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A Roman Death

A Roman Death

A Roman Death

A Roman Death

Paperback(Second edition)

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Historical thriller set in Ancient Rome. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar is at the height of his power. Lucius Scaurus, the young, good-looking fiance of a high-society girl is poisoned at the couple's own pre-wedding banquet. In the trial that follows, Roman society is shocked when the girl's mother, Helvia, is accused of not only of murder, but of incest. Cicero comes to Helvia's defence, but the killer's identity remains a mystery until the final twist - or two.

'Poison, poetry (both high-minded and salacious), marriage for money, marriage for love, gang-rape, cowardice in battle, scheming slaves, conniving aristocrats, malicious matrons casting magical curses, and (as if all this were not enough) a previously unknown oration by Cicero — there’s so much going on, so expertly conveyed ... ' (Steven Saylor)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780648002000
Publisher: Black Quill Press
Publication date: 10/02/2017
Edition description: Second edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Joan O'Hagan (1926−2014) was an internationally published author of fiction. She grew up in Canberra and studied Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. After working in New Caledonia and England, she lived most of her life in Rome, Italy before returning to Australia in 1997. For further details, please see: and

Best-selling American author of historical fiction, in particular the 'Roma Sub Rosa' historical mystery series, featuring Gordianus the Finder.

Read an Excerpt


On a late August day of the year 45 BC, in her villa on the Esquiline, Helvia, wife to Quintus Fufidius, sat straight on her high-backed hard chair looking at the Roman senator's wife who had requested the honour to call on her. Servia sat even straighter and far less comfortably. Helvia, who disliked her, had studiously offered a resplendent seat of marble only recently imported from Paros. Upon the thinnest of cushions, Servia would soon be suffering acutely. The woman's daughter and son, ten- or eleven-year olds, had accompanied her. Her escort of slaves sat meekly by in a row. Helvia's own slaves came and went, offering refreshment.

They had sighed about the heat — terrible, all day — and complimented each other on the material of their dresses, on their ornaments. They had discussed property prices and the difficulties and expenses of life in Rome, though the conversation carefully excluded political sympathies. Who knew what informers might be present even in this domestic gathering?

'You will be in town for the triumph, of course?' enquired Helvia. She moved restlessly, all her own slim blonde elegance recoiling at the plump and over-bejewelled swarthiness of the other.

'I told the children they must not expect the same magnificence as last year after Caesar's victory at Thapsus. Yes, Publius? You may speak.'

The boy bowed his head and then raised piercing black eyes to his mother and Helvia.

'We're to have seats on the Clivus Capitolinus. We'll see the captives before they are strangled,' he said with relish. 'And we will see Caesar laying his laurel branch and wreaths in the lap of Jupiter. And the sacrifice of the victims.'

'Yes, we will see the booty and the captives in chains, and the oxen, the white oxen,' gurgled his younger sister. 'And Caesar too. His face painted all red, and with his gold oak-leaf crown.'

'Do you know that the crown is held over him by a slave?' asked Helvia kindly. 'And the slave whispers to Caesar that yet he is mortal? "Look behind you," he says to Caesar, "and remember that you are a man."'

The child's eyes dulled for a moment, then sparkled again as she cried, 'I want to see the prisoners. I want to see them strangled!'

'You can't,' said her brother. 'They do them down in the Tullianum where we can't go.'

'That will do, Sextilia. They get so excited,' said the woman to Helvia. 'Particularly Sextilia.'

'What a perfect little darling Sextilia is,' returned Helvia blandly, regarding the child and wondering if she tortured her dolls.

'Oh mamma,' broke in the boy, with an affected gesture of dismay, 'what if Caesar has not killed enough men, mamma? And they can't have the triumph at all!'

'There, there, I'm sure he has killed enough,' his mother consoled him.

'I imagine,' said Helvia drily, 'Caesar will have had no difficulty in bringing the numbers up to the five thousand dead requisite for a triumph. It is five thousand, isn't it, Publius? I'm sure you are well informed on the subject.'

