Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

SPQR series, by John Maddox Roberts

After Claudius, there doesn't seem to be an obvious next step in my chronological odyssey through the currently available Roman Empire novels. So I opted for an easy and enjoyable side trip into historical mysteries. The SPQR series, by John Maddox Roberts, follow the exploits of fictional but plausible Roman Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger.

There are thirteen books in the series so far, placed in the years 70-45 BC, roughly coinciding with the career of Julius Caesar. Roberts' protagonist, as a fictional member of a prominent family during this period, is well-placed to be privy to many of the most famous happenings of those well-chronicled years. His marriage to a fictional niece of Caesar himself adds even to his insider status.

Having previously read SPQR I-III (Roman numerals, of course), I picked up the series again at number IV, The Temple of the Muses, set in 60 BC; and proceeded in order to number XIII, The Year of Confusion (45-44 BC). The confusion alluded to came about because of dictator Caesar's calendar reforms.

Decius has risen in the Roman world along with Caesar, and by 45 BC is a veteran senator who has followed the cursus honorem as far as praetor. Books XI and XII are set during his year as praetor peregrinus - a sort of circuit judge who dealt with legal matters involving citizens' dealings with foreigners. Book XIV will be titled Dolabella, and will presumably bring in one of the consuls of 44 BC, Publius Cornelius Dolabella.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Roberts gets into a lot of the less-well-explored nooks and crannies of the Roman world, which inspires the reader (this one, anyway) to look for more.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. These short novels are a little light on the history, compared to Graves or McCullough, but there's plenty in there. Roberts is especially clever at working in a wealth of details about everyday life in ancient Rome.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. All Roman historical fiction draws on the same finite set of contemporary writings, so it's not too hard to distinguish the Tacitus stories from the Suetonius anecdotes. Roberts has studied the historical sources, and does a good job of fitting his fictional embellishments into the known events.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, with qualifications. In particular, some of Roberts' physical and personality descriptions contrast sharply with other novelists. That just shows, however, that not much is really known about many of these characters - ones whose faces never appeared on coins or in frescos.  
Score = 4
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I look forward to Dolabella.
Score = 5

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