Sunday, April 12, 2009

Arms of Nemesis

Arms of Nemesis: A Mystery of Ancient Rome
© 1992 Steven Saylor
318 pages

Two weeks ago I read Roman Blood, a mystery novel set in late-Republican Rome. It was the first in the series Roma sub Rosa, and Arms of Nemesis is the second. Both are written in the first-person from the perspective of Gordianus the Finder, the era's version of a private detective. The book begins with a rude awakening: Gordianus is summoned by gladiators to enter the service of an as-yet-unknown benefactor at five times his usual rate. Gordianus, being curious and in need of the money, agrees. Soon he finds himself on a ship headed for the "Cup" of Italy: the arch of its "boot". Along the way, Gordianus muses himself about the ill treatment of slaves, which hints at the plot.

Once arriving in the Cup, Gordianus confirms what he already suspects: he has been hired by Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome. Crassus is a mysterious and potentially dangerous man to work for: he is known as the richest man in Rome and has a private army. He is also in the middle of a power struggle with Pompey the Great, which I've read about in Rubicon and Imperium. Crassus' brother, who managed one of Crassus' many villas, has suddenly turned up missing half of his head. Two slaves are also missing, and the presumption is that the two slaves murdered their master and then ran off to join Spartacus, who is at the present time terrorizing the patricians of the Republic with his army of slaves-turned-revolutionaries. The dead man's wife doesn't buy the idea that the slaves of the house did this, and so at her bidding Crassus has agreed to allow someone to investigate the matter. That someone is Gordianus, and he soon finds out that if he does not find out who is responsible for this in five days, the remaining slaves of the villa -- 99 in all -- will be butchered as an deterrent to other patricians' slaves and to prove the manliness of Crassus.

As Gordianus develops his investigation, he begins to suspect that Crassus has no real interest in questioning the supposed guilt of the slaves, and realizes that Crassus may want to make an example out of them just to prove to the Senate that he is quite the embodiment of Roman virtue and thus perfectly fit to be given command of the army being raised to fight Spartacus. The plot further thickens when Gordianus discovers bags of swords, shields, spears, and money hidden in the port of the villa: clearly, there is something else going on here other than revolt by two slaves.

The book was very enjoyable to read, and I must say that I like it over Roman Blood. I was not expecting the plot to end the way it did, but it ended well.

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