Monday, 18 October 1999

Steven Saylor: Roman Blood (1990)

Edition: Robinson
Review number: 362

The third I have read (but the first in sequence) of Saylor's Roman detective stories about Gordianus the Finder gets him involved in one of the most famous trials in history. It's famous because it made the name of Cicero, whose speech from the trial still survives.

The murder victim, Sextus Roscius the elder, is a wealthy farmer who has retired to Rome to enjoy himself while his son (with the same name) runs the farm, its profits funding the old man's taste for the high life. The two men have never liked each other very much, and when the father is murdered in a back street - on his way to a brothel - during a visit by the son to Rome, the latter is suspected to be a parricide. This particular crime carried an extremely unpleasant penalty under Roman law (a most painful execution), and so the trial immediately assumed immense public interest, and so was likely to enhance Cicero's career if a successful defence was made.

Saylor has looked carefully at Cicero's speech - the prosecution speech does not survive, and has to be inferred from the rebuttal of points from it made by Cicero - and by reading between the lines has constructed an interesting mystery novel. (Cicero's speech aims to prove the innocence of his client, rather than to identify the guilty party.) This makes Roman Blood take a place in the top rank of historical crime novels.

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