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Lindsey Davis

Iron Hand of Mars, The
Crown, 1993
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Reviews:

Most mysteries set in Ancient Rome have complicated political plots, which reflect the complicated political life of the times. This is one of the most convoluted; to the point where the author hardly seems in control of it at times. The premise is that Marcus Didius Falco, penniless but canny Roman private informer, is sent to Germany by Emperor Vespasian to check out the Fourteenth Gemina legion and its leader, and also to do a little intelligence work among the Germanic barbarians. He is further motivated to take on this unpleasant trip because his highborn girlfriend, Helena, may have fled there after a major lover's spat. Vespasian's son, who wishes to marry Helena himself, may or may not have saddled Falco with a sissified hairdresser who may or may not moonlight as an assassin, and may or may not have orders to make sure the private eye never returns to Rome. Along the way, our intrepid hero encounters two nondescript potters who soon turn up dead, but they seem to have nothing to do with his mission. Throw in a couple of missing military officers who may or may not have defected to the enemy, a large dollop of ancient (and confusing) military history, an orphaned niece, two pottery factories, a Batavian priestess, and many other little touches (including the fact that all Roman names start to resemble each other after a while), and you have one supremely confusing book. It's hardly a mystery at all, since the crimes do not lie at the center of the story and Falco never really figures anything out by cogitation -- events just unravel themselves while our hero is suspicious of everyone else's possible motivations. The critics love this series because the author has a charming writing style and a real knack for limning colorful characters (even the most minor); but in this outing, multiple subplots do not make up for the lack of a single compelling story. Reviewed by Joyce Parks for Troutworks.

