How to Win Elections & Other Books on Ancient Rome

collisseumHave you ever wondered where writers of historical fiction get all their background information from? You know, about places, historical figures or events, customs, culture, and cuisine? I’ve always been fascinated by the process of writing, but even more so when it comes to historical fiction. On top of the usual challenges of a plot, character development, and pacing, historical fiction throws up the added hurdle of authenticity. To be credible, the writer has to get the history right and make the backdrop seem believable. So, wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall and see what goes on behind the scenes while the writer is trying to craft all this? Well, it turns out that we can almost do that — the next best thing to being there is to hear how writers do it, in their own words.

Lindsey Davis is the well-known creator of a series of historical detective thrillers set in ancient Rome, featuring Marcus Didius Falco, her wise-cracking, maverick gumshoe. She reveals her secrets to getting the history right, in the form of her very own top 10 list of the seminal resource books on ancient Rome in this excellent little piece in the Guardian newspaper.

Everything you can imagine (from a writer’s perspective) is here –

  • daily life in Rome
  • the topology of the ancient city and its surroundings,
  • ancient professions,
  • doctors and diseases in antiquity,
  • politics, and
  • even shopping!

One of the books on Davis’ top 10 list is a classic by Quintus Tullius Cicero (the younger brother of that Cicero, the famed orator). It’s called How to Win an Election, An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians. To quote from Davis, “The dirty tricks being played out in today’s headlines have a long pedigree. The original spin king may be Cicero’s younger brother, a ruthlessly effective campaign agent. Junior’s electioneering makes ours look tame. Wheel out your family even if they are dying, ruthlessly call in favors for votes, buy more with promises you never intend to keep, canvass people you despise, insult your rivals’ honesty, slander their immoral habits – then clinch it by exposing them as murderers. We have so much to learn!”

And Lindsey Davis should know — she has explored the seamy side of ancient Rome, warts and all, in books like The Silver Pigs and The Iron Hand of Mars (which we talked about in our podcast on the narrative voice).

So, everything you need to write that next Roman whodunit is here — all you have to do is start. And if you have trouble getting started, here’s some excellent advice on that subject, too!

Engineers in Historical Mysteries

Mystery novels have featured a variety of protagonists – almost every profession that we encounter in our daily lives shows up in mystery novels. I’ve read cozy mysteries that feature artists, bakers, caterers, cat lovers, dog walkers, flappers, police and private detectives and even wedding organizers – well, you get the picture. Historical mysteries are a little more constrained in how their protagonists make a living. Yet they too feature a wide variety of roles – detectives, doctors, historians, politicians, soothsayers, soldiers, and spies – despite the constraints of history.

However one particular profession, that of an engineer, makes far fewer appearances in historical mysteries and surprisingly, even in regular mystery novels. But when they do, boy, do they make an impact. (disclosure: my colleague Ramesh and yours truly were both formally trained as engineers, though few are willing to publicly admit that we are such.)

Robert Harris’ Pompeii is probably the most well-known mystery to feature an engineer as its protagonist – the young Marcus Attilius Primus. The story begins with a simple tale of an engineer being despatched to solve a technical problem – not unlike one we’d encounter ourselves after a particularly violent storm or hurricane. Water supply  to the greater Naples region is affected as springs run dry and the engineer in charge of the aqueduct has disappeared. Of course as modern readers, we know – whether we are aware of it or not  – that Mt. Vesuvius is about to burst to high heavens.

Harris does a great job of building up the story, from what starts off as a simple municipal service problem that a maintenance engineer could address, to both a tale of political intrigue and nature about to let lose. The book does a great job of explaining the engineer’s role in those times. More importantly, it brings to fore the critical role that engineers played – be it laying the roads, or building the aqueducts – that allowed the Roman empire to not just grow, but thrive.

The next engineer I encountered was also one troubled by the impending explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in the short story collection Pompeii — A Day of Fire. We’ve written about it earlier in prose and in verse. The focus in this tale is on the human end of things – how his unwilling bride re-assesses our engineer hero, who’s not only older than her but seems unromantic – in light of his actions even as the world they know seems to be ending in fire and brimstone. It’s a short but sweet rendition of engineer as human.

However, Thomas K. Carpenter goes one step further, building an entire 7-book series – Alexandrian Saga. Featuring Heron of Alexander – who’s widely believed to have invented the first steam engine in the 1st century CE – the series suggests that it is actually his twin sister posing as him. Carpenter has him/her solving a variety of problems that have vexed mankind since then, starting with who might have burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Carpenter has also written a short story, The Virtues of Madness, where he shows how Temple “miracles” were performed thanks to engineers such as Heron.

The use of war machines, the building of roads, temples and major civil projects, many of which stand to this day, meant engineers played a big role in historical times. And they are beginning to get their due, none too soon, in historical mysteries too. Tell us about your favorite engineer or other professions in historical mysteries!

