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Ron Burns

Roman Nights
St. Martins, 1991


Like Lindsey Davis, John Maddox Roberts and Steven Saylor (reviewed in CW ), Burns writes historical mystery novels with a first-person narrator, but his, though adequate as mysteries and general novels, are weak on historical detail. About 2/3 through, Nights shifts from mystery to adventure; Shadows keeps to the mystery genre straight through, with some interesting twists at the end. Strangely, Shadows uses the same upper-class narrator, Livinius Severus, as Nights, but adds the praenomen Gaius and moves him from 180 AD (the last year of the life and reign of M Aurelius) to 52 BC (with framing actions set in 43 BC) through the death of Caesar and Cicero's Second Philippic. Burns provides short supplementary historical notes on the fate of some of his real historical characters and the nature of his (rather dated) sources, but for Nights he cites Juvenal (b. ca 65), Petronius (d. ante 68) and Apuleius (b. ca. 123) jointly as evidence for "atmosphere of that time". Material in Nights is quoted from Aurelius' Meditations and in Shadows adapted from various of Cicero's writings. Explaining his decision to call Caesar's adopted son "Augustus" as early as 43 BC for convenience, Burns maintains (incorrectly) that modern historians generally call the same person "Octavius" in the years from Caesar's death to Actium. Mystery readers and historians alike will early on determine (generally, but not completely, correctly) the murderer in Nights who keeps killing off and decapitating Stoic philosophers but will be tricked (fairly enough) in Shadows over who keeps killing friends of a man who is found stabbed to death and with inflamed buttocks. In neither novel is Livinius much of a detective (in Nights he is particularly tentative), and in both he cries a lot. M Aurelius and Augustus are perhaps the most memorable characters, but none of the other characters, despite assorted interesting traits, really rivet the attention of the reader. Since M Aurelius' teacher Cinna is an important character in Nights it would have been good to get the spelling of "Catulus" correct and it is strange to have one of Marcus' models for self-control (Med 1.15), Claudius Maximus, cast as a cruel voluptuary. Among his peculiarities of detail, Burns has people in both novels washing with soap and wearing blue silk togas or a bedroom toga, constantly shaking hands on meeting and parting. They speak of weather as "hot as hell" and say that the inviolability of a tribune means that no one may touch him (e.g., to shake his hand). In Shadows the narrator identifies the Comitia Curiata as "the assembly most nearly the voice of the common man", is "inducted into the Senate" under the sponsorship of his father-in-law without any suggestion of his ever having been elected to anything, wears sandals through the streets on an official state visit and gives to each of the house slaves who wrestle (needlessly) to the floor his intrusive cousins a gold talent - and this is treated as a reasonable tip. Many of the numerous historical mistakes or seeming mistakes/distortions found in the novels could have been easily corrected by an ancient historian as copy editor. In short, both novels are interesting to read and deal with many real historical Roman characters, reflecting reasonably their personalities and, in the case of M Aurelius and Cicero, actual thoughts as expressed in their writings. However, if you want, for yourself or especially for students, Roman mysteries, see Davis (preferably Silver Pigs or Venus in Copper), Roberts or Saylor or, for non-mystery historical novels, Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown. All of these also make slips in historical detail, but the richness of the (correct) background detail makes the slips insignificant. Those authors seem to have worked to get the facts correct; Burns does not seem to have. [Mench; CW 86.6 (1993)]

- Mench, 11/23/2005

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