- Joyce Parks, 11/25/2005


Certain of their audiences' knowledge of what preceded, Greek playwrights set tragedies at various places in the myth. Thus Aeschylus opened the "Agamemnon" with the hero's return from Troy and avoided retelling the many stories of the Trojan War cycle. More than in any of her other novels, Davis here seems to assume a knowledge of the background, although in several places she presents sketchy reviews. While there's no need to be an academic to enjoy this story, it seems fair to believe that readers familiar with Roman history, in particular Tacitus' Histories, will better appreciate its pervading atmosphere and the many allusions. The Iron Hand of Mars evokes the queasy calm of a Roman Empire emerging from the turbulence of A.D. 68-69 and the collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The bonfire which Vindex, governor of a Gallic province, lit when he revolted against the government of Nero became an empire-wide conflagration in a few months. Vindex had little chance of success since he had few soldiers, and the addition of Galba, patrician governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, brought more respectability than military power: only one legion. The governor of the Upper German military district, Verginius Rufus, stayed loyal to Nero and his four legions soon extinguished Vindex. Galba withdrew to Spain and the bonfire seemed out. Nero's panicked suicide re-ignited the embers. Rome had never devised a "constitutional" method of succession, and when Verginius Rufus declined to become emperor the way was open for other candidates to try their luck. As Tacitus later wrote (Hist.1.4), "The secret of the Empire was revealed: an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome." Not only that: other means than peaceful, as for the first time the frontier armies got involved. The Senate accepted Galba as emperor in June 68. Tactless policies, notably the recall of Rufus from Germania Superior, engendered general unpopularity. The four legions of Lower Germany proclaimed their legate, Vitellius, emperor in January, 69; the Upper German army soon joined him. Severely reducing the garrisons in the legionary fortresses of the Rhine frontier, Vitellius marched southward. Meanwhile, M. Salvius Otho won over the Praetorian Guard in Rome and assassinated Galba. The Danubian and Eastern legions proclaimed for Otho, but few of them arrived in time. Losing a decisive battle to Vitellius in April, Otho killed himself. The eastern legions announced for Flavius Vespasianus, then in command of a special army engaged in suppressing the Jewish revolt which had begun in 66 (during it Falco's elder brother is said to have met a heroic death), and the Danubian armies concurred. A combined force marched toward Italy while Vespasian seized Alexandria and cut off the Egyptian grain convoys to Rome. Encouraged by Vespasian's agents to make trouble for the remaining but depleted Vitellianist legions on the Rhine, the Romanized Batavian Julius Civilis revolted. Gallic leaders simultaneously tried to establish an independent state. Vespasian's elder brother, the Prefect of the City Flavius Sabinus, fell in the fighting in Rome, but Flavian troops soon killed Vitellius. In December the Senate proclaimed Vespasian emperor and thus began the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian ruled until 79 and his two sons Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96) followed. A multitude of problems confronted the new rulers. The civilian facade of the Principate established by Augustus a century earlier had collapsed, revenues were down, and the economy was in tatters. Repairs took years, but Vespasian gave high priority to the Rhine where several forts had fallen to Civilis' rebels and the army was undisciplined, understrength and demoralized. Enter M. Didius Falco, an informer who specializes in rendering assistance to Vespasian. His commission to deliver a new standard, an iron hand, to Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix at Moguntiacum (Mainz) provides cover for other jobs: (1) find out what has happened to the missing legates of the Fourteenth and of the downstream fortress at Vetera (Xanten), (2) inquire into the overall condition of the army, and (3) pick up intelligence about the rebel Civilis and the mysterious priestess Veleda. Xanthus, a freedman barber of Greek origins carrying a heavy-duty razor, accompanies Falco, who is convinced that Xanthus is looking for an opportunity to slit his throat. If all this weren't enough, Falco must also worry about the philandering imperial first son's attentions toward Falco's love, Helena Justina. She had seduced our hero (Falco's version) about six months earlier and had only recently moved in with him; the novel's opening scene is as tangled as the plot. Their relationship is not respectable, for Falco is of a decidedly lower class family while she is senatorial. A recurring theme in the Davis novels is Falco's desire to acquire equestrian status, which would make their tie far more suitable (note chap. 33 and the end of Silver Pigs). The couple illustrates Roman usus marriage in which, if a man and woman clasp hands (technically in front of witnesses) and say they're married, that's enough. In essence, living together without legal barriers constitutes marriage. The dashing Titus is just back to Rome from the capture of Jerusalem, and as the emperor's son and heir has obvious advantages in a quest for the fair Helena. Domitian is referred to but mostly stays offstage; he gives signs of coming to a bad end. He also evidently blocked an imperial grant whereby Falco would have become an eques. As she does in all the Falco stories, Davis transports readers back to the early 70s by combining the ancient sources and her own novelistic talents. Readers desiring a fast-paced story will find this to their liking, while those demanding accuracy as well will be equally satisfied, and teachers electing to use the book in class will find many themes for discussions and further reading.. Military buffs will be very happy. This case quickly takes Falco from Rome to southern Gaul, up the Rhone valley to the provincial capital Lugdunum (Lyon), a center of the rapidly-expanding Gallic pottery industry, and then over to the fortress of legion VIII Augusta at Argentoratum (Strasbourg). Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium was a colonia in Lower Germany, though in a minor slip (p. 164) Davis has it founded by the wrong Agrippina: not Agrippina Major wife of Germanicus but their daughter Agrippina Minor (mother of Nero); allegedly in A.D. 49/50 she persuaded her husband Claudius to found this colony in the decommissioned legionary fortress where she had been born in 15. The irregular towns (canabae) that grew up around all such bases were probably much as Davis has them. We meet several legions, their fortresses and stories correctly narrated. Civilis' rebels did capture the double-legionary fortress at Vetera and massacre the captives of legions V Alaudae and XV Primigenia. Legion XIV Gemina and I Adiutrix were based together at Moguntiacum at this time. Indeed, XIV was a much-traveled outfit: it moved to the Danube about 65 and was with Otho; Vitellius returned it to Britain but then recalled (a portion of) it in 69. Vespasian assigned it to Moguntiacum. Legions XIV and I Ad. later moved to the Danube: about 87 the First went to Brigetio [Szony]; in a few years the Fourteenth shifted to Aquincum [Budapest], then to Vindobona [Vienna] and finally to Carnuntum [Petronell]. Moguntiacum was reduced to a single-legion (XXII Primigenia) fortress from 89. Vespasian did send Petilius Cerialis, probably his son-in-law, with a large force to restore order along the Rhine and in northern Gaul. Tacitus gives a detailed narrative, but because the manuscript breaks off in the middle of negotiations we do not know the ending. Cerialis had terminated the revolt and Gallic empire shortly before the beginning of our story. While not improvising a full narrative, Davis improves upon Tacitean incidents. During Cerialis' leisurely sail down the Rhine, rebels surprised and nearly killed him while he was spending time with his mistress Claudia Sacrata and did capture his flagship (Hist. 5. 22). The boat comes in handy for Falco. Gracilis ("Smoothie"), the missing legate of legion XIV, has a rough encounter with Falco and an aurochs. Civilis, given a new identity and a Roman "safe house", disappears into a plausible obscurity. Cerialis evidently satisfied the emperor, for he was Vespasian's governor of Britain 71- 73/4. Helena declares her preference in husbands. As for Falco, well, he's glad to be heading home to civilization and to take on another case. Thomas H. Watkins, Department of History, Western Illinois University

