Joyce Lagow's Reviews > SPQR III: The Sacrilege

SPQR III by John Maddox Roberts
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's review
Apr 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, kindle-edition
Read from April 24 to 26, 2012

Roman religion was an interesting mixture of ancient and new deities whose rites were a function of the state. There were some exceptions, and one was the rite of the Bona Dea, the Good Goddess, which was the worship of an ancient female earth deity that predated the advent of the ruling sky gods. This was strictly a women's rite; men were absolutely forbidden to view the rites, and any violation was seen not just as an ordinary sacrilege but one that put the very existence of the Roman people themselves at stake, since such sacrilege could result in the loss of fertility of all Roman women.

Publius Clodius Pulcher was the scion of an ancient patrician Roman family, who had too much intelligence coupled with too much ambition and too little to do. A deadly combination, Clodius was a constant troublemaker, whose antics often descended into the dangerous. One such was the profanation of the Bona Dea rites in 62 B.C.E.; held at the home of Julius Caesar who was then the Pontifex Maximus--the supreme high priest of the state-sanctioned Roman religion and the title now of the Roman Catholic pope; Clodius, with the aid of his sister Clodia and Pompeia, Caesar's wife, sneaked into the rites dressed as a woman. He was discovered, and the resulting scandal rocked Rome.

Naturally, our hero Decius becomes involved, for Roberts uses the basic historical event to postulate something much deeper with political implications in order to give his protagonist some sleuthing to do. And that's a problem, because the resolution strains credulity. But getting there is the usual Decius mix: political observations, too much to drink, hair-raising escapes, and encounters with the historically famous. The Caecilii Metellii were an important family, and many of Decius' relatives played important roles in this period: Metellus Celer, an old-fashioned aristocratic politician; Metellus Creticus, a powerful soldier-statesman and others. Roberts has other famous people in Decius' circle, such as Milo of Ostia. And Decius finally gets a steady girlfriend, Julia Minor, Julius Caesar's niece.

For those who have read Lindsay Davis' wonderful Marcus Didius Falco series, which takes place about 100 years later, teh look of this series now becomes familiar. The hero may be an aristocrat unlike Falco, but there's the same private detective context and now he has Caesar's niece no less to aid him much as Helen, the Senator's daughter, aids Falco.

What's interesting in this series is the take Roberts gives Decius on these famous men whom Decius knows more or less well. his view of Caesar changes as the books go on, but his personal enmity with Clodius allows us to see the truly seamy side of Roman politics.

Except for the over-the-top resolution, which anyone who has read Colleen McCullough's series Masters of Rome will see as not really credible, the book is well written and very entertaining--which is the point, after all.

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