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Isabelle Lawrence

Theft of the Golden Ring/ a Tale of Rome and Treasure
Bobbs-Merrill, 1948
Barnes & Noble


[Theft of the Golden Ring] is an adventure story which contains some elements of mystery. Set in the time of Cicero's consulship, the heroes are the father, mother and uncle of the infant Octavian (Caesar Augustus). Julius Caesar, Pompeia, Julia, Catilina, Cicero, Lentulus and Manlius also appear. Juvenile. It is actually a sequel to the Lawrence book The Gift of the Golden Cup / a Tale of Rome and Pirates (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1946, hardcover) which is set three years earlier and features much the same cast of characters. Copyright (C) 1994-1998 by Richard M. Heli

- Richard M. Heli , 12/2/2005

Set in 63 BC, this well-paced and well-written story is aimed at young adults but can be enjoyed by mature adults as well. The clue to the targeted audience is not so much the language, which balances a good level of diction with an absence of any words or suggestive scenes that might make it inappropriate for younger readers, but more the fact that the hero is a 13-year old boy. And this is not just any boy. This is Gaius Atius Balbus, son of Marcus Atius Balbus and Julia, the sister of Julius Caesar. Young Gaius' sister, Atia, had been married, 3 years earlier (at the end of the novel to which this one is the sequel, The Gift of the Golden Cup) to Gaius Octavius and has already borne him a daughter by him, and now, at age sixteen, she is about to bear their son, Gaius Octavius Caepias, whom they, as if prescient, refer to as "the august one". The Catilinarian conspiracy sparks the action of the novel and continues to play a role past the half-way point, but Catiline himself appears only twice, and then very briefly. His followers' words amount to little more than two pages and their direct actions a few more, but the focus is not on what they are saying or doing but what people are doing to circumvent them. We know from the comments of the characters whom the narrator presents as good that Catiline (whom Lawrence throughout calls Cataline) is not good, but bent on destruction and personal gain. The story opens with people shouting for and against Catiline, while Cicero is denouncing him in the Senate , and Octavian is being born. Perhaps it seemed to Lawrence too history-bookish, but it would have helped the reader had she included a Julian family tree, since the characters bridge four generations of that family, going back as far as Aurelia, Caesar's mother. After the birth of the baby, the scene shifts to the temple of Vesta, where a girl is crying and praying for her father, "Don't let it be true what they're saying." We might assume this is Catiline's daughter, but it is actually Manlia, the daughter of his chief military aide. The focus then shifts to Julius Caesar and his run for the post of Pontifex Maximus the next day, so we get a favorable description of Caesar, who blames Catiline for theft and murder on behalf of Sulla and to fill his own pockets. We meet other famous people, too, although their roles are smaller. Mark Antony is there as a centurion (!) and Horatius is a classmate of Gaius in the school of Orbilius. We do not meet Catiline personally until page 56, where he is talking about killing Cicero and is advocating mass slaughter. One of the adult heroes will be Octavius, a senator, father of the future emperor and nephew-in-law of Julius Caesar, but his most important relationship here is that he is the brother-in-law of our young hero, Gaius. And we find out quickly that Gaius is an intelligent, resourceful and brave boy, who goes to the aid of Octavius when Octavius is kidnapped during a mission to Etruria to learn about Catiline's plans. Octavius is also attempting to save the pirate captain who was about to kill him in the previous novel. The captain will himself become one of the mainagreeable characters in the novel. As it turns out, Octavius has to rescue Gaius, and both then rescue the captain. Just as our little group is about to be overwhelmed by the Catilinarians, troops sent by a quick-acting Julius Caesar - who, in turn had been alerted by a quick-thinking Aurelia, his mother - save the day. As a result of their adventures, Gaius and his comrades learn the date the conspirators plan to burn Rome, and they immediately warn Cicero, enabling him to arrest the conspirators in the city and shortly after pronounce the famous euphemism, "They have lived." It is interesting to see how large a role is played by three generations of Julian women, Aurelia, Julia and Atia, all of whom are bright, pleasant, resolute and quick to act. On the other hand, Caesar's wife, who comes to the baby's name-day celebration, is simply flighty. All the other family members are intelligent and willing to take risks for those they love, and Octavius is a completely enlightened husband in regard to his 16-year old wife. In fact, Cornelius and Atia are politically correct in that they have freed their slaves and continue to employ them as freedmen. At page 161, about half-way through the novel, the focus changes from the Catilinarian conspiracy to a hunt for pirate treasure, but conspirators still play a role as our friends search for a treasure hidden by the captain. It later becomes important that this treasure was not seized in pirating raids but was the gift of a grateful Pontic king whose daughter the captain had saved from a lion. Again it is Octavius who saves the day when he follows up on a dream and rescues Gaius, Atia, the captain and two other of our friends from being buried alive by a rival treasure seeker, a former comrade of the captain's and now an associate of Catiline. The one time Lawrence gives a detailed description, it is of the house of Spurius Sulla in Pompeii, but that house and its layout will soon prove important for the narrative. I won't reveal how the story turns out, but no reader who has gotten past the half-way mark can fail to guess its broad outline. There is an added twist, though not just sprung on the reader, about the family ties and parentage of the pirate captain, and a love story develops toward the end between a young (but marriageable) girl and one of the pirate's (and Gaius') friends. Lawrence has a good narrative technique, developing multiple strands of the story simultaneously and leading the reader up to a crucial point in one thread, which is quickly resolved by actions in another thread. This use of suspense involves some back-tracking, but without impairing reader comprehension. By the end of the book, Lawrence has tied up all the loose ends and all the people whom we have come to like are rewarded handsomely and while those whom we have learned to despise are left out in the cold. We never hear of Catiline's death in battle, but that occurred months after the end of the novel. The good characters are neither namby-pamby nor over-the-top heroic, but they treat people well and display social consciences and a willingness to take large risks for their loved ones or for Rome. Lawrence gives enough description for readers to gain a sense of the setting, but her descriptions are limited, as are her remarks about Roman customs. This reticence, along with the rapid action, makes this book a fast read, interesting for young adults and enjoyable for older readers as well. If I were going to voice any complaint, it would be that Lawrence has read into ancient Rome sensibilities of a much later era. By this I don't mean that Romans couldn't have behaved as she shows our heroes doing. The real Robin of Locksley could have been like the legendary Robin Hood, but, if so, he would have been atypical of his time. Nevertheless, I recommend the book to anyone who likes a good story, briskly told, peopled by interesting characters who do not indulge themselves in sex, gore or deep reflections on the meaning of life or of history. Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck) 9/2001 [Details: Lawrence implies, but doesn't state, that Manlius was killed in the attack on Gaius and Octavius. That didn't happen that way and not until much later. And either Lawrence, or Gaius, who is telling about it, confuses the Egyptian sphinx with the Theban one, and they are two different entities.]

- Fred Mench, Michael Wells Glueck, 9/1/2001

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