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Lindsey Davis

Time to Depart, A
Mysterious Press, 1997
Barnes & Noble


An objection sometimes made to the historical novels of Davis and other contemporary writers of the same sort of private eye fiction is that the characters sound too modern, too Raymond Chandler, too New York or London, that the quips and the relationships are appropriate for 20th century gumshoes, cops or hoodlums, but not for their ancient counterparts, even supposing they had ancient counterparts. There is probably some truth in this, but not enough to hinder the enjoyment of any reader who reads Davis for pure pleasure, and probably it should not even hinder the enjoyment of the reader who is looking for historical verisimilitude if we make the occasional allowance for a different view of or approach to antiquity. A Time to Depart is a good example of this. The main plot revolves around a kingpin crime boss, Balbinus Pius, who controls a large part of the prostitution, theft, & strong-arm stuff in Rome of 72 AD, the reign of Vespasian. Of course, the narrator and main investigator is Marcus Didius Falco, his 7th outing in the series, who sounds very much like Spade, Marlowe or Archer, except that he has a more fulfilling love life (with the senator’s daughter, Helena Justina) and a more omnipresent family of watchful mother, scoundrel father, numerous sisters (& brothers-in-law, hardly any of them worthwhile ) and a small army of nephews & nieces. He also has a long-time friend, Lucius Petronius Longus, the policeman in the story. Falco is a private informer. We know informers existed & were generally detested, but that’s because they lied or sold out friends to earn a share of the state’s take from the victims. We also know there were spies employed by the government (lots under Vespasian’s predecessor, Nero -- & Galba, Otho & Vitellius were in office too short a time to count) with military rank. Falco does not fit into the general view of such people because he’s a good guy, does an honest job and only troubles those doing what they shouldn’t be doing - & that’s generally murder. He undertakes commissions from the emperor, but, to a large degree, only on his own terms, so he’s not a government lackey. Did such a person - or even such a profession - exist in ancient Rome? We have no evidence for one. Could one have existed? No reason why not. The reader of Davis’ novels realizes that Falco is essentially sui generis & thus is not misled into assuming this is standard for ancient Rome. More troubling may be Falco’s long running relationship (marriage in all but name & ceremony) with a woman 2 classes above him. In the context of the series, if Falco could make it up to the rank of the equites, he could marry Helena, a senator’s daughter, though such alliances would have been approved normally only if the eques was rich. But Davis makes clear that this is an unusual arrangement and that many people are surprised and/or opposed. Could such relationships have existed? Sure. Would they have turned into marriages? Well, that’s less likely, but Helena & her father are both shown to be unusual -- & Falco & Helena are not married yet (though there is a further development in their relationship that weaves through the story but is not crucial to the murder mystery, the crimes or their solutions.) What about the criminals? Were there master criminals in ancient Rome who controlled so much of the street crime and raked in the money, stashing it in hidden accounts? No reason why not. We read in the sources a lot about crimes but not about anyone organizing them. But all we have to do is look at Clodius & Milo back in Cicero’s day (or Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series) to know that there were men who controlled large numbers of thugs, though we see them only when they are being used for political purposes, such as beating up opposition voters or politicians. Did comparable men operate under the emperors? Probably not, or not openly, because the emperors might well fear the use of such gangs against them. But the emperors might not be as concerned about gangs who clearly stuck to honest robbery & murder for hire but didn’t interfere with the emperor, the bureaucracy or the army. Which brings us to the police, the most interesting part, from a historical standpoint, of this novel. L. Petronius (or Petro), Falco’s best friend, who had served with him in the ill-fated 9th Legion in Britain at the time of Boudicca’s revolt, is an officer (presumably a centurion) in the vigiles. Davis describes directly or indirectly at various places in the book the 3 main peacekeeping forces in Vespasian’s Rome (apart from lictors who attended specific magistrates): the praetorians, the urban cohorts and the vigiles. Everyone knows what the Praetorians did - guard the emperor or carry out any of his commissions (as we saw as far back as Silver Pigs). They were at the top of the military career ladder - better paid, cushier service, earlier retirement than any other soldiers. Note that the legions don’t figure into this picture, because they don’t enter the city of Rome, except in triumphs & revolts. Well-regarded officers (tribunes & centurions alike) move through the legions, the vigiles, the urban cohorts and the praetorians in the course of their careers, if they are talented or liked. Davis says very little about the urban cohorts (the urbaniciani), because they are not important to the story, but they are Rome’s city police in military organization, drawn from the same sources as the legions & the praetorians (though they tended to be more Italian than provincial). The vigiles, composed - at least among the ranks - of freedmen (i.e., former slaves), were Rome’s fire department, organized as a sort of paramilitary force. Since their fire duties kept them about at night, they became also the night police of Rome. All of this is standard, and Davis helps us see these distinctions. She is very precise in explaining that there were 7 thousand-man cohorts of vigiles to serve the 14 regions of Rome, 2 regions for each cohort (see the good map at the beginning). Where she may go beyond the evidence, though not necessarily beyond logical conjecture, is to have the vigiles operate also as a daytime police beyond their checking up on compliance with the fire codes about open fires in the apartments and inspecting to make sure that all buildings had the required fire-fighting equipment of water, buckets, etc. Specifically, she has Petro heading the inquiry squad for the 4th cohort in II Legio (Augusta), a squad that has as its main job the detection of crime and the apprehension of criminals, including the gang-boss Balbinus, who is charged with murder and is being given the customary “time to depart”, the opportunity to leave Rome (for distant exile) before the capital sentence against him would be carried out. I don’t know that there is evidence to support such an operation for the vigiles, though the absence of evidence would not be crucial; there may have been such squads for each cohort of the vigiles. And the fact that collusion on the part of some of the vigiles with the gangsters sounds modern, as do many other aspects of the story, does not make the plot or setting automatically suspect. The cast of characters is colorful, from the madam who runs Plato’s Academy (a brothel), to Lenia, the recurring character who runs the laundry on the first floor of Falco’s flat, to Falco’s landlord & about-to-be husband of Lenia, Smaractus, right on up to the emperor Vespasian & his son, Titus. Falco’s family, as always, plays an important part in the background events, as do Helena Justina’s. The plot is pretty simple: no sooner is Balbinus seen off in a ship, bound for distant places, than a series of bold and lucrative robberies starts and some people connected with Balbinus’ conviction for murder turn up brutally murdered. Who is behind this new crime wave? How does Plato’s Academy figure into it? And what about the rash of kidnappings of young children for ransom? Falco has to fight criminals & crooked cops (sorry, vigiles) as well as deal with some changes in his domestic scene, but all comes out well by the end. This is a good read, a good mystery (though readers may be ahead of Falco on this), and a good presentation of the realia of Roman life and the relationships of different classes. Does it modernize too much the thought patterns of the main characters? Is Helena Justina too much of a modern liberated woman? I don’t know, but these things don’t bother me, since I’m willing to believe that individuals at any place & time may approximate the attitudes of individuals in another place & time, as long as these individuals are not required to represent how every member of those societies acts and thinks, & assuming there are no obvious anachronisms. If teachers want to use a Davis novel in class, they should identify whatever details of Roman life or Roman thought they feel are misrepresented and have students read other sources that correct what is perceived as incorrect or untypical. This might even be a good spring-board for discussion. Lindsey Davis gives the impression of having fun in writing the Falco novels (just look at the way she handles her “Principal Characters” page at the beginning of each in the series); readers should be able to share this. Fred Mench 8/98

- Fred Mench, 8/1/1998

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