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John Maddox Roberts (1947 - )

SPQR V : Saturnalia
St Martin's, 1999
Barnes & Noble


In another good entry in the SPQR series, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger returns from his semi-exile in Rhodes, summoned by his family to investigate the death of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, poisoned, say his kin, by his wife, the notorious Clodia. Strangely enough, Publius Clodius Pulcher, the rabble rouser and the main reason for Decius’ absence, also solicits Decius to find the killer, since he swears it was not Clodia. Before the story is over and the killer goes off the Tarpeian rock, Decius will get a chance to socialize a little with his love, Julia, niece of Julius Caesar, have two attempts made on his life, spy on a witches’ celebration, meet various Roman politicians like Cicero, Murena, Bestia, and Milo, become involved with a question of professional ethics among physicians, and become the only sober male in the story on the evening of the Saturnalia festival. The story moves swiftly and Roberts has his historical details down well. The reader moves through ancient Rome, seeing the important sites (Forum, Curia, various of the hills and bridges) and hearing about Roman customs, religion and politics from a first person narrator who is an engaging character. Although there are some naked dancers (male & female), there is nothing that would present a problem with using this novel at the high school level. Witchcraft is a major part of the story, and that should hold a certain amount of general interest. The view of the upper (and, to a lesser extent, the lower) class is a good introduction to the way Rome as a city and as an empire worked. The mystery part of the novel is not really in the whodunit tradition of setting you up to figure out the murderer yourself (or slapping your forehead at the end and exclaiming that you should have known), but there are no tricks pulled by the author either. If you like Saylor’s Gordianus and Davis’ Falco, you will like Roberts’ Decius. Like the other two, Decius is able to take care of himself in a fight but differs in being upper class. Decius is not as wise-cracking as Falco nor as closely tied to family as Gordianus, but all three make good narrators that we care about. You don't need to have read the 4 previous episodes in the SPQR series (all starring Decius) in order to follow this episode, but there are some back references that are clearer if you've read the first three, which you should probably do anyhow. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but some of the material there is not exactly right, though this has not crept into the text. Highly recommended for entertaining and instructive reading, but don't expect it to pursue some of the more serious questions that Saylor sometimes does in his rather darker and starker novels. -Fred Mench

- Fred Mench , 12/19/2005

In 695 of the Roman Republic, Marcus Calpurnicus Bibulus and Gaius Julius Caesar head the consulship. However, Caesar's term will soon end. He will become the next consul of Gaul. Clodius is to replace him in Rome. Senator Decius Caecilius hates these changes because Clodius is his enemy. His family and friends consider Decius to be a weirdo as he would rather solve a mystery than dabble in politics. His efforts gain him many enemies and frequent exiles out of the city. During the current transition of power, his father summons Decius home from Rhodes. Due to the festive winter holiday of Saturnalia, Decius feels that Clodius will not try to kill him. Decius' father wants his son to determine whether the deceased's wife murdered their kinsman Quintus Caecilius by poisoning him. Quintus' spouse happens to be Clodius' sister making it possible that any finding will have severe political repercussions that could shake the foundation of the empire. Still, Decius risks his life to find the real killers and not necessarily the politically correct one. After too long an absence, John Maddox Roberts brings back popular Roman sleuth Decius who is in his usual form solving a mystery with major implications. Mr. Roberts uses many historical tidbits so that his audience can see Rome at the beginning of its most glorious period when Caesar is starting to consolidate his power. The who- done-it is cleverly designed so that the audience will follow a fine mystery as well as vividly observing everyday life in Ancient Rome. SPQR: Saturnalia may bring Mr. Roberts more than just another best seller. The wonderful mystery might also bring the author several awards. -Harriet Klausner 8/99

- Harriet Klausner, 8/1/1999

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