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Joan O'Hagan

Roman Death, A
Doubleday, 1988
Barnes & Noble


In this novel, excellent as a mystery and as a reconstruction of the life of upper-class Rome in 45-44 BC, O'Hagan tells a story of murder, magic, love, greed and intrigue, the plot of which could have come right out of an oration of Cicero. In fact, whereas Steven Saylor in Roman Blood has used the real Ciceronian Pro S. Roscio Ameriae as the base of his murder mystery, O'Hagan has manufactured a Ciceronian Pro Helvia, cited in her postscript and likely to be taken by most readers as real, as well as a letter supposedly written 20 years after the fact and found only in 1987 which gives the final twist to the murderer's identity. The letter will probably be understood by most readers as invention, after the fashion of the documents in Thornton Wilder's Ides of March or Robert Graves' supposed translation of a supposed original manuscript by Claudius alleged to have been found shortly before its publication as I, Claudius. As fiction, the novel works well, with fairly well-defined characters, and clear plot. We meet first the focus of the book, Helvia, sister of Gaius Helvius Cinna, poet and tribunus plebis, and wife of Quintus Fufidius, wealthy eques from Arpinum, talking (in some detail and quite accurately) with a visitor about Caesar's forthcoming triumph over Sextus Pompey. Most of the characters we meet subsequently are genuine historical figures: M Aemilius Scaurus, degenerate son of the famous princeps senatus in the time of Marius; M Furius Bibaculus, witness to an important visit; and most of all, M Tullius Cicero, called in, as a friend of the family and fellow Arpinate, to defend Helvia on the charge of poisoning L Aemilius (Marci filius) Scaurus at the banquet to celebrate his forthcoming marriage to young Fufidia. We know by page 9 that Lucius is going to die as a result of pursuing Fufidia, but the lead-in to that death is long, allowing us to meet all the major characters (including Eucharis, Fufidius' liberta and lover) and allowing O'Hagan to develop fully both the background of realia of Roman daily life (dining, cursing magic, public lavatories, theatres) and the attitudes of the different sexes (Isis' role in Helvia's life; Lucius' relations with both men and women) and classes (old versus new money; manumission and the new relationship of patronus) to one another. After the murder, O'Hagan provides an excellent description of the ceremonies following a death. We already know of a number of people who have good reason to want Lucius dead (Helvia, Eucharis, Cinna, and Fufidius' son - who has been gang-raped by Lucius' slaves as revenge for some devastatingly revealing poetry Cinna had tricked a drunken Lucius into reading aloud at a party), but Scaurus pater sees Helvia as the most likely culprit and brings her to trial, which then allows O'Hagan to show how a Roman trial worked, both the preliminary procedures and the prosecution and defense speeches. These speeches follow closely what we know of the nature of Roman court oratory, but it is Cicero's speech (given, as he so often did, last) that is the brilliant set piece. It sounds so like a genuine Ciceronian speech that we are tempted to believe O'Hagan's false postscript; though the speech was not genuine, it should have been. Even after the trial there are some surprises. Early along classicists (or readers of Shakespeare or Plutarch) will recognize that Helvia's brother, Cinna, must be that Cinna who was torn apart after Caesar's assassination. Once Caesar is assassinated and Cinna gets up, despite a bad dream and illness, to attend the funeral, we guess at what is going to happen. However, O'Hagan has tied that event into the events of the murder plot so closely that Cinna's death becomes not a case of random mistaken identity (the wrong Cinna) but a plotted revenge (for that poem and other things). Although no one in the novel cries out that Cinna is being killed for his poetry, that is in fact what happens. O'Hagan still has some tricks up her sleeve. We are not sure, by the end of the trial, who the poisoner is, but Cicero subsequently receives a confession about how it was done. However, be sure to read the letter in the postscript to see how O'Hagan screws the last bit of surprise out of the plot. I liked the book as a mystery and as an accurate reflection of Roman life in Caesar's last days. It would be a fine supplement in a course involving Cicero's orations. (Mench; unpub)

- Fred Mench, 12/16/2005

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