The eyes of the two women met in momentary amity, each aware of the ominous rumblings of anger in Rome at this triumph over a fellow Roman, eldest son of Pompeius Magnus, who had been one of the very greatest of them all. They would watch the triumph, of course, from the protection of the covered stands put up for the well- born and the wealthy, secure above the surging crowds of the common people who would think only of gorging themselves on the hand-outs of feast food and the gladiatorial blood to come. But whatever they thought, all present would be infected by the same hysteria, and great induced roars of praise for Caesar would seem to split open the very sky.

'Caesar can ride a horse at full gallop with his hands behind his back,' the little girl babbled. 'And he writes letters while he rides!'

'Dictates letters,' her brother corrected her.

'Caesar never sleeps!' shouted Sextilia.

Servia gave her tinkling laugh and waved fingers heavy with precious rings.

'I took the children to see the new temple Caesar has consecrated to Venus Genetrix.' She dropped her voice and leaned close to Helvia. 'It is something new for Rome, isn't it, for a harlot to share the honours with the goddess?' She whispered now, 'All gilded, she is.'

'She means Cleopatra!' cried her son. 'Of course she means Cleopatra! Oh!' The boy clapped a hand to his mouth and laughed at his mother, who shook her head at him indulgently.

But her son sprang to his feet, rolling his eyes and chanting:

'Oh Roman men, for your own sake Lock up your wives! A bald old rake Has stuffed your gold 'tween Gaulish thighs And he'd have yours before he dies!'

The ribald jingles that, by immemorial right, a victorious army bawled out about their general in a triumphal procession would not be any the less ribald about Caesar who would be sure to have some of his women and boys following him in special carriages. 'Every woman's husband and every man's wife,' one old senator had sourly called him.

'Publius! No more!' cried his mother. She turned once more to Helvia.

'You have been in Pompeii, I hear. You travel so much. You have the advantage over me. Of course, you were born in the Transpadane, that little outpost of empire.'

Helvia smiled, waiting.

'Your family, of course, have far-reaching connections, I am told.'

Helvia bowed silently. She knew this was a reference to her family's export of wine and Arretine pottery to Narbonese Gaul.

'I hope,' continued Servia, 'you had a sufficient escort on the journey.'

'I came by ship and reached Rome only yesterday. I found a convenient vessel owned by a friend of my husband.' Helvia tilted her head in annoyance. 'I went by litter to the port at Pompeii,' she added. 'The entire family of my aunt put me on board. My freedman conducted me from Ostia.'

'You had a smooth passage?'

Helvia assented.

'My travel on water has been confined to processions on the Lacus Nemorensis to the temple of Diana.'

'I like the sea.'

'I would never have been permitted to travel alone,' Servia remarked. 'Of course, you will be used to great freedom in the Transpadane.'

'My father was strict enough!'

Helvia thought of her father's estate in the northern Italian town of Brixia, that old stronghold of the Cenomani, now something more than a Roman garrison town, of the town square with its pillared portico, filled with businessmen, soldiers on furlough, peasants and tradespeople. There was a vigour and freedom beyond the narrow sense implied by this woman. Helvia looked at and through her. She had spent much time on the deck of the freighter which bore her from Pompeii, feeling the sea move under the thin wooden shell, hearing the creaking wood and the rush of wind. She thought of the waters of Lake Benacus up north, dancing under the sunlight or ominous under the pageant of racing grey clouds, of Gaius Catullus' little house on Sirmio, of the yacht which her brother had kept there. That had been freedom for her, yes — of a real sort.

The other woman was talking of her brother, who had recently finished a term of official duty in Delos.

'To honour him after his quaestorship, the townspeople forced — yes, forced on him! — a statue. He is represented, I think, as Hermes — with his own head, of course. Moreover, they insisted on portraying his wife and the children as well. Can you guess what they were represented as?'

'His wife was Aphrodite, I expect. I hope that the children, in this case, escaped bisexuality.'

Servia said acidly, 'They were Loves. I suppose you have little in the way of statues in Brixia.'

'My family is not of Gallic stock, you know! And Brixia is as Roman as we can make it.' Helvia became rather pink in the cheeks.

She did not mention her father's library, of notable quality, nor the excellent Greek education which he had decreed for his children, even for his daughter; nor the exquisite intricacy of her brother's poetry, the genius and passion of poetic outpouring of his friend Catullus, who came from nearby Verona, the many friends and acquaintances of culture — which meant, of course, Greek culture — who might end up in Rome, but who hailed from the far provinces such as these lands 'this side of the Alps' and 'beyond the Po'.

Servia, however, had come to the real purpose of her visit, broaching it in indirect fashion.

'Your husband was not able to accompany you to Pompeii?'

'He has been on business up in Gaul, for the town of Arpinum. He returns very soon.'

'Your children, then, are staying at your summer villa in Tusculum?'

'My son Quintus is in Greece. Fufidia is in Tusculum, where her aunt has charge of her.'

'Ah! Then it was Fufidia I saw on the day of the Vinalia walking unattended by servants in the town!'

'It's not possible. She would certainly not have been allowed by her aunt —or by the servants — to wander off like that.'

The woman nodded.

'I'm glad to hear it, though I was sure it was your daughter. Some other girl, no doubt. There was dancing, you know. The girl was dancing as well. A big crowd. You know what happens on such an occasion. I only mention it because if it had been your daughter, I thought you should know. The girl was dressed in quite expensive clothes.'

'It could not possibly have been Fufidia!' Helvia was angry, regarding the enamelled eyes, smarting at the scarcely veiled insult.

As she got up to go, Servia launched her parting shot.

'I am relieved. The girl was with a young man who made very free with her, by all accounts.' She laughed, and coming close to Helvia, raised a hand quickly to remove a hair — real or imagined — from Helvia's shoulder. Flicking it away, she laughed. 'But now I can leave, assured that my fears were quite unfounded.'

Helvia's heart missed a beat. Fufidia, at fourteen years, was between a child and a young woman — but very much a child still. She had seen her a month before disciplining her dolls, sitting — a grave little figure of justice as she put words of guilt into the mouth of one, stern retribution into that of the other. Childish, yet so charming.

Servia departed with her young in the closed litter allowed to wives of senators.

'Not that I enjoyed travelling here,' she proclaimed as she got in. 'To pass through the Subura leaves one breathless with disgust. It isn't good for a girl to see a half-naked prostitute, as I'm sure little Sextilia did. Then we were held up by a wretched slave carrying his gibbet on the way to execution. There was quite a procession after him, near the Esquiline Gate, and we had to wait till it passed. I drew the curtains of course. I don't enjoy such sights. The carnifices were goading him on and he was screaming dreadfully. You can hardly get through the streets sometimes.'

Grumbling loudly, she made her exit at last.

* * *

She had done her work well. Helvia paced the floor, miserably worried, her thoughts wholly on her beloved daughter. Could it really have been Fufidia in a street in Tusculum together with a young man? Impossible. Helvia had left her in Gratidia's care and the villa in Tusculum was well staffed with reliable slaves. Servia must have been sure of her story, all the same. She would not otherwise have dared to impute such disgraceful behaviour. And this could ruin the plans that Helvia and her brother Cinna had for the betrothal of Fufidia to that most desirable young man Gnaeus Plancius, son of a senator from Atina, of good solid equestrian descent like themselves, gifted and prosperous. And more than anything, dependable, a husband with whom her daughter would be assured — even in these troubled times — of a pleasant and secure life.


On the day of the Vinalia the previous week, August storm clouds had mounted steadily over Latium. Rome had sweated; even up in the Alban hills, among the old oaks and chestnuts, rich owners of summer villas breathed an air that was scarcely cooler.

