McKinleyville: Perserverance Press, 2018. $15.95 in trade paper back

It was a genuine pleasure to be in the capable hands of a master storyteller—and a master historian. His engaging, thoughtful Roman Stoic, Gaius Plinius Secundus returns with all his charm and detective skills in this seventh outing. He is joined again by his usual connexions—the cynical Cornelius Tacitus, the sharp-eyed Aurora, his mother Plinia and her Jewish servant Naomi. A warning to new readers—start at the beginning of the series. Here, Bell drops his readers directly into both the action and the complex relationships without much explanation.

Terrible storms and flooding along the Tiber bring Gaius Pliny financial disaster, dead bodies, and the attentions of his perpetual enemy, Regulus. The warehouse in which he has invested, for himself and his mother-in-law, has collapsed without turning a denarius of profit. As the Romans do not have flood insurance, Pliny must make up the losses. If that were not depressing enough, he is confronted by several dead bodies; the unfortunates are assumed to have taken shelter in the unlocked, empty warehouse and died in its collapse. There are just two problems—one of the dead was murdered in an unusual manner and not all of the dead are, indeed, dead.

The murdered man was not killed at the warehouse, but was killed in a way that suggests the victim was Jewish. Pliny, Tacitus, and Aurora rescue a woman and a baby alive from the flood. The baby is unquestionably Jewish, for he his circumcised. Are the baby and the barely alive woman connected with the dead man? Who were the other people? Family seems the most likely answer. Pliny has the body and the survivors conveyed to his house with the help of Regulus, whose warehouse is next door to Pliny’s. To further bring Pliny into his debt, Regulus provides a wet-nurse to Pliny for the baby, to whom Aurora becomes deeply attached. 

Relations become tense after Flavius Josephus, author of THE JEWISH WAR, identifies the dead man as Julius Berenicanius, Naomi’s rabbi confirms the man attended his synagogue, and Aurora catches the midwife trying to abscond with the baby. A man with a knife awaits the midwife, but he has to make a hasty attack then retreat when Aurora stops the midwife’s flight. Altho’ the midwife is sent back to Regulus, replaced with a Jewish one provided through the offices of Naomi, Pliny keeps his word to attend the funeral of Licinius, a cousin of Reguus’s wife Sempronia with his clients. This adds another question—who killed Licinius? And why his is daughter missing? When Sempronia’s good friend, Julia Berenice—yes, that Berenice, who was the late Titus’ mistress and dismissed because of Roman hostility to her—appears, the connexions become more pressing and the questions more dangerous. They become deadly when the saved woman turns out to be Licinius’ estranged daughter. Why is she in league with a Jewish Zealot and master assassin?

Within the framework of an exciting mystery story, Bell engages in an exploration of power relationships within the Roman world, particularly those of master and slave. Roman slavery, as I have written before, is not Atlantic black chattel slavery. The cultural and social rules governing the authority of the paterfamilias over the familia were stronger than anything in the Atlantic world. A bad, brutal master, however, was still a perfect horror. Regulus’ deliberate deafening of his Nubian slaves is one such example. Gaius Pliny always has an internal debate going about the place of slaves and what and how much authority he can exert. His own household demonstrates that within slavery there can still be power and agency—both Aurora and Naomi have personal influence far beyond their official status.

This potency becomes particularly complicated when the strands of the Jewish Diaspora are woven into the story. The Jewish War (AD 66-73) helped bring the Flavian dynasty to power. For the Jews, the war resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple, the beginning of rabbinical Judaism, and the death and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews. The destruction and looting of the Temple was commemorated during Titus’ triumph and upon the Arch of Titus. Gaius Piny was only nine at the time of the triumph. “‘Remember,’ Naomi said (to Gaius), ‘you only watched the parade. My son (Phineas) and I walked in it, in chains. We were forced to carry silver bowls, heavy silver bowls.’ My mother put an arm around Naomi’s shoulder as servant and friend began to cry. (188). Although making slaves out of their war captives was a traditional Roman way to obtain salves, and Naomi and Phineas are two such Jewish slaves, not all Jews became slaves. 

Flavius Josephus, né Yosef ben Matityahu, is an example—one of the priestly caste, he took up arms against the Romans, but ended by surrendering before defecting altogether to the Roman side. For Jews such as Naomi, Phineas, and Malachi the Rabbi, Josephus is anathema:  “Do not call that dog a Jew, noble sir. He lost claim to be one of us when he betrays us in war” (60). Even as Josephus is excoriated, Berenice, a member of the Herodian royal family, appears once the murdered man is identified. She does not have the reputation of a pious Jew. She excites suspicion and antipathy in equal measure from both Jew and Roman, making her something of a symbol of Jewish-Roman relations and a tragedy, in the Classical sense, in the offing.

At one level, this novel is an entertaining mystery with all the misdirection, intriguing characters, and bracing plot for which a reader could wish. At a deeper level, it is a meditation on the nature of power—of conquerors over the conquered, of owners over slaves, of men over women, of parents over children. The intertwined threads of the story create an easy-to-swallow, bitter pill.  The novel should leave a careful reader still thinking about the nature of the Roman Empire and its society long after the covers are closed.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst