The brisk 11th Decius Metellus Roman historical (after 2006's SPQR X: A Point of Law) finds tensions increasing between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Series hero Decius has been elected praetor peregrinus, traveling magistrate in charge of all cases involving foreigners. A relaxing stay in a southern Italian town near the legendary volcano Vesuvius is disrupted by the murder of Gorgo, the attractive young daughter of the local priest. Anger quickly grows against her forbidden lover, Gelon, a Numidian, but Decius's instincts tell him that another is responsible for the killing. The solution owes more to a chance discovery than reasoned deduction, and the political upheaval of the time is more distant background noise than an immediate concern for the characters. Though the details and overall impression of ancient Rome aren't at the high level of Steven Saylor, readers looking for a crafty and entertaining journey to the past won't be disappointed. (Dec.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
SPQR XI: Under Vesuviusby John Maddox Roberts
Things are going well for Decius Caecilius Metellus. He is praetor peregrinus, which means he has to judge a case or two outside Rome. His first stop is Campania, "Italy's most popular resort district." He and his wife, Julia, are happy for a change of scenery. But the good times end when, in a town near Vesuvius, a priest's daughter is murdered. Decius must/i>… See more details below
Things are going well for Decius Caecilius Metellus. He is praetor peregrinus, which means he has to judge a case or two outside Rome. His first stop is Campania, "Italy's most popular resort district." He and his wife, Julia, are happy for a change of scenery. But the good times end when, in a town near Vesuvius, a priest's daughter is murdered. Decius must find her killer and keep the mob off a young boy whom everyone blames but he believes to be innocent. Decius may have acquired more prestige, but he's also acquired more trouble.
With his SPQR novels, John Maddox Roberts has written a satisfying and entertaining historical mystery series. The stakes just keep getting higher in this latest atmospheric puzzle.
Read an Excerpt
It was a good year for me, even if it was a bad one for Rome. Caesar’s actions had everyone on edge and the City was full of talk of civil war. It was getting difficult to accomplish anything, whether in the way of business or pleasure, so nervous was everyone. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to stay there.
It was the year of my praetorship. Had I been elected praetor urbanis, I would have had to stay within the walls for the whole year, but it had been my good fortune to be elected praetor peregrinus, in charge of cases involving foreigners, and all Italy was my province. So I had cleared my City docket in short order and prepared to travel. My first destination was Campania. With my wife, Julia, a gaggle of slaves, friends, and freedmen, and preceded by my lictors, we set out for Italy’s most popular resort district.
After the endless duties and tedium of the junior magistracies, the praetorship was like a vacation with duty hours. You got to lounge around in a curule chair while somebody else did all the organizing, arguing, and pleading; and when you’d heard enough you rendered judgment and nobody could dispute with you. Plus, since there were so many days on the calendar when official business was forbidden, there was plenty of time to socialize.
And socialize we did. A serving praetor was always in demand as a guest, so we dined out almost every evening. With my lictors clearing the way for our litter, we could negotiate Rome’s crowded streets with ease. The prestige of the office was tremendous. A praetor held imperium and was qualified to lead armies in the field, although it had been a few generations since sitting praetors had done so. At last, Julia had the social standing to which she knew she was entitled.
To cap it all, I could look forward to a splendid provincial governorship when my year in office ended. Even an honest man could get rich as propraetor.
Thus, we felt ourselves specially favored by the gods as we made our stately way along the Via Appia, that oldest and most beautiful of the Roman highways, lined with majestic cedars and pines, straight through the richest farmland on the peninsula. Julia shared a litter with two friends, Antonia and Circe. Antonia was a sister of the famous Marcus Antonius, one of Caesar’s most loyal supporters. Circe was one of Julia’s cousins, also named Julia, but nicknamed Circe because, so my Julia claimed, “she reduces men to quadrupeds.”
I rode a splendid chestnut from my new stables. Julia had insisted that my dignity now forbade using hired mounts. Beside me rode my freedman Hermes. Around us was my staff of secretaries, assistants—many of them sons of friends just starting on their careers—and all the general hangers-on needed to support the dignity of a senior magistrate. In the rear of the procession were a couple of wagons full of household slaves, most of them Julia’s personal attendants.
