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Review: The SPQR Series by John Maddox Roberts

2017 August 30
by Ian Welsh

Amidst all the non-fiction, I thought it would be nice to review some fiction.

This is a series of detective novels set in the late Republic. It starts just before the Cataline conspiracy and runs, as of now, until somewhat after Caesar’s assassination.

The detective is Decius Caecillius Metellus, who starts out as a young man whose family is a powerful force in the Senate.

I’ve loved this series since the 90s, when I stumbled across it. Decius feels Roman, while still being sympathetic to moderns. He loves gladiatorial games and chariot races–he’s very relaxed about violence, but he lacks cruelty and is pushed forward by a sense of obligation to his fellow Romans without spite to non-Romans.

And he’s funny. The stories of SPQR are lovely mysteries, not the greatest, but what really makes the series shine is Decius’s first person narrative and its absolute lack of reverence to the subjects.

Because Decius is of the Plebian nobility, and from an important family, he can call on all the major figures anyone familiar with the period knows: Caesar and Cato and Crassus and Pomey and Milo and many many more. Decius sees these people as his social equals, without the gloss of history. Caesar in the years before his rise to power is described as someone who is known mainly for his debts, the marvel of all Rome, and for almost certainly having been buggered by the King of Bythnia.

Cato is treated as an honorable boor, cruel besides, who is the butt of jokes. Cicero is treated with more respect, but his weaknesses are clearly outlined.

And Deciu’s best friend is Milo, one of the gang leaders fighting for control of Rome, and protected by Cicero.

I’ve never read a series of books that makes a time and place come quite as alive as SPQR does, and SPQR moreover is fun, and often irreverent, without glossing on the cruelties of Rome, but without dwelling.

To Decius this is how things are, and he may disapprove of some of it, but he accepts it as we accept our world. He lives in it, and he takes us with him, and he’s no prude: He wades in, enjoying the food, the fleshpots, and the violence with an honest glee that allows us to see the world with him.

For years, I used to carry two or three of these novels with me whenever I traveled, and I’ve read the first half dozen of them over 15 times each.

For some reason, they’re quite popular in Germany. They’re not so popular in the US, but you may find in them something you enjoy as much as I do.

I hope so.

(The earlier ones are generally better, and while you don’t have to read the series in order, I think it is best enjoyed thus.)


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16 Responses
  1. zotter permalink
    August 30, 2017

    Never heard of the series, I’ll have to check it out. I’ll a sucker for anything (book or movie) that is a good period piece without coming off as dry or pandering. What is the first book in the series?

    Thanks!

  2. zotter permalink
    August 30, 2017

    Ugh … “I’m a sucker”…

  3. Ian Welsh permalink*
    August 30, 2017

    The King’s Gambit is the first. I think, like a lot of series, it really gets going with the Cataline Conspiracy (book 2), but I’d still read #1 first.

  4. Synoia permalink
    August 30, 2017

    ” without glossing on the cruelties of Rome”

    Are the any “not cruel” empires? The concept of “empires” seems to requires an absence of egalitarianism, to supply the imperial ambition and drive.

    A grasping, greedy and exclusive running class, a professional middle class, and a lower class as cheap labor.

  5. nihil obstet permalink
    August 30, 2017

    I love this series. Decius combines total belief in Roman values with realism and interest in having fun. The mystery plots get weaker as the series goes on. It’s clear that Decius is writing these stories as an old man looking back, and he’s getting more distressed with the route that Rome has taken. Remember, the series starts in the Republic, and Decius clearly prefers the Republic to what followed.

    The other good series set in the same time period is Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. The detective is Gordianus the Finder (i.e. PI). The first book reconstructs the murder case that made Cicero famous. Cicero hires Gordianus to find the facts of the murder, and the book culminates in Cicero’s performance as counsel. Obviously, the same historical figures as appear in the SPQR series appear here. Saylor is scrupulous about the history, both of the events and of the background (he wrote once about his determining when cherries made it to Rome). The interest in the series really is the history, and it’s not as funny or lightly entertaining as SPQR.

