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Lindsey Davis

Dying Light in Corduba, A
Century, 1996
Barnes & Noble


As she did its predecessors, Davis sets this mystery in Rome and the provinces in the first years of the Flavian dynasty, still shaky after the terrible "Year of the Four Emperors." All stories are M. Didius Falco's accounts of tasks he has undertaken on behalf of the emperor Vespasian or the imperial secret service. Falco has been busy: eight cases from the summer of 70 to the late spring of 73 A.D. The earlier ones involved metal Silver Pigs (lead and spices as well), Shadows in Bronze, Venus in Copper, Iron Hand of Mars, Poseidon's Gold but then came the sands of the East (Last Act in Palmyra) and now countless amphoras of olive oil. All stories are simultaneously fun to read and informative about a wide range of aspects of ancient Rome. Davis has two impressive strengths. First, she writes extremely well: a batch of lively characters and clever but plausible plots. In A Dying Light we're not quite sure who're the crooks and who the villains until the very end ... and the resolution is gray rather than black and white. Second, she gets the factual background right; this accuracy makes the books pleasing and valuable. The author has written stories to be read for fun, not textbooks or monographs to be analyzed; that is as it should be. But glaring mistakes ruin historical fiction. Many followers of Falco will know enough about ancient history to appreciate Davis' scholarship, and they can read this novel as they did the earlier ones, in enjoyment and confidence. It's a bonus that both high school and college-level faculty can teach from these books without having to worry about errors contaminating students' minds, a point I will return to shortly. Falco's sharp tongue, witty one-liners, keen appraisals and occasional raffish conduct are his hallmark. Most of us would like to meet his mother (the long-suffering "Ma"), his best friend L. Petronius Longus (captain of the 4th cohort of Vigiles on the Aventine), his girlfriend become wife Helena, and her parents the senator D. Camillus Verus and Julia Justa. But I for one would prefer to stay in the senator's mansion rather than tag along as Falco delves into the lower reaches of imperial society. More than one character realizes that little escapes the keen-eyed Falco, who refers to himself as an informer and whose name means "hawk." Sly allusions lurk in some personal names: Falco's "gem" of a landlord is Smaractus (smaragdus, "emerald" or "jasper"); the emperor's "Chief Spy" is Anacrites (derived from the Greek "to search out"; another imperial agent who rejoices in his work is Claudius Laeta (laetus, "cheerful, delighting in"); the senator Attractus ("pulled together") works to draw the olive grove owners of Baetica into a coalition; a surprising heroine is Perella, whose name may come from the intensive per and the pronoun illa ("she") giving us "she's in the nick of time." Am I the only one who smells an allusion in the name of a haulage contractor who rents out out horses and wagons? Stertius is suspiciously like stercus "manure." The title itself has multiple meanings, as several lights die in Corduba. All of Falco's adventures start in Rome but frequently take him around the provinces, from the mines of Britain to the bogs and forests along and across the Rhine frontier, to the sands of Nabataea, the Decapolis and Palmyra, and now to southern Spain. The journeys introduce readers to life in the army and the provinces; and the descriptions are realistic and correct. Dying Light in Corduba takes us into the slippery realm of big business, high politics, palace intrigue and imperial revenues. It opens at a dinner of the Society of Olive Oil Producers of Baetica. Not all guests (Falco among them) belong to society's upper crust, the after-dinner entertainment is not what it seems, and two guests get beaten up on their way home. Suspecting a cartel to jack up the price of olive oil, an imperial intelligence operative hires Falco to investigate. Our hero promptly sets off for Baetica, the wealthy senatorial province centered on the Baetis (Guadalquivir) valley and a major mining and oil-producing district. He lands at Malaca and then bounces overland on a hired wagon to Corduba (Cordova), an old colony and provincial capital. From there inquiries lead to Hispalis (Seville) and several olive-growing estates. Along the way he meets the proconsul (governor) and his clerical staff, the provincial quaestor and procurators (financial officers), members of the provincial elite, and their sons and daughters. Helena dutifully accompanies Falco even though she is seven months pregnant at the story's commencement: improbable, to be sure, but her presence always enlivens the plot. Against sneers of scandal and the baby's impending bastardy, she and Falco defend their union as a valid marriage by usus. They make their base of operations the smallish estate her father recent bought. Its tenant manager, though down on his luck becomes a substantial ally, all they could desire: this is Optatus, "hoped for." We learn about olive growing and pressing, shipping (barges to Hispalis, larger ships to ports around the empire), the importance of oil in everyday life and the imperial economy in general, landlords and tenant farmers, and even the great mines around Castulo. The brutal Cornix, who had harassed Falco in the British mines three years earlier, turns up and Falco seeks to get even. One minor point in the story is a major event in the history of Roman Spain. Knowing Vespasian's reputation as a miser, Falco quietly advises the estate owners to approach the emperor with a novel idea: he could win the provincials' loyalty without cost by granting citizenship to individuals and privileged status to Romanized towns, and by encouraging leading men to move into the equestrian and senatorial orders. In point of fact Vespasian spent liberally where expenditures were justified, and he extended Latin status widely throughout the three provinces of the Iberian peninsula. Baetica is thought to have benefited more than the less Romanized Lusitania and Tarraconensis. He did so as censor precisely in 73/74, the year of our story. Perhaps we are permitted to guess that this suggestion in Falco's final report and then said something to the effect of "that's a good idea and it won't even cost me much"... and somehow still neglected to give Falco fitting compensation. Epigraphical discoveries in the olive-growing region south of Corduba since the early 1980s have substantially increased our knowledge of the grant, though experts debate its precise terms. All of these are wonderful opportunities for teachers to explore with their students, and readily accessible recent books plus more specialized articles in English make it easy to do. Thomas H. Watkins, Dept. of History Western Illinois University, Macomb, Il 61455

- Thomas H. Watkins, 11/25/2005

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