It's surprising that the past ten years have seen the rise of not just one but two successful murder mystery series based in ancient Rome. Lindsey Davis published the first in her series, The Silver Pigs, in 1989. In the States, Stephen Saylor published the first in his series, Roman Blood, in 1991. Each has a more than passable mystery, above average historical research and each has a particular idiosyncratic slant.
Davis has allowed herself to be influenced by Raymond Chandler's 1940s Los Angeles. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, her hero M. Didius Falco walks around the first century AD with ironic and ascerbic voice-overs about the city and its people, especially, in the first book, its women. And this is more than a mere veneer, for her hero is also like Philip Marlowe in a deeper way: he may sound cynical and act in unconventional ways, but underneath, he's got an unbreakable code of ethics and honour. The adventure of The Silver Pigs takes our hero all the way to the outskirts of the Empire, to the troublesome island of Britain. Later adventures take place in Rome herself or other provinces. Falco's Rome is very much the Rome that the Apostle Paul would have known, his upstairs apartment almost certain to be similar to the lodgings in which Paul found himself at the end of Acts. In the novels to date however, Falco has not met any New Testament character, although he has run across a small group of Christian 'fanatics' while working undercover in Syria.
The Falco books are entertainingly light and yet historically rich. You can let that wash over you while enjoying the mystery and wisecracks or you can drink it in. Once you get past the initial dissonant clash of cultures, the books are enjoyable, and you'll come away with a feeling for the reality of Rome through all the fiction.
Although Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder also has relatively 20th century characteristics, the books in which he appears are more serious in tone. This 'feels' better at first, but Davis's tongue-in-cheek approach makes clear her awareness that the whole business is anachronistic play, whereas one begins to wonder if Saylor might not be taking his reconstruction too seriously. This series, which Saylor calls 'Roma sub Rosa' or 'Rome in secret', takes place earlier in history than Falco's Rome, but is still very firmly rooted in historical research. If anything this is more pronounced than Davis. In the first novel, Roman Blood, the plot follows a famous case of the real historical lawyer Cicero, who himself is a character in the novel.
Other than the 'modern' ideas and attitudes of the main characters, students of New Testament studies or classics will find little to quarrel with in either of the books, and everyone will find their appreciation of Rome and the Roman world grow.
Conrad Gempf, January 1999
Dr Conrad Gempf teaches New Testament at London School of Theology. He is the author of Jesus Asked (Zondervan, 2003), Mealtime Habits of the Messiah (Zondervan, 2005) and Christian Life & The Bible (LST, 2006). He writes extensively for various books, journals, magazines and websites; here's his blog: Not Quite Art; Not Quite Living.
Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.