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John and Esther Wagner

Gift of Rome, The
Little, 1961


Set in Larinum and Rome in 66 BC, this retelling, with significant interpretive variation, of Cicero's Pro Cluentio, starts slowly, the prose of Cluentius' 25-page letter to Cicero a bit cumbersome as it fills in antecedent events [1], but the writing, pace and interest picks up once the dramatic action of the narrative begins. There is some interest in the fact that you are seeing Cicero through the eyes of middle-class municipes. The known facts of the case are worked adroitly enough into the third-person narrative, but Cicero (p. 97) is shown confusing "patricians" with "senatorial order", as the opposite force to equites on the juries. The plot twists interestingly as Cluentius confesses to Cicero that he fabricated the evidence of Oppianicus' attempt to murder him. That may surprise the reader, but not the fact that both sides bribed in the trial of Oppianicus the Elder. Sassia is made a devotee of Osiris and her observance of the ritual (Isis and Horus punishing Typhon/Seth for the murder of Osiris) a parallel to the case she and Oppianicus the Younger are bringing against Cluentius (= Seth) for the murder of Oppianicus (= Osiris). An important addition to the cast of characters known from the speech is Asuvia, the 16-year old niece of Cluentius' friend M Asuvius (brother of that Asuvius Cicero claims Oppianicus killed for his money). Asuvia is well-drawn, especially in her brave penetration of Sassia's sanctum sanctorum, as related in her letter of pp. 149-152. Cicero's speech in the book starts at page 190, after we've heard snatches of Accius' prosecution speech. Classicists will recognize Cicero as the original source of Cluentius' thought (p. 206) that Cicero "had thrown dust in the eyes of the jurors" in this case. And the final chapter lets you know what we don't know from Cicero, what happened to Sassia after the case was over and Cluentius cleared. The novel is well-written, if not necessarily in the top-most ranks, with historical accuracy and simple but sensible plotting and a handful of interesting characters, Cicero attracting the greatest attention, but Cluentius, Asuvia and Sassia also well-sketched. The book would be suitable for young adults without losing the interest of adults, even classicists. If you wondered what "The Gift of Rome" stood for, it is for the novel's Cicero, his term for Rome's greatest contribution to civilization: Roman law. (Mench; unpub) -------------------------------------------------------------- [1] speaking of Oppianicus the Elder and Sassia: "I need not say that the communion of spirits proferred by Oppianicus reposed on a much sounder understanding of her nature than that which my father had achieved." p.18 And Cluentius keeps sticking in irritating vocatives, either "Cicero" or "great Praetor".

- Fred Mench, 12/19/2005

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