We traveled in leisurely fashion. I felt no compulsion to rush, and I was savoring the advantages of my new status. At each town along the road we were banqueted like visiting royalty; and as we passed each grand villa, a slave came running out, bearing his master’s invitation to dinner. As often as not, I accepted.
After the previous twenty years of my career, it was a welcome change.
But, eventually, we came in sight of Vesuvius. The beautiful if somewhat ominous mountain raises its conical bulk near Italy’s most splendid bay, a faint plume of smoke drifting lazily from its peak, its sides carpeted with green, steep vineyards planted on nearly every accessible patch of its incomparably fertile soil.
“Do you think it could erupt?” Julia said, her lovely patrician head poking out of the litter’s expensive hangings, another praetorian extravagance.
“It hasn’t in living memory,” I assured her.
Southern Campania is home to many delightful towns, such as Cumae, Stabiae, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Baiae, and many others, but I was not just yet ready to visit them. Instead, we took a little road that branched from the Appian and cut through the countryside surrounding the jewellike Bay of Baiae.
Here the serene fields were tended by slaves who were industrious but not overworked, their labors overseen by benign herms that stood at intervals along the road. In time we came to another road, this one little more than a paved path, that led to a splendid villa.
“Here we are, my dear,” I said.
“Stop!” Julia ordered the litter slaves: eight matched Libyans who had cost me dearly and ate voraciously whether they were engaged in transportation or not. Julia and the other two emerged from the litter and stood gazing upon the estate, squealing with delight.
And it was worth a squeal or two. There were at least twenty buildings on the place, big and small. The main house was an imposing structure—white walled, roofed with red tiles—that stood atop a low stone platform. Its simple design complemented the far older Greek temple, Doric in style and beautifully maintained, that stood nearby. Everything in sight was laid out and constructed in the most exquisite taste.
“Oh, wonderful!” Julia exclaimed. “And this is truly to be ours?”
“Nothing set in stone so far, my dear, but at least we have the use of it for now.”
“It will be ours,” she stated with great finality.
The villa belonged to my father’s good friend and patron, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, the great orator, jurist, and scoundrel. The old villain was then on his deathbed, and had summoned me to his side when he learned of my election. I found the once-imposing old man wasted away to almost nothing, his incomparable voice reduced to a whisper. I had fallen afoul of him more than once and had even tried to prosecute him for criminal acts upon occasion, but he had always regarded this as mere politics and never held it against me. Now, seeing him in such a pitiful condition, I could summon up no hostility against him. A whole era of Roman political life would die with him.
“Congratulations, my boy,” he croaked out. “Imperium at last, eh?”
“It comes to most of us if we live long enough,” I told him. “But thank you anyway.”
He managed a croupy laugh. “You haven’t changed. And praetor peregrinus, at that. That’s good. You’ll get to travel about, let the people see your face. They’ll remember, and that will be of value, when the time comes. Listen, my boy, I wish I had time for chitchat, but I don’t. I have a villa in Campania, near Baiae.”
“It is famous,” I said.
“Yes, well, nobody’s in it right now, and you will need a place to live when you’re in the district, and accepting the hospitality of a local grandee would be a bad idea. Sure as Jupiter is randy, that man will have a case before your court and he’ll expect favorable treatment. Believe me, I know how it works. Why not use my villa?”
“That is most generous,” I said fervently. The very thing he had mentioned had been on my mind as well.
“Good, good.” He mused for a while. “You know, I’ve no one worth willing the place to, so—well, just see if you like it.”
Now all my old hostilities disappeared completely. At any other time I would have been suspicious, the prospect of an inheritance being a classic means of control. But he was clearly dying and had nothing to gain from me. I babbled my thanks and made my exit. Half the important men of Rome were outside waiting to pay what would almost certainly be their final respects to a man who had been one of the most distinguished senators of the age. But he stopped me before I reached the door.
I turned. “Yes, Quintus Hortensius?”
“Hang on to that wife of yours.”
