A historical fiction writer considers the Roman Empire’s lasting appeal ‘CrimeReads


Why is ancient Rome such a good setting good for historical mysteries? When I tackle it by future budding writers, I always recommend, perhaps viciously, that they should choose an original background that no one has used otherwise so far; that was what I did in my innocence. When I want to be really evil to wannabes, I suggest, ‘Consider the Hittites’.

So why not them? I think because most of us do not feel confident that we know where, when or how these Hittites lived, how they looked or why they were significant. How did they behave? Weren’t they warlike? (It would not bode well for ‘cozy’.) If you like the books, can you go on holiday there? Yes, you can, but seeing the Hittites and sights is perhaps not at the top of many lists.

In my experience, readers want an attractive place where they know a little so they feel safe, yet they want to offer more about it. This immediately gives the Romans a head start: even though they flourished 2000 years ago, we know about these people and their world, firstly because they left us written texts in a language we can decipher, texts discussing their history, social aspirations and behavior good and bad. Bad is good for mysteries! For them, Rome was Topby, and they intended for people to know that in the future. You have to apply filters because their surviving works are produced by elite male writers, often with bias. Stories, etc. Are generally intended to speak of the one who was beaten in the battles, imperial family sagas, or trials under discussion. Love poets are rarely reliable, though Ovid is amazed at practical ways to attract new lovers and even warns that the wrong hair color can cause a girl’s hair to fall out. Satirists, my favorite, tell outrageously naughty lies, but they’re just trying to serve a crust, which I obviously am. It makes them a colorful read that does not help any end. I’m not joking there, because I strongly believe that if a writer is having fun with their research, it will come through to engage and entertain readers. It has always been that way, but never more so than during the pandemic.

For Rome, we also have an archaeological heritage that really counts. To my readers in Britain and Europe, the Romans were ‘ours’ – a formative part of domestic history. The better it is in Britain, because under Queen Boudicca we were very close to kicking them out so we can keep our heads up and mumble ‘it’s not the winner, it’s taking part’ – after which we study Roman Britain as if it was just another phase of the Bronze Age and had nothing to do with invading colonialists.

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The biggest archaeological bonus is, unlike everything from other periods, that Vesuvius in AD / CE79 unexpectedly exploded. In the Gulf of Naples we have a unique time capsule in daily life, right down to what happened to be cooking on stoves. We can imagine what it was like to live there at all levels of society. In Roman mysteries, events can always occur in the famous monuments with their sparkling white pillars, but Naples is an even better resource when placing witnesses and suspects who, after all, want to spend most of their time in houses, at baths or in shops or bars. Bars were everywhere because only the rich had their own kitchens. Wonderful we know how these fast food places worked, what they sold, even how much it cost: “wine one as (small shift), best wine two or Falernian four ”. Sleeping with the waitress or buying hay for your mule would be. We know all this from a written bill – and bills are the kind of evidence detectives can find.

Rome had a codified legal system from the earliest times, which is good. As always, lawyers did well. If our detective solves a crime involving the particular murderer, it will be 250 denarii for a lawyer opening a case and 1,000 denarii for filing it – at a time when a sewer cleaner earned 25 denarii a day. I have never found details of what an informant or private detective might charge, but you can calculate it from the booklet prices – which for glum ‘tec means the price of enough wine to forget the eloquent misery of his or her investigative life. A detective who does not moan about this misery is not worth writing or reading about.

For historical mysteries, we need crimes. What is the earliest anecdote about ancient Rome? Romulus murdered his twin brother. A ‘domestic’. Quickly followed, let’s not forget, the rape of the Sabine women. Romulus actually populated its new city by making it a refuge for refugees and criminals – giving it a lively character from off. Textbooks suggest that Roman society was densely structured; you were a citizen or a slave, and if a citizen, you were a patrician, a plebiscite, or the curiosity between where better jobs and most trade took place. Textbooks sometimes do not emphasize that it may have been perfect with energy and talent to move between these social strata; an extreme example is Narcissus under Emperor Claudius, who was born a slave but rose to lead the empire and become astonishingly rich. It seems that Narcissus became so rich in receiving bribes. More good news for crimewriters: where people can upgrade legitimately, there are probably others who use illegal methods. And if you accept that human nature never changes, there will always be material, because there will always be greed and jealousy, political, personal, economic and sexual.

It reveals that they had a special court for murder cases. This had evolved during a period when gangsters and hooligans ruled the streets; from dealing with thugs carrying knives, it also specialized in poisonings. Rome had a nervous view of any kind of substance allied with its abhorrence of magic. Having the horoscope of others involved an eerie interest in when and how they could die … Most murders are, of course, family matters, and the Romans were eager for family.

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While there was a fine for unintentional killing, “equipped”, ie. to carry a dangerous weapon, implied thoughtfulness and intent. There would be urgency to avoid detection because intentional murder resulted in the death sentence. At one end of society, this may be the slow path as a slave in the mines or the faster path towards wild animals in the arena; at a more elite level, the criminal could be allowed to commit suicide, the ‘honorable’ exit or otherwise have ‘time to travel’. It meant seizing as much money as possible and then running into exile because for a Roman to be forced to live outside the empire was considered horrible as death itself. If you had enough money, you could probably handle it; it would only be like fleeing today to a place that has no extradition treaty with your own country.

So the most important question we have left is, did they have private eyes? Of course they did, the excellent Romans knew what society needed! The basics delator must have evolved from a court hack that delivers subpoenas to something more like an ambulance fighter: to work for lawyers who specialize in personal attacks with financial gain or eventually even prosecution of victims. Bad emperors used them and took a huge cut of the proceeds, good ones claimed they did not. This meant that ‘informants’ became despised creatures, which is good news for writing mysteries because they can be considered by us as classic rubber shoes with heels. They struggle to find answers in their work, they struggle financially, even when they find cases to investigate. They are outside the law and order framework, so they have to find ways to work with the official ‘police’ ( guard and other, generally raw, paramilitary forces). Personally, I have always loved that interplay.

I hope I have said enough to show why Rome works so well. Best of all, in my opinion, this great ancient city was not only full of warring highways, but also evil alleys and the network of unlit, messy, ordinary roads where all sorts of colorful figures perambulated. Average streets where my hero (Falco) or heroine (Flavia Albia) should go. They must, because Rome was a city that prided itself on ideals, so it must have produced what the mystery writer needs: investigators with idealism, perseverance, and guts who were in Chandler’s immortal words do not mean themselves and neither stained nor scared .

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