Fufidius had built his villa high up in Tusculum. From the terrace the land dropped sharply away and in mid-afternoon his daughter sat on the wall looking down on an expanse of turquoise, wooded country, endless and shimmering like the sea. The walled garden was shrouded by tall trees, enlivened and refreshed by the pride of Fufidius — cascades, formed by his private tapping of the Aqua Crabra and now plashing on two levels into a deep stone basin. Earlier, his daughter Fufidia had slipped off her robe and plunged into the delicious waters of the basin, under the gaze of a piteous- eyed and shaggy marble Pan. She had let the cascade slip down her naked body and had sung in delight at its silken caress of the new roundness of her breasts and its cool engulfing of her belly and thighs. She knew no one else would see her. Aunt Gratidia was still sunken in the torpor of a wine-enhanced siesta and the slaves had gratefully taken their rest. Both her parents were away. She felt restless, for at fourteen a girl does not notice the weather, and rarely feels tired.

Still more girl than woman, Fufidia was charming, with a mane of silken blonde hair, evidence of a distant Nordic ancestor, and happy blue eyes. Now she slid down from the wall and stood quite still on the mosaic pavement of the terrace. From above, up in the town, came the notes of an orchestra. Fufidia placed her feet carefully on two petals of a mosaic flower and began to weave a dance — a dance with little movement of her feet, though otherwise of a nature which could only be called suggestive. She was, of course, forbidden to dance like that. She had learned the movements from a slave who had once been a dancer and who could also be bribed to bring her Greek tales. From that distance the music came down thin and lingering and disturbing. Fufidia knew the town square was ablaze with flowers, carefully arranged by the peasants in a floral carpet to spell out the names of the gods whose festival it was that day. Jupiter, of course, but also Venus who had somehow wormed her way into the Vinalia festa, nobody quite knew how. It was well before the time when the grapes would be gathered and pressed, but Jupiter's priest presided at prayers to see them safely through this vital ripening period. A snowy white lamb would be sacrificed and the priest would cut out its entrails. He would pick a bunch of grapes and offer them as well to the god.

Tired of solitary dancing, Fufidia went to the wall and drew from a secret cache two rolls of papyrus and settled down to unroll her favourite. Erotic Tales of Chaereas and Callirhoe was her latest and best toy, with the added fillip that it was illicit. Unrolling the papyrus by a third, she read aloud so as to prolong the pleasure: 'Dionysius could not get to sleep. His whole being was in Aphrodite's shrine; he could recall every detail — her face, her hair, the way she turned, the way she looked at him ... desire flooded over him ... '

Fufidia wriggled pleasurably, then unrolled the whole scroll to the end — not an easy task — and read aloud, slowly: 'They were like people plunged in a deep well, who can barely hear a voice from above. Slowly they recovered their senses; then they saw each other and embraced each other passionately — and fainted again, a second and a third time. They could say only one thing: "You are in my arms — if you really are Callirhoe, if you really are Chaereas!" '

So it ended happily. She might have known it. A chaste fire crept down her innermost parts, down her marrow. She had no name for this heavenly world of the written romance. She had led a staid existence, and Callirhoe was far removed from the reality of a Fufidius' daughter of the present age.

Without warning an apple thudded gently down into her lap. Fufidia sat like a stone. A voice said from above, 'Salve!'

Guiltily, she grasped the roll, rewinding it as fast as she could. Robust laughter, a young man's laughter, sounded, and turning round she beheld Chaereas himself spring down from the wall, landing at her feet.

She said the first thing that came into her head. 'Aunt Gratidia is asleep.' There was panic in her tone.

'You're in my arms — if you really are Callirhoe!' he mimed, with a winning smile.

She sprang up and drew herself up haughtily in imitation of her mother. Then she turned to go.

Lucius Scaurus watched her walk slowly away towards the house with her flowing stride. He grinned. The garden shimmered in the heat. The sweat ran down his legs. A cursed hot sun today, even up here in Tusculum, rivalling North Africa. And, with the thought of Africa, there came flooding back the dreadful memory of dead men in their thousands lying sun-bloated and mutilated after battle, as he'd seen them in Greece — as they'd lain there after Thapsus. He congratulated himself once more on getting out of Africa alive.


Excerpted from "A Roman Death"
by .
Copyright © 1988 Joan O'Hagan.
Excerpted by permission of Black Quill 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.

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