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David Wishart

Hodder & Stoughton, 1998


Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus receives an assignment from Livia to check the growing power of Imperial prefect Sejanus. Third in the series. Copyright (C) 1994-1998 by Richard M. Heli

- Richard M. Heli, 12/19/2005

Wishart's 1998 novel Sejanus is by far the best to date that I have read of his fictional works set in ancient Rome. From master to slave, the characters are drawn with Dickensian completeness. Each is memorable for personal traits and foibles; each is plausibly motivated and psychologically convincing. Even the women - in particular, the chief Vestal, Junia Torquata - are fully characterized and individuated. In pursuing the clues left for him by Livia, Corvinus encounters a wealthy foreigner then resident in Rome, the Spaniard Sextus Marius, and his acquaintance with Sextus develops into a striking subplot. Sextus, it seems, fancies himself a Carthaginian, and holds the belief, maddening to a Roman, that the product of an incestuous union will produce an Uebermensch. Corvinus is instrumental in rescuing the girl, whom Wishart calls Marilla instead of Maria in order to avoid obvious associations, from her father's unwelcome and illicit embraces, which eventually led to his being convicted of incest and thrown to his death from the Tarpeian Rock in AD 33. His "Carthaginian" or north African belief seems analogous to the current superstition, said to be prevalent among South African natives, that having sex with a virgin will either cure or prevent AIDS. The story is narrated in the first person by a Roman noble, Marcus Valerius Messala Corvinus, who, with his wife, Perilla, has returned to the capital from his voluntary exile in Athens to attend his father's funeral, and who is drawn into a leading role in a complex plot devised by the late Augustus Caesar's deceased wife, Livia. The erstwhile power behind the throne, Livia had two objectives. The immediate one was to derail the plan of her son Tiberius to name as his successor the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who is his deputy in Rome. This is accomplished when Corvinus discovers and reveals to the emperor that his son Drusus died not from natural causes but from a slow poisoning, arranged by Sejanus, from a compound of antimony known as stibium, then used in cosmetics. Livia's distant goal was to disgrace the Julians so thoroughly as to destroy any nostalgic public sentiment for their return to the imperial throne, and her means is Machiavellian: by ensuring the eventual accession of the youngest son of Germanicus (Tiberius's adopted son) and Agrippina, the thoroughly mad Gaius, better known as Caligula ("Little Army Boot"), who fancies himself a living god, for whom becoming emperor is merely a stepping stone. The plot's intricacies are well constructed, and as they are unravelled the reader is presented with a panoply of graft, corruption, and greed at all levels of imperial administration. Wishart's main sources are the historical Annals of Tacitus and the fictional I, Claudius of Robert Graves, the future emperor Claudius's secret memoirs. While his book can be read easily and understood fully by a novice to the sagas and mores of imperial Rome, a reader's appreciation of its characters and their historical roles will be greatly enhanced by first reading Graves’ novel or viewing in its entirety the twelve-part BBC version of I, Claudius, recently reissued in both DVD and VHS formats, widely available for purchase, if not for rental, and well worth owning. Michael Wells Glueck 12/01

