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John Maddox Roberts (1947 - )

Temple of the Muses, The
Avon, 1992

Reviews:

In the third and fourth installments in the career of Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger (the last Avon will handle), our intrepid investigator (formerly seen in SPQR and The Catiline Conspiracy, reviewed CW and now a freshly-minted senator) again looks back from the vantage point of Augustus' reign to two earlier episodes, the first, the Bona Dea scandal of December 62 BC, and the second, an Alexandrian plot against the empire in 61 BC (though Roberts' dates vary slightly from that), all, of course, involving mysterious murders requiring Metellus' wits, derring-do and luck. Many characters from the earlier adventures recur, especially Clodius and Clodia, Milo, Cicero and Caesar, but Metellus picks up a brash, new slave, Hermes, and becomes romantically involved with Caesar's niece, Julia. In The Sacrilege Metellus, just returned from a year's military service in Gaul, is present at a dinner when his host and his host's doorkeeper are murdered (and he himself escapes a poison attempt) and shortly thereafter is commissioned to investigate Clodius' profanation of the rites of the Bona Dea held in the house of the Pontifex Maximus, Caesar. Two more murders, plus attempts on Metellus's life, intervene before Metellus figures out, in the middle of a Greek tragedy during Pompey's triumph, what really happened that night in Caesar's house. Metellus seems a bit slow in deducing, but that may be because the reader already knows about the first triumvirate and can thus interpret Metellus' dream about Cerberus. In Julia, lovely, lively and intelligent, Metellus finds the Nora to his Nick Charles (or the Harriet Vane to his Lord Peter Wimsey). The feud between Metellus (aided by Milo) and Clodius continues and intensifies from before, but the most interesting political character is Caesar, a rogue, but a fascinating one, one who never kills a man for mere pleasure or whim. The puzzle, characters and background are all good; real historical characters do things they really did (as far as we know) and fictional characters and events are consistent with Roman history and society. A few minor points are doubtful, but none falsify essential Roman values or events. The narrator gives the year as 653 AUC, the consulship of Calpurnianus and Messala Niger, which would be 61 BC, correct for Pompey's triumph, but the Bona Dea scandal was in December of 62 BC, though the narrator talks, at the beginning of the story, of the start of a new year. In The Temple of the Muses, Metellus escapes a now dangerous Rome as part of a diplomatic mission to Ptolemaic Egypt, but he is soon commissioned by King Ptolemy to investigate the murder of a philosopher at the Library/Museum of Alexandria and is aided again by his slave Hermes and his inamorata, Julia. Metellus tells us the year is 692 AUC (= 62 BC), the consulship of Metellus Celer and Lucius Afranius, but these were the consuls of 694 AUC (=60 BC), probably right as a follow-up to the events of The Sacrilege, and the year Creticus, a major character in the novel, was ambassador to Egypt. Roberts has his narrator compare and contrast Alexandria and the Greeks and Egyptians who lived there with Rome and its customs, with Metellus impressed mainly with the straightness of the streets of Alexandria. The murders are political (even the courtesan murdered in Metellus' own bed), but not Roman politics; this time it's a plot to aid the Parthians against the Romans, and Metellus is somewhat more James Bond than Sam Spade. The setting is historical, but the events are not tied to actual events, though many of the local characters are historical, and will appear again when Julius Caesar visits Egypt. However, at this point Cleopatra is only 10 years old. Temple of the Muses, like the other three installments is fun to read, but you won't learn much about Rome. If you want supplementary light but instructive reading for yourself or your Latin or Roman history class, choose The Sacrilege.. -Fred Mench

- Fred Mench, 12/19/2005

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