The third series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome with which I am most familiar are those of Lindsey Davis, the investigations of fictional detective Marcus Didius Falco, who lives and snoops during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (father of succeeding Emperors Titus and Domitian, who all together constitute the Flavian Dynasty). Unlike the Roberts and Saylor novels, this series gives insight into the popular culture of the early Imperial Rome, rather than the historical events that contributed to the collapse of the Republic. Falco's escapades are also considerably more lighthearted and deliberately comedic than those of the other two fictional detectives, which may be why they are so popular.
- Period: The first in the series, The Silver Pigs, takes place in A.D. 70, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Vespasian (also the year of the razing of Jerusalem), but the central events transpire in Roman Britain. The most recent (20th) addition to the series, Nemesis (only recently released in hard cover) takes place in A. D. 77., toward the end of Vespasian's reign. The intervening novels take the protagonist to the far corners of the Roman Empire, which in this period was at its greatest expanse.
- Detective/Protagonist: Marcus Didius Falco, a plebeian with a checkered family background, is a freelance "informer" who works on commission for the emperor, reporting to the emperor's Chief Spy. Falco is also a free-wheeling scamp who is not afraid to be politically-incorrect: for instance, early in the series, he sets up housekeeping with Helena Justina, a Senator's daughter who becomes the mother of his first child. The colorful commoners in Falco's family and the more conventional and proper aristocrats in Helena's provide a good overview of the social spectrum of Roman citizenry of the period, and serve to suggest that the early Empire's pretense of preserving the social and civic mores that had given strength and resiliency to the Roman republic was just that -- pretense. Davis seems to suggest that the real vitality of Rome, at this point, lies in the huge plebeian swathe of the population, whose interests, unlike those of the stiff, old Senatorial class, are varied, earthy, and definitely not stuffy. Think of Falco as the Roman equivalent of a modern East-Ender and Helena as the equivalent of the younger generation of the British aristocracy, who want to break out of the quaint anachronism of the social class into which they've been born.
- What I Like: First, these stories are just plain laugh-out-loud funny. You just can't not like that scamp, Falco, and you can't help but sympathize with the women (well-bred girlfriend Helena Justina and his common but practical mother) who try to rein him in and keep him on the straight and narrow. To my mind, Davis does a better job than Saylor of showing the contrasting values and habits of the common and the aristocratic classes. Another attractive feature of these novels is the wide range of locales covered, with at least as much time spent in the provinces as in Rome itself.
- What I Don't Like: As with Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder stories, my chief quibble is the projection of modern social mores and political attitudes onto citizens of ancient Rome. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a woman like Helena Justina would choose (or be allowed) to take up the role of common-law wife to a low-life like Falco (if he were a member of the Roman nouveau riche, this might be a bit more plausible). Davis admits on her official website that she wanted to create characters and situations that suited her own feminist sensibilities. However, I am more inclined to make allowances for the charming and irrepressible Falco than I am for the dully self-righteous Gordianus. I frankly admit my personal bias in this matter, but would defend it by pointing out that, in the case of Saylor, modern sensibilities may distort our understanding of important historical events, whereas in Davis's novels they simply provide for a lively cast of characters, none of whom is closely involved with events of historical moment.
There are many other novels, or even novel series, that use Republican or Imperial Rome as their background, but these three series are the ones I know best. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, both as mystery novels and as windows into ancient culture. I'll summarize my assessments of the three:
- John Maddox Roberts' SPQR mysteries: Best overall, because it ably balances historic and cultural accuracy with entertainment. Although not as much of a scamp as Davis's Falco, Decius Caecilius Metellus manages to give us an insider's view of the ruling class without being stuffily pious about it; he has plenty of youthful adventures, including a long and spirited rivalry with Clodius Pulcher and an on-going friendship with ex-galley slave Milo, who becomes a gang leader in the Roman underworld and chief (eventually deadly) rival of Clodius.
- Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mysteries: Gives an interesting contrasting view of many of the same events covered in the SPQR novels. While I believe Gordianus's viewpoint reflects that of some modern historical revisionists more than it does one typical of any Roman of Gordianus's day, these novels are well-crafted mysteries that can provide many hours of satisfying entertainment. They also, if read in tandem with Robert's SPQR stories, can provide a glimpse of the spectrum of modern evaluations of important milestones in Roman history.
- Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco mysteries: Probably the most lighthearted of the three, the Falco novels give a glimpse of ancient popular culture that pleasingly complements the more seriously historical focus of the other two series. These novels, set a couple of generations later than the other series, show how the concerns of the Empire differed from those of the waning Republic.
If you have read any of these novels and would like to throw in your own two cents, please do so using the Comments function. Or if you are familiar with other novels that take place in this general period, please leave a comment and say why you would or would not recommend them.