EYES OF AURORA by Albert Bell

Palo Alto: Perseverance Press, 2014. $15.95

In this peripatetic story, Albert Bell addresses shades of moral grey in Roman social behavior. Gaius Pliny seeks to live up to Roman expectations, but he is no plaster demigod. He is a warm, loving human being who possesses a strong moral compass. It does not always read true as he wends his way through a labyrinth of lies, madness, and sexual indiscretion.

Beginning where he ended in DEATH IN THE ASHES, Gaius Pliny honors the request of his slave, Aurora, to aid a distressed woman she discovered whilst spying for him. It is a means of reassuring Aurora of his affection for her. It is also avoidance behavior. Pliny has won his soon-to-be mother-in-law’s case, besting Regulus. Now, there is little to stop the marriage his mother has planned or to stop Regulus from threatening, if not exacting, revenge upon Pliny. This worry plagues him to the point of obsession. Ignoring these obstacles, Aurora, Pliny, and Tacitus journey to Ostia, but they do not find the woman, Crispina, or her son. When they trace Crispina to an abandoned villa, they find instead a murdered girl. She has been badly mutilated on an instrument to punish female slaves; her head, separated from her neck and the place of execution. Pliny plans to examine the girl’s body further then provide her a proper funeral. At the taverna where Pliny and Aurora began their adventure, arson destroys the body, even if the head has returned. With more questions than answers, including a mysterious device upon the taverna’s wall, into which Pliny reads the most disturbing message, they return to Rome. Here, they find Crispina and her son. When she tells them her story of her mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know husband, Pliny’s understanding of the device becomes far more plausible and frightening. To even have knowledge of a threat to the princeps can result in the destruction of a man’s familia, his entire household, including the slaves. Crispina disappears from Pliny’s house, leaving her son, Tacitus decamps for Gaul, and Pliny does not know which way to turn. Paranoid, he makes serious mistakes in judgment and in trust that draw him far from the brutal killers of the girl and leave him and those he loves vulnerable to attack. Those mistakes close doors for Pliny, who is then able to grasp the thread of truth and follow it to a bloody, if just, conclusion.

Caveat lector. The hot and heavy love affair into which Gaius Pliny enters with his slave Aurora distracts him (and the reader) from the busy murder investigation. It also provides the major flaw in the narrative. Gaius Pliny is an observant, genuinely humane narrator; he understands her feelings quite well and sees her situation with a new awareness. As a result, the second narrative perspective, that of Aurora, is rendered unnecessary. Furthermore, the disembodied nature of Aurora’s thoughts, unconnected to the main narrative via letter or journal, makes Aurora’s voice jarring in places, if not also repetitive. 

That said, there are excellent reasons not to use letters or journals. As Aurora thinks, “the simple act of putting the words on a piece of papyrus would be almost as good as sharing them with another person.” (27) Another servant in the household, where she has special privileges even before she begins her affair with Gaius Pliny, could find such documents. Revealing them within the household would be bad enough; a fast sale to the brothel is suggested. If that servant were a spy for someone else, then Aurora, and Pliny by extension, might well have invited Nemesis herself into the household. 

In a society wherein slavery was a way of life, slaves were both necessity and danger. Domitian’s widespread use of informers, like Regulus, created paranoia among the elite. Such fear gives a real edge to master-slave relations. It was as much a matter of safety as character to treat slaves well. A badly treated slave, even if later freed, would be an easy mark for enemies. Too much privilege for a slave could create jealousy and rivalries within the household that, in turn, could be exploited by enemies. The very nature of Gaius Pliny’s investigation brings him with in reach of the princeps; in this situation, Pliny’s affair with Aurora puts both of them in danger. In the legal process, slaves were tortured as a matter of course, for it was seen as the only way to reach the truth. The affair also plays directly into the hands of the killers.

That imperial danger gets turned on its head during Gaius Pliny’s encounter with Domitian. The princeps knows of Pliny’s investigation, yet chooses a punishment that threatens to destroy Pliny’s conception of himself as rational man of principle. Domitian despises what he can never be, and Pliny cannot abide the thought of being considered one of Domitian’s creatures. At this juncture, he appears not to have embraced Tacitus’s idea “there can be great men under bad emperors” (Agricola, para 42).

(Julius Agricola, Tacitus’s father-in-law, makes a brief but striking appearance in this novel. Bell follows Tacitus’s use of Agricola both as an exemplum of Roman political and social behavior and as a condemnation in comparison with Domitian.)

In THE EYES OF AURORA, Gaius Pliny is still a young man, still striving to live according to principle. Life never makes that easy, especially when the heart must have its say. Pliny’s flaws, in combination with his strong, moral core, make him a more truly human character.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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