- Michael Wells Glueck, 12/19/2005

This may be one of the best of the generally good M. Valerius Messala Corvinus mysteries set in Tiberian Rome, in the year 31 AD. After spending ten years in Athens following his confrontation with Sejanus, described in the previous novel, Germanicus , Corvinus returns to Rome for his father’s funeral. This visit will also turn out to be his chance to scuttle Sejanus, in accord with Livia’s posthumous instructions, which he has just received. This won’t be easy, since Sejanus is now the most powerful man in Rome, with Tiberius safely isolated on Capri and Sejanus controlling all access to him, through the praetorians, which Sejanus commands. There are murders enough (and assaults on Corvinus and his friend, the watch commander Lipillus), but these are politically, not personally, motivated. Back once again are Corvinus’ wife, Perilla, household staff, notably Bathyllus, his head slave, as well as Vipsania and Priscus, Corvinus’ mother and her husband, and his old friend Agron. Also in the mix are the emperor Tiberius, the future emperor Gaius (Caligula) and his most efficient freedman, Felix (both of whom we shall meet in the later novel, The Lydian Baker). Wishart has a different take on why Livia wants him to succeed Tiberius, not, as Robert Graves has her say in I, Claudius, to insure her deification, but to put an end to any popular support for the Julian line by the anticipated vileness of his rule. Although Sejanus is the title character, he does not appear much in person in the novel. However, he does direct his minions in a plot to insure his succeeding Tiberius as emperor. The actions of this novel are rooted in the political manipulations of the past, about which Corvinus informs us. These are so intricate that you may occasionally want to take notes; but, even if the details may be difficult to follow, the general outline is always clear, and Sejanus was behind it all. The one sub-plot that requires no background is that of Sextus Marius, a rich Spaniard who boasts of his descent from Hannibal and who is the father of Marilla, rescued by Corvinus and Perilla and adopted by them in a later novel. There is plenty of action in the novel, including a beating in which Lipillus is almost killed. We consequently see some of his home-life and his relationship with his young, attractive and widowed step-mother, Marcina. Corvinus’ main task is to find out how Drusus, Tiberius’ son, died, and this is where the rough stuff comes, as Corvinus tracks people down and tries to explain the events back to the deaths of Drusus (23 AD) and even Germanicus (19 AD). Corvinus had already investigated the latter death for Livia in Germanicus. There is also humor in the conversations of Corvinus with his wife, friends and staff, and Wishart paints a hilarious scene in which Perilla arranges to get drunk the seemingly sober-sided chief Vestal Virgin, under the pretext, shared by both women, that the vintage wine the Vestal is drinking is fruit juice. Corvinus is amazed at this, not being in on the secret, but doesn’t begrudge Toraquata the best of his wine-cellar because of the useful information he finds in her reminiscences. I have some concerns in this whole series with Corvinus’ modern idiom, and his habitual substitution of “like” for “as”. However, Wishart portrayals of the relationships are consistent with what we know of the Rome of that time (mainly from the accounts of Tacitus and Suetonius) and he makes his background detail vivid and reliable. Wishart points out correctly in his Author’s Note at the end that he has changed somewhat the function of the Watch (Vigiles) by giving them some of the duties of the City troops (Cohortes Urbanae). Historically, the Watch was mainly a fire department, but with some night policing role. The Urban cohorts maintained public order and did the day-time policing, but neither group probably performed quite the same types of investigation and crime prevention as modern city police forces do. However, Wishart makes this amalgamation deliberately, for reasonable narrative purposes, and lets us know. The novel is a good read, with an interesting plot and well-drawn characters. As in the other volumes in the series, Corvinus uses some profanity, but even high school teachers could probably use the book for supplementary reading, after a quick prelminary check. I recommend Sejanus as entertaining fiction and as an intriguing picture of ancient Rome. Fred Mench (with modifications by Michael Wells Glueck) 8/02

- Fred Mench (with modifications by Michael Wells Glueck), 8/1/2002

The press release cites this book as an intriguing tale of mystery and suspense - and so it is. Set in Rome in AD 31 in the closing years of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, who is in self-imposed exile on Capri, it concerns Marcus Corvinus, a Roman noble. His task, set by the now dead Empress Livia, is to expose Sejanus, Commander of the Praetorian Guard, and Tiberius's deputy in Rome, for the schemer he is and the danger he presents should he succeed Tiberius as Emperor as Tiberius clearly wants him to. From voluntary exile in Athens, Corvinus returns to Rome for the funeral of his father. He receives a letter from the Empress Livia commanding him to remove Sejanus from office, or as she succinctly puts it, "The man is a malignant growth, a danger to Rome and he must be removed. No; I dislike metaphorical euphemisms. Sejanus must be killed." In her letter, the Empress directs Corvinus to the Senate's archives. Here, he learns that in the last eight years there have been twenty-three trials before the Senate. Corvinus goes to Flavonius Lippillus, a regional Watch Commander, for help and information in order to unravel the plots and counter plots that lead to the completion of his task. I found the dialogue very Marlowesque and as a result had difficulty in seeing Corvinus as a Roman. I kept getting this image of a man wearing a hat, a belted raincoat and with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, which rather took the edge off the Forum, Senate etc. There were a lot of names to contend with, necessarily so, as the majority were authentic people of the day taking part in actual events. Marcus Corvinus did exist, as did Sejanus, and I was grateful for the inclusion, at the beginning of the book, of the comprehensive list of characters. In his Author's Note, David Wishart states: The historical details are (I hope!) accurate, although the interpretation of them is my own. -Marilyn Sherlock From The Historical Novel Review (December 1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Marilyn Sherlock, 12/1/1998

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