time. I had seen far worse than that in Spain.

    "Decimus Varro," Caesar said, "the state of provisions, if you please." I noted that Caesar spoke in a brisk, clipped fashion, quite different from the languid style he affected in Rome.

    "Stores of grain, preserved fruit, fish, and meat are sufficient for ten more days, twenty at half-ration. The supply train from Massilia is due at any time."

    "Decius, did you pass a supply train on your way here?"

    "No, Proconsul."


Excerpted from SPQR VI: NOBODY LOVES A CENTURION by John Maddox Roberts. Copyright © 2001 by John Maddox Roberts. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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SPQR VI: Nobody Loves a Centurion 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
His just anothe goo book in the series
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
Though he is a Roman senator and his family are very influential due to their support of the leadership, Decius Metellus flees town when his enemy Clodius is named as a Tribune. Decius, accompanied by his slave, slowly heads towards Julius Caesar's camp in Gaul. When he arrives, the Proconsul Caesar is disappointed in that his niece's fiancé came with just one person. Decius gets in trouble with Caesar for interfering with the discipline meted out by the First Spear of the Tenth, Centurion Titus Vinus to his men. However, someone kills Titus and Julius asks Decius to investigate because the evidence points towards the victim's men including the son of a client of Decius. As he begins his investigation, Decius prays that he can blame the Germans or the Helveti for the slaying so good Roman soldiers can be freed.

In the sixth SPQR Ancient Rome mystery, John Maddox Roberts continues to provide an insightful fresh look into a bygone era. The current tale, NOBODY LOVES A CENTURION, provides a powerful glimpse at the Roman militia as well as Julius Caesar from a non-Shakespearean side. Decius remains a humorous individual who at first glance seems to go with the flow, but in actuality is a deep caring person who gets involved. SPQR VI is 'excellentus.'

Harriet Klausner