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Henry Winterfeld

Detectives in Togas (tr)
Harcourt Brace, 1956
Barnes & Noble


Xanthos, a famous Greek mathematician, runs an exclusive school in Rome, with 7 young boys as his pupils. As the novel starts, Rufus has just crept behind the teacher and hung up a sign “Caius is a dumbbell.” This precipitates a fight which results in Xanthos (called Xantippos by his students, with an allusion to Socrates’ wife) telling Rufus to leave and not return. The events which follow on this involve Rufus’ (temporary) disappearance, an astrologer across the street from Xanthos named Lukos, and attack during the night on Xanthos in the course of a robbery (which leaves him bound and gagged in his room, to be found by his students the next morning, and the words “Caius is a dumbbell” in Rufus’s handwriting scrawled in red paint on a wall of the Temple of Minerva. This latter causes the arrest of Rufus for sacrilege and for maiestas (since the temple was in honor of the emperor). We never find out who the emperor is and there is. no other evidence in the book to pin down a specific date for the setting. The rest of the book tells how the boys, aided by their teacher, attempt to prove Rufus innocent and get him out of prison. The events include a confrontation with an ex-consul named Tellus, a consultation with a handwriting expert, a visit to an astrologer, a leap by Mucius, the leader of the boys, from the roof of a building into a pool in the baths, a violent confrontation with the villain, who is trying to cover up a double identity, a final justice for both Rufus and the villain. The setting is Rome, with frequent references to the Forum and to the palace of the emperor, and we get a fair amount of detail concerning daily life of home and school. Political and military events impinge on the plot or characters but do not figure largely. We meet very few females, mainly Rufus’ mother and Caius’ younger sister, but we do meet men from a variety of social statuses, including slaves. This is a young adult book, perfectly acceptable for 8th grade on up (or younger), but it is fun to read even for adults. However, don’t expect any deep reflections or even that much in the way of new perceptions about life in general or Roman life in particular. There are a few minor points of questionable accuracy, such as the pocket in a boy’s tunic or the apparent misconception of what backs the wax of a wax tablet (and that does have an effect on the plot), these will not impair the general accuracy of the text. Recommended, especially for younger adults. Higher level high school students might be offended to be assigned the book, though they would probably enjoy it if they picked it up for themselves. -Fred Mench 8/99

- Fred Mench, 12/19/2005

Recommended for younger students (intermediate). Plot Summary: Five Roman boys and their teacher solve a mystery when one is accused of writing graffiit on a temple wall. Great for intermediate level-no sex, no excessive violence-the boys are about the young reader's age, behave realistically: lively, eager, impetuous, mischievous, mocking one another. Appealing to students because heroes their age are trying to solve a puzzle, with the help of their teacher. The author said he was inspired by graffiti scrawled on a wall in Pompeii "Caius asinus est". This is worked into the plot when one of the students is wrongfully accused of writing graffiti on a temple wall. Good way for students to learn indirectly about Roman life in the Empire, because historical details are a natural part of story. -Rosalind Harper

- Rosalind Harper, 12/19/2005

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