“You mean Julia?” I said, astonished.
“Who else would I mean? Besides being a charming woman, she’s a Caesar, and her uncle Julius is the coming man. Forget the rest, no matter what your family says. Being married to his niece could save your neck someday.”
“I intend to keep her,” I said. Already, he was drowsing. Even dying old men talked of Julius Caesar.
Now we made our way toward the big house and I allowed myself to believe that this could be mine. All along the path fresh garlands had been strung between the herms in honor of our arrival. I had sent a runner ahead to advise the staff of our approach. It is always a bad idea to drop in on such a place unannounced. Then you just get to see what the place really looks like when the master’s not around.
There were at least a hundred people awaiting us before the house. At such an establishment, this was a mere skeleton staff. A man as wealthy as Hortalus could easily have five hundred household slaves alone when he was in residence, with several thousand more tending the fields.
“Welcome, welcome, Praetor!” chorused the well-drilled staff. “Most happy and gracious Senator and Lady, thrice welcome to the Villa Hortensia! All honor to the Praetor Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger! Evoi! Evoi!”
“Goodness!” Julia said. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
“Old Hortalus had the most important men in Rome calling on him,” I told her, “not to mention foreign kings and princes. He probably has a Greek chorus master to drill his slaves in these little ceremonies.” Nonetheless, I was flattered.
A tall, dignified man came forward, a staff of authority in his hand. “Praetor, my lady, I am Annius Hortensius, freedman of the great Hortensius Hortalus and steward of the Villa Hortensia. I bid you welcome. Please regard this house as your own and myself as your personal servant. All that may be done to render your stay pleasant will be performed with utmost diligence.”
He introduced us to the housekeeper, a formidable woman belted with keys and graced with a face of iron, and the principal servants, most of them freedmen and -women. The rest would be known to us only by their occupations.
While our own slaves and the villa’s made our quarters ready, we were given a tour of the place. We Metelli were not exactly paupers, but there were too many of us to concentrate so much wealth in one place. In truth, only a handful of men could match the splendor of Hortalus’s properties, of which this was only one. The collection of Greek sculpture was breathtaking, and most of it was displayed in formal gardens landscaped especially to provide a setting for them. He had no fewer than three originals by Praxiteles, including a stunning sculpture of the Graces. You see copies everywhere, but this was the original.
We saw the huge fish ponds that had been Hortalus’s passion. He had written long books on the subject and for many years had engaged in a rivalry with his friend Phillipus, who was afflicted with the same mania. The ladies of our party were delighted with the grotesquely fat fish, who gathered at our approach to be fed, mouths agape like baby birds. Urns of fish food stood by for the use of anyone inclined to this activity. Julia and her friends tossed out enough food to founder a pride of lions. Then the tour continued.
“If you would be so good, Praetor,” Annius said solemnly, “how did you last find my patron?” We were making our way toward the temple.
“In a very bad way, I fear,” I told him. “You and the rest must prepare yourselves for the worst. However,” I added with some satisfaction, “I have reason to believe that he has made excellent provision for you all.”
“What temple is this?” Julia asked. “It is so lovely!”
“This is the Temple of Campanian Apollo,” the steward said proudly. “It is the oldest Greek sacred structure in Italy, founded by colonists more than four hundred years ago. The great Hortensius has made its maintenance and enrichment his dearest project. All the decayed old marble he replaced with the finest Parian. The tile roof he restored with glittering bronze. Where the trees of the sacred grove had died, he brought in and had planted full-grown trees from the holy precincts of other temples.”
“He’s never been one to do things by halves,” I acknowledged.
“Is there still a priest in residence?” Julia wanted to know. “Are ceremonies still performed here?”
“Oh, yes. Southern Campania has a large Greek community, and they have always supported this temple. The priests of Apollo hold a hereditary office, and the current one is a direct descendant of the founding priest, who was a citizen of Athens. His name is Diocles.”
At this moment a lovely young woman emerged from the temple accompanied by two slave girls who bore long ivy wreaths. She wore a simple, elegant gown of dazzling white belted with gold. Under her careful direction, the girls began to drape the wreaths around the altar.
“And this is Gorgo, daughter of Diocles,” the steward said.
“We must meet her,” Julia insisted.
As we crossed the well-kept lawn one of the slave girls caught sight of us and spoke to her mistress. The young woman in white crossed to the top of the stairs and awaited us there, her hands folded modestly before her. When we drew near, she inclined her head gracefully.
“The Temple of Campanian Apollo welcomes the praetor and his lady,” she said in beautiful Attic Greek. Julia answered in the same language, which she spoke as perfectly and as naturally as she did Latin. All upper-class Romans learned Greek, but with the Caesars it was something of a mania.
“So you knew we were coming?” I said after the steward formally introduced us.
“The whole district has anticipated the arrival of the distinguished Senator Metellus and Lady Julia.”
Meaning that everyone wanted to meet Julius Caesar’s niece. One more praetor wasn’t likely to cause much of a stir.
“Here comes part of the district now,” I noted.
A little party of horsemen was approaching along the paved road leading to the temple, their mounts clopping along on unshod hooves. Hermes gave a low whistle. It was meant for the horses. They were superb, far more splendid than my own. The riders were an exotic lot. Four were tawny-skinned, bearded men with their hair dressed in numerous plaits. They rode bareback, each controlling his mount by a single rope halter looped around the animal’s muzzle. Each wore a brief, white tunic and carried a sheaf of javelins in a quiver across his back.
Their leader was an extraordinarily handsome young man who sat a Roman saddle and wore Greek dress, but whose skin was the same desert color as his followers’. His mount was draped with an elaborate caparison that trailed hundreds of tassels of scarlet and gold.
“Numidians,” I observed, “horses and men both. What brings them here?”
“That is Gelon, the slaver’s boy,” the steward informed us. “I will get rid of him.”
I cocked an eye toward Julia. She was watching Gorgo, and the priest’s daughter was watching the handsome young horseman. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed, her mouth a bit open, as if she were about to speak. Uh-oh, I thought.
“No need, Annius Hortensius,” I told the steward. “He may have business with me. I am praetor of the foreigners, after all.”
“His sort belongs in court, all right,” the man sniffed.
It has always seemed a little odd to me that, while we all make use of slaves and can hardly imagine life—much less civilization—without them, we harbor a great contempt for slavers, as if our own slaves appeared in the house by magic. Of course, the steward had been a slave once and doubtless had little love for the breed.
“I want to meet him,” Circe said. She was a brown-haired beauty who had spurned the suits of Marcus Antonius, Gnaeus Pompey the Younger, Catullus the poet, Marcus Brutus, Cassius Longinus, King Phraates of Parthia (really!), and many others less illustrious.
“He’s too far beneath you,” Antonia told her. “We Antonii, on the other hand, are known for our low tastes.”
“Rein yourselves in, ladies,” Julia advised. She was eyeing the boy, too. He alit gracefully, kicking one leg over the saddle and sliding down, catching himself with no trace of awkwardness. He strode toward us, smiling. He even had beautiful teeth. However stingily the gods may have dealt with him in the matter of pedigree, they made it up handsomely in physical attributes.
“Praetor! So soon among us! I am Gelon, son of Gaeto, merchant of Baiae. I bid you welcome to our district.” Here he performed a courtly bow, a gesture never performed by Romans but somehow dignified and without the groveling implications of the Oriental bow. “And to your lady, the distinguished Julia of the Caesars, and the lovely Lady Antonia, and this other Lady Julia whose name of preference I must learn, and to all your entourage, welcome again!”
The women cooed and fluttered like pet doves. So much for patrician dignity.
“You are uncommonly well-informed,” I noted.
“As it happened, a party of my father’s agents who returned yesterday from Capua, attended a ceremony at which the Capuans honored you.”
“Well, that explains it. We thank you for your very courteous welcome, Gelon, and we look forward to our stay in beautiful southern Campania.”
“Should you desire to see the many sights of the neighborhood, Praetor, please allow me to be your guide. It would be both an honor and a pleasure to me.”
“I may well take you up on that,” I told him. Behind me I heard scandalized little sounds from the stuffier part of my following. He was, after all, a slaver’s son and a foreigner to boot. But I didn’t care. I was the one with imperium and could do as I pleased. I was going to have to keep an eye on Julia, though.
“What are you doing here?” This indignant shout came from a bald, white-bearded specimen who, to judge by his white robe and laurel chaplet, had to be Diocles, priest of Apollo.
“I’m supposed to be here,” I informed him. “I’m the new praetor peregrinus.”
“Not you!” he cried, pointing a skinny finger at Gelon. “Him! That African slave seller! He fouls the holy precincts of Apollo!”
I was perfectly aware that he hadn’t meant me, but I couldn’t help having a little fun. “Oh, he can’t be all that bad, surely. His horses are as handsome as Apollo’s own. Could such splendid animals be owned by a man unworthy to approach your temple?”
The old boy tried to calm down and regather his dignity. “The honored praetor is pleased to jest. This lowborn foreign scoundrel has been seeking out my daughter at every opportunity.” He shot that lovely young woman a venomous glare, and she lowered her eyes, then stole another adoring glance at young Gelon.
“That proves only that he has good taste,” I said. Then Julia moved in to smooth things over, a task she undertook on my behalf with some frequency.
“Reverend Diocles,” she said, stepping close and laying a soothing hand in his arm, “forgive my husband’s levity. He is a very serious man in court but nowhere else. And this young man has acted most courteously. Please do not mar our arrival with rancor.”
Actually, I didn’t mind a bit of rancor. It livened things up. But the old man acquiesced with a fair degree of grace. “I would do nothing to make your arrival among us any but the most pleasant of experiences. Gorgo!” he snapped. “Go back inside.”
The girl turned wordlessly and obeyed, wiggling her bottom rather more than necessary. The display was intended for young Gelon, but I admired it anyway.
“And I, too, will take my leave of you, Senator,” said the youth who was the focus of these contending passions. “Perhaps I will have the privilege of seeing you again at the banquet to be held in your honor.”
“I shall look forward to it,” I assured him, and with that he mounted. It was a performance far removed from the undignified scramble with which I placed myself on a horse’s back. He seemed to flow onto the saddle as if lifted there by the hands of an invisible god. The women gasped in admiration.
“He rides pretty well,” Hermes said grudgingly, “but I’ll wager he’s no good with a sword.”
“Diocles,” my wife said, “please have dinner with us this evening. I would love to meet your wife as well.”
“Alas, my wife died many years ago,” he told her.
“Then bring your lovely daughter.”
“Gorgo? To the house of the praetor? She is not worthy—”
“Nonsense. I would love to become better acquainted with her.”
“Then, to please you, my lady—”
“Splendid!” Julia could work people like a politician when she wanted to.
We took our leave of the priest and began to walk back toward the villa. “Looks like it will be lively times in Campania,” I observed.
Julia poked me with her fan. “You should not have provoked him. He is a priest, after all.”
“Just of Apollo,” I said. Perhaps I should explain here that Apollo, though worshipped in Rome, was not in those days highly regarded as a deity. He was brought to Rome from Greece by our last king, Tarquinius Superbus. Four and a half centuries of residency did not make him a Roman, and people still regarded him as a Greek import. It has only been in recent years that the First Citizen raised him to the dignity of a State god and built him the splendid temple on the Palatine. He did this because an ancient temple of Apollo resides on the headland overlooking Actium, and he credits Apollo’s favor for his unexpected victory in the naval battle fought there against the fleet of Antonius and Cleopatra. Personally, I think he gives Apollo the credit so that Marcus Agrippa, who really won the battle for him, won’t get too much of it.
The grounds and gardens were so splendid that I didn’t think the house could possibly match them, but I was wrong. The steward led us through room after room, each of them a jaw-dropper in point of luxury. Every room had exquisitely frescoed walls and ceilings, painted with mythological scenes in the highest degree of artistry. We learned that these were renewed every year, plaster and all, because Hortalus couldn’t abide faded colors. There floors consisted of picture mosaics, each room’s featuring a different deity and known by that god’s name. Since there were so many rooms, there were gods represented I had never heard of.