Books featured in this post

Robert Harris Pompeii

Stephanie Dray A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Thomas K. Alexander Alexandrian Saga 

Thomas K. Carpenter, Virtues of Madness 


C is for Cuspius

Our minds often work in strange ways, flitting from one thought to another, like bees seeking nectar — and then not even dwelling on one long enough to extract anything from it. Or maybe it’s just me. I was just thinking earlier today that it’s about time we did another post on what we are reading these days. That got me reflecting about Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius, which in turn reminded me of our post on Pompeii, our review of Pompeii: Day of Fire, and our subsequent podcast on a related theme. Somehow or the other, that whole thought process led me to this charming little article on one of the characters in that collection of stories — the Aedile Pansa.

Such are the little delights one finds in wandering the garden paths of history. Or perhaps this is merely an interesting footnote on a real inhabitant of a little Roman settlement that was wiped out in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. I’ll take either interpretation — but more importantly, what do you think?

Pompeian Connections

One Pompeian family that has always intrigued me is the gens Cuspia. Besides generally being prolific in civic and political affairs, the family has been memoralised in one of the grand houses of the city, and more creatively, as one of the characters in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’sThe Last Days of Pompeii. Bulwer-Lytton always identifies him, a close friend of the protagonist Glaucus, as the aedile, often running off to deal with organising the next round of contests in the amphitheatre or sorting out the aerarium which he claims is in disrepair, typically with a large number of clients in tow. Della Corte identified one of the large houses in Region VI as the House of Pansa (VI.6.i), although according to Bulwer-Lytton, Pansa’s taste in decor left something to be desired:

“‘Well, I must own,’ said the aedile Pansa, ‘that your house, though scarcely larger than a case…

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Witness to History

forrest gump

Source: IMDB

One of the engaging aspects of the 1994 Oscar-winning movie, Forrest Gump, is the serendipitous way the protagonist finds himself smack-dab in the middle of pivotal moments in 20th-century history, rubbing shoulders with the political leaders and celebrities of his day. He encounters Elvis Presley and John Lennon. He gets to meet President Kennedy. He fights in the Vietnam War and ends up getting a Congressional Medal of Honor from Lyndon Johnson. By sheer happenstance, he becomes witness to the events of the Watergate scandal. He participates in Ping Pong diplomacy with the Chinese as a member of the US Table Tennis team. None of these events or celebrity photo ops are necessarily pivotal to the plot or central to the soul of the character – but they add another dimension to the movie because the historical milestones and celebrity sightings bring an unexpected thrill of familiarity to the viewer.

Steven Saylor Rubicon

Image  Steven Saylor

I find myself in a similar situation with the historical mystery genre. When I read Steve Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, for example, there’s much more to my literary enjoyment of the books than the character of Gordianus the Finder, the authenticity of the historical settings, the cleverness of the plot structure, or the accessibility of the dialog. The opportunity to experience significant events in ancient Roman history, or get up close and personal (in a manner of speaking) with the leading lights of those times is, without a doubt, one of the added attractions. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s something I actively look forward to each time I approach the next volume in the series.

Julius Caesar

Bust of Julius Caesar, from Wikipedia

Where else can you find your crime-solving protagonist come face to face with the remains of none other than Alexander the Great, mummified in his golden sarcophagus? Or have a chance encounter with King Ptolemy of Egypt? Spartacus is but a name shrouded in myth until Gordianus is brought in to solve a case set right in the middle of the slave general’s revolt. Cicero is no more than a paragraph in a history book featuring famous Roman orators until Gordianus assists him in one of his most famous legal cases. That is when we actually get to know the man behind the closing arguments. Even the more well-known and thoroughly documented figures of Roman history, from Marcus Crassus (the richest man of those times, and arguably of all time), to Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar himself, all come alive as real people in these stories.

The New York Times Book Review enthusiastically nods in agreement: “Saylor puts such great detail and tumultuous life into his scenes that the sensation of rubbing elbows with the ancients is quite uncanny.” None other than the noted Shakespearean thespian, Sir Derek Jacobi, calls the series “an enthralling re-creation of its time and place, a fascinating piece of story-telling.” And Sir Derek should know – he played the role of Emperor Claudius in the universally acclaimed cinematic version of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.

So, that’s my pitch – if my fevered rantings about historical fiction can be called that. Read these stories – not just for historical authenticity, or the intellectual stimulus of unraveling yet another crime mystery – but for the opportunity to meet the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnsons, Elvis Presleys, and John Lennons of bygone eras. Walk the streets of ancient Rome (or Alexandria, or Pompeii) side-by-side with your fictional companion of letters – you never know who you might bump into on your journey. That lady over there, for example, followed by a retinue of attendants – she might well be Calpurnia, seeking to engage our fictional sleuth in getting to the bottom of a conspiracy to take down none other than her husband, Julius Caesar.

Poisons in Historical Fiction – Podcast #5

From Socrates to the Emperor Augustus to Lucrezia Borgia and many other notables across Europe and Asia, history is scattered with examples of the victims and perpetrators of death by poison.