    Lindsey Davis writes a series set during the reign of Vespasian and later his sons. It’s good, entertaining reading, but doesn’t give the same feel of Roman culture that Roberts and Saylor do, despite being reasonably good on the history, beliefs, and customs.

  6. Richard permalink
    August 30, 2017

    Decius would be a patrician. Not plebe.

  7. Ian Welsh permalink*
    August 30, 2017

    No, he’s not patrician. There were plebeian families that had consuls in their past, and were considered noble, but not patrician.

    I didn’t enjoy the Gordianus series as much. I think part of it is the tone, but I also strongly think that Decius’s social rank makes interacting with the people we all know about so much easier and natural feeling.

  8. Hugh permalink
    August 30, 2017

    I agree with Ian and nihil obstet. The Lindsey Davis series stars Falco and has a more modern atmosphere though solidly set in Classical times. He also manages to travel around much of the Roman Empire.

    Another historical detective series I liked involved Lauren Haney’s Lieutenant Bak and was set in ancient Egypt in the time of Hatshepsut. Great reading on a cold winter day.

    There were also the Ellis Peter’s Cadfael novels set in 12th century England which were later turned into a British TV series and showed up on PBS.

    I also liked Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries set in 7th century Tang dynasty China. I prefer the French translations which read more smoothly than van Gulik’s English originals. I always thought it was funny that I liked the French translations of novels written in English by a Dutchman about an ancient Chinese detective. Go figure.

    Note: the Caecilii Metelli were plebeian and noble. To be patrician you had to be born patrician.

  9. Ian Welsh permalink*
    August 31, 2017

    Yes, I LOVED the Judge Dee novels.

    Maybe I’ll do a fiction omnibus review of books/series I’ve loved.

    Will try out the Bak series. Love Ancient Egypt, but hard to write well.

  10. August 31, 2017

    Most enjoyable lecture by Michael Parenti I’ve ever heard is the one on the assassination of Julius Caesar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IO_Ldn2H4o . In many ways, Caesar was quite the progressive.

  11. August 31, 2017

    The late Empire is hard to write as well.

  12. Olivier permalink
    August 31, 2017

    H. Rider Haggard penned a couple of novels set in ancient Egypt: Morning Star and Moon of Israel. The first is an absolute corker!

  13. August 31, 2017

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._Rider_Haggard

    More people should know about him.

  14. nihil obstet permalink
    August 31, 2017

    The Egyptian mystery series I like is the Lord Meren series by Lynda S. Robinson. Meren is the “Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh” for the boy king Tutankhamun, a broad job which is closest today to “chief of security”, and therefore includes dealing with murders that may have political effects. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn ancient Egyptian religion, which it takes very seriously. The last couple of books in the series seemed less complete than the earlier novels; Robinson works within the best knowledge of the history of the time, and seemed to be driving towards a story where Tutankhamun is murdered. However, a forensic investigation of Tut’s body using up-to-date equipment and techniques confirmed that he almost certainly died of infection following an accident, so I think that left the overarching story with nowhere to go and killed the series. If you just read one book, my favorite is Eater of Souls, which shows how the Egyptians logically investigate the possibility of the gods’ interference in men’s society.

  15. EmilianoZ permalink
    August 31, 2017

    Are the series cited in this thread (SPQR, Lieutenant Bak, Jugde Dee) historically accurate? Would it be a good way to learn about the history in an entertaining manner, like eating something tasty but also nutritious?

  16. Ian Welsh permalink*
    August 31, 2017

    SPQR is accurate, but only if you understand the limits. Maddox characterizes various people in ways that the record can’t support (it also doesn’t deny his characterization) as best I understand. Also Maddox leaves out stuff, he tends to assume you know a bit about the period (it’s certainly the best known Roman period.)

    The Dee novels… not as much… for example Gulik deliberately (he knows it isn’t the case) draws pictures with queues. But they are fun, and not, overall, inaccurate, so far as I can tell. They do not concern historical figures other than Dee, mostly (they are set before he rises to fame as a historical figure.)

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