The library was not a single room but a whole series of them, each packed with books stored in racks of fragrant cedar. One room was devoted entirely to Homer and commentaries upon him, another to the Greek playwrights, another to the philosophers.
His wine cellars contained amphorae of wine from every region of the world, the great jars seeming to stretch on into infinity. Old Hortalus had needed plenty of wine, because not only did he entertain lavishly but also watered the trees in his olive orchard with wine, believing they yielded superior fruit and oil because of this special treatment.
But even these wonders paled when we saw the baths. Even the finest public baths in Rome were not as splendid nor as extensive. You could have rowed a trireme on the larger pools. The hot baths were fed with water piped in from Baiae’s famous hot springs by miles of underground aqueducts laid in at enormous expense. Not only were the waters health giving but also the splendid air was not marred by the pall of woodsmoke that hangs over conventional hot baths. Marble was the only stone used in these baths, unless you counted the jewels and coral with which the bottoms of the pools were decorated. And all of them were surrounded by more of the fabulous statues Hortalus had collected so single-mindedly.
It was not exactly the most luxurious dwelling I had ever seen. I had, after all, lived for months in Ptolemy’s palace in Alexandria. But for a private citizen’s house it was pretty comfortable. Lucullus and Philippus and a few others owned properties even more lavish, but Quintus Hortensius Hortalus owned several more like this one. And this was a man who, by his own choice, never accepted the offices of propraetor or proconsul and thus never had a province to loot. It just goes to show you what a successful career in the law can get you.
“I just know I’m going to love it here!” Julia proclaimed when the tour was over.
I was having second thoughts about the whole matter. “You understand, my dear, that these are the fruits of a lifetime of conniving, political corruption, bribery—I could go on for hours. I have a feeling that, lacking Hortalus’s stupendous income, this place might get rather expensive to support.”
“Nonsense. Just stick with Caesar and we will never have money problems.” She said this with great finality, as she said most things.
Later on that evening I discussed the same misgivings with Hermes.
“Sell off some of the statuary,” he advised. “The price of just one or two of those pieces would keep this place running for years.”
“It’s a thought,” I admitted, “though I would hate to lose them. Originals by Praxiteles!”
“The wine, then. Even you can’t drink your way through that much. Not if you live to be a hundred.”
“Even worse!” I groaned.
Copyright © 2007 by John Maddox Roberts. All rights reserved.
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After a grueling but productive year Decius is now a Praetor traveling through Rome and when the situations warrants he judges a case or two between foreigners who reside and work in the Empire. He and his wife Julia, the nice of Julius Caesar are having a year long vacation visiting the sits off Ancient Rome. When they arrive in Baiae in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, he notices something that might spell trouble later.--------------- He is welcomed to the city by the priest of Apollo, Diocles and his daughter Gorgo who is infatuated with Gelon the son of the wealthy Numidian slave trader Gaeto. Diocles would never a allow match between his daughter and a man whose father is a slave trader, an occupation that is anathema to the Romans even though they keep slaves. When Gorgo is murdered, the townsfolk believe Gelon is the killer and they demand the Praetor Decius to bring him to trial. Decius doesn¿t think he is guilty but keeps him under house arrest to buy time to prove he is not the killer of Diocles. On his way back to his home, Decius and his entourage is attacked by bandits who want him dead. Another murder is committed that of Charmian, a friend and slave of Gorgo. Decius believes that these deaths and the attack are linked but the people of Baiae want Gelon tried leaving the Praetor only a few hours to find the real killer or an innocent man will be beheaded.------- UNDER VESUVIUS is a great historical mystery that brings to life Ancient Rome just prior to when Caesar becomes the dictator. The descriptions of the time period and area are so vivid that readers know much historical research went into the writing of SPQR XI. The victims had many suspects who wanted them dead and the protagonist can¿t find the single motive that links the killings. He is not about to quit because he refuses to let an innocent man die. Armchair time travelers will find this exciting and entertaining as much as the ancient historical whodunit crowd.---------- Harriet Klausner