So naturally, in perhaps another instance of art imitating life, historical mysteries have their fair share of the use of poisons as the murder weapon. And having talked about cuisine in historical mysteries before, it didn’t take long for us to make the connection between food and murder most foul. So that’s where we take you in this next podcast.

Here are the authors and book we mention:

Susanna Gregory, A Deadly Brew, A Poisonous Plot
Steven Saylor, The Venus Throw, The Judgement of Caesar
Ellis Peters, Monk’s Hood, One Corpse Too Many
Sara Poole, Poison, The Borgia Betrayal

For more on this subject, check out our blog post, which includes some further suggested reading. And don’t forget to let us know about your favorite historical mysteries featuring poisons!

The King’s Gambit — Review in Verse

The King's GambitThis the first in the SPQR

Series of detective books,

Set in a Republic at war

And full of villains and spooks.

While Crassus and Pompey

Reign over the nation,

The street gangs have their day

Preying on the population.

Yet when slaves and freedmen alike

Are found in the Subura, dead,

The authorities seem reluctant to strike,

Except for our hero, the head

Of the vigiles (or watchmen),

Who seems determined to find

The what, why and when,

With his keen investigative mind.

The pace is pleasingly swift

And the dialog fairly crackles,

As plot lines turn and shift

And our hero blocks and tackles.

But the characters are flat

And have little originality,

Almost Egyptian, in that

They lack three-dimensionality.

So if Dan Brown’s more your style

Then give this book a read,

But if you prefer Le Carre’s guile

Then there’s really no need.

Pompeii’s Fiery End – Podcast #2

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, says the Chinese proverb. Presumably, a road map would be helpful, too! In our first podcast, we started off on our exploration of history, mystery and writing and promised to provide just such a road map. And what better way to do that than to highlight what we are reading now on our journey?

So, in our second podcast, we share our favorite stories from Day of Fire, a collection of short stories set in Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 (you can read our reviews here and here). The collection is edited by Stephanie Dray (who is the author of the Cleopatra’s Daughter series set in ancient Egypt). Also referenced in our podcast is Kate Quinn’s Mistress of Rome series.

If you have read Day of Fire, let us know what your favorite stories are. And if you haven’t read this collection yet, make sure to add it to your reading list, and make up your own road map. The beauty of this particular journey is that there are many road maps to choose from!

Here are the authors from this collection.

Author, Story

Stephanie Dray, The Whore
Ben Kane, The Soldier
E. KnightThe Mother
Sophie Perinot, The Heiress
Kate QuinnThe Senator
Vicky Alvear ShecterThe Son

I, Claudius — Review in Verse

ClaudiusFrom crippled simpleton,
To Emperor of the realm,
Does this tale extend.
And when all is said and done,
It is he who is at the helm
That really counts in the end.

I first came to hear
Robert Graves’ I, Claudius
In Sir Derek Jacobi’s gravelly tone.
He takes us from the year
Of the ascent of Augustus
Through his successors to the throne.

Spurned by his own mother,
And witness to the evil plotting
Of Livia: Empress and schemer,
Claudius had quite another
Kind of upbringing.
So he grew up a dreamer,
With an interest in the past,
A keenly observant eye,
A talent for writing,
And a knack for how to last,
Or how not to die
In the midst of in-fighting.

And so through Claudius’ voice,
Graves weaves the tale
Of the early Roman Empire.
It’s a narrative choice
That doesn’t fail.
Now, if you were to inquire,
I can’t say if this is a good read
Since I only heard it narrated
(Although I found that captivating).
But I do believe — indeed
It can now be stated:
I’d give it a 4 star rating.

Why Roma? Podcast #1

Ever since I read my first Steven Saylor novel, I’ve been hooked to mystery stories set in Ancient Rome.  For the first few years, I was too busy reading and chasing down the ones I hadn’t read. And I never stopped to ask “Why are so many historical mysteries set in Rome?”

So for our first podcast at HistorynMystery, Ramesh and I decided to explore this question and more. As promised in the podcast, here are the authors and books that we talk about in this first podcast.

Authors, Series

Albert Bell, Pliny the Younger case series
Bruce MacBain, Plinius Secundus series
Caroline LawrenceThe Roman Mysteries
Colleen McCullough, Masters of Rome series
John Maddox Roberts, SPQR series
Kate QuinnMistress of Rome series
Lindsey Davis, Marcus Didius Falco series
Robert HarrisCicero series – Pompeii
Steven Saylor, Roma Sub Rosa series

Let us know why you think Rome is such a popular setting for historical mysteries, and what your favorite Roman mystery novels are.

A Day of Fire — Review in Verse

Day of FIreThis is a collection
Of six stories,
Set during Pompeii’s destruction
By a volcano’s furies.

Six authors, six views
Of the events of a single day,
As terror slowly brews
While townsfolk go their daily way.
Senators and slaves,
Brides and mothers,
Soldiers and knaves,
Whores and others —
Lives intertwined
In their loves and fears,
As they inexorably wind
To the end of their years.
Some survive, many perish:
But their stories and the setting
Is what you will cherish.
I found it quite riveting!