- Thomas H. Watkins, 11/25/2005


Falco Series Overview Two ongoing sequences of mystery novels offer contrasting approaches to ancient Rome. They succeed because the authors write entertainingly, develop appealing characters and retain historical accuracy. Steven Saylor builds his stories around events known from the speeches of Cicero and other writers. The great orator and various historical Romans appear frequently. Lindsey Davis proceeds differently. Her earliest story opens just when Tacitus' Histories breaks off, a few months after Vespasian became emperor. Lacking a reliable narrative of the period, Davis devises a variety of plausible conspiracies and incorporates tidbits of attested incidents. The fast pace and often irreverent tone are deceptive: accurate details make these eight novels set between summer 70 and spring 73 fun to read and excellent teaching tools. They expose readers to living conditions in Rome, from shabby insulae and brothels and bars serving sour wine and bad food to fine mansions owned by families of refined taste; POWs beginning work on the Colosseum; mines in Britain; life in the army along the Rhine frontier and the revolt of Civilis; the East from Nabataea to Palmyra; provincial administration; a range of commercial activities, some of it through Ostia spices, stolen and forged art, a threatened olive oil cartel; policing of Rome, including various murders, thefts, spying and intelligence work. Occasional allusions in one story to a predecessor are no barrier to their being read independently. The hero, M. Didius Falco, comes from a lively family whose members are in all novels. Readers become neighbors in their dingy section of the Aventine, almost overlooking the Circus Maximus. Falco's own apartment (until he moves to marginally better digs) is a sixth-floor dump at Fountain Court over a laundry. Under the stairwell is a vat of urine which serves as a hiding place in one novel and offers opportunity for thought about Roman cleaners. No debonair duplex O septem (or should that be duplex-nihil septem?), this vaguely disreputable agent on his imperial majesty's secret service has a quick wit, sharp tongue, skills in self-defence, a tendency to drink himself into massive hangovers, and a perhaps surprising faithfulness to one woman. An older brother, Didius Festus, was killed fighting in Titus' army in Judaea in the late 60s. Ostensibly a war hero, he had been filching money from the savings accounts of his legion. The mater, "Ma", several sisters, and their children pop up regularly. One story incorporates Ma's extended family, quirky Campagna farmers. "Pa", Didius Geminus, had long ago abandoned his familia; he now runs an auction business near the portico attached to Pompey's Theater, has a warehouse near the Saepta Julia and a swank apartment on the shoulder of the Aventine fronting the Tiber; he is a major character only once. There are lots of animals; an aurochs makes the biggest impression and since one is Falco's adopted dog, Nux it's appropriate that Poseidon's Gold begins a la Snoopy, "A dark and stormy night..." The senatorial Camilli, old money in their somewhat rundown mansion on the Caelian, form a social contrast to the Didii. D. Camillus Verus, the paterfamilias, is an acquaintance of Vespasian, husband of Julia Justa, and father of three grown children. The daughter Helena, a young divorcée when first encountered in Britannia where an uncle is the imperial procurator, becomes Falco's girlfriend and subsequently his wife; the progress illustrates usus marriage. Devotion to her keeps him from straying too far afield. We may legitimately doubt that in reality a low-life such as Falco could have found a spouse in a senatorial family, and indeed one brother strongly objects to it though the pater rather likes Falco and Justa reluctantly comes to accept him. One son first shows up in the fortress at Argentoratum (Strasbourg) as the senatorial tribune of Legion VIII Augusta; by the most recent novel he has acquired a socially unsuitable liking for actresses. The other son is on the lowest rung of the senatorial career, despises Falco, and shows promise of evil. Verus' brother is the black sheep in the family, but he ceases to matter after the first novel. Falco's closest friend is his buddy from their days in the Second Augustan Legion in Britain, L. Petronius Longus. "Petro", a devoted family man whose wife and children appear on occasion, is a captain for the fourth cohort of the watch, i.e. evidently a quaestionarius with the Vigiles. His beat is Regio XIII, the Aventine. The imperial family shows up from time to time, their personalities taken from Suetonius' biographies.. Falco has remarkably easy entrance to the palace and a casual attitude to both the blunt-spokenVespasian, who provides sleuthing commissions but insufficient pay, and Titus, who has dinner at Falco's flat once and casts an eye on Helena until she makes it clear that she prefers Falco. Domitian keeps company with criminal elements, usually offstage, and blocks a grant of equestrian status to Falco. Two regular nasties stand out. One is Falco's landlord Smaractus, whose bullies pound rent money out of delinquent tenants. Although the Aventine is now a most pleasant area, nonetheless as I walk past the U.S. embassy to the Vatican, the city rose garden, Santa Sabina and the HQ of the Knights of Rhodes and down the slope past Santa Prisca to the Viale Aventino I find myself expecting to turn into Platea Fontis and have a drink with Falco while we keep watch for Smaractus' toughs. The imperial "Chief Spy" Anacrites is Falco's nemesis and seeks to get him bumped off. Each novel brings a fresh crop of evildoers and several stories turn on plots to overthrow Vespasian from his newly-won throne: a constant reminder that the civil wars of the Year of the Four Emperors, 68-69, did not seem over in the early 70s. The obvious historical parallel is Octavian/Augustus in the first years after Actium. Tom Watkins, History Dept., Western Ill. Univ, Macomb, IL

- Tom Watkins, 11/25/2005

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