review of

the Mike Ashley edited

"The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunits"


2208. "review of the Mike Ashley edited "The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunits""

- full review

- credited to: tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE

- published on my "Critic" website January 17, 2024


review of

the Mike Ashley edited

"The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunits"


- December 30, 2023

The 1st Roman historical bk I can remember reading was "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus" in a Harvard Classics edition that included Plato & Epictetus. I read that when I was confined as a research volunteer in a study 50 yrs ago. I remember finding it interesting.

After that I read Petronius's "Satyricon", no doubt inspired by witnessing Fellini's great movie based on it. Petronius had been sentenced to death by suicide & he would slit his wrists, not die, recuperate, write some more & slit his wrists again - folloiwng this pattern until he eventually died. That was amazing.

Finally, I read Suetonius's "Twelve Caesars". That, too, was excellent & quite an eye opener in its examination of the decadence of some of the Caesars.

Despite my finding all 3 of those bks completely engrossing, I've never become a Roman history buff. I reckon I prefer to concentrate on the more recent past, the present, & the near-future. Nonetheless, when I saw this "Roman Whodunits" I immediately figured it wd be a fun read - & it was! I really enjoyed it. The opening 2 paragraphs of Steven Saylor's Introduction are as follows:

"Towards the end of the last century (circa 1987), I took my first trip to Rome, and like many a traveller I was overwhelmed by the sensation of making visceral conact with the past. In no other city do so many layers of history coexist so palpably within such a small space. In a matter of hours one can follow Caesar's footsteps through the Forum, take a short rail excursion to the excavated ruins of Ostia, view the art of Michelangelo abd contemplate Papal intriques at the Vatican, gawk at the Fascist architecture at Mussolini's EUR, and even take a tour of the film studios at Cinecittá with their echoes of Fellini and La Dolce Vita.

"Inspired by that visit, and having developed an insatiable appetite for crime fiction, I found myself craving a murder mystery set in ancient Rome." - p xi

I wonder if there's porn set in ancient Rome? There's definitely SF.

I enjoyed all the stories but I wonder if the editor chose Tom Holt's "Never Forget" as the 1st story b/c of its particularly impactful twistiness. It worked for me as a great story to start off the collection w/.

""Fine," said Publius Cornelius Scipio, the World's Biggest Man, "but what does a philosopher actually do?"

"Your typical Roman question; ignorant, offensive and unpleasantly awkward to deal with. "We think about things," I said." - p 1

The philosopher is being asked to solve a murder.

""Marcus Vitellius Acer, Roman senator, sort of a second-cum-third cousin of mine. If you look closely, you'll see he's had his head bashed in. It'd be a great help to me if you could think about it, and tell me who did it."" - p 4

One of the main things I enjoyed about all the stories are the details of life at that time.

"It mean that Acer arrived at the place where he died and was killed in the short period of time between the senstries' last stroll down the alley, and the end of the nightwatch, which was when the body was found, according to Scipio. I worked out how long that period was by walking the route myself with my hand on my wrist, counting heartbeats." - p 10

Whoda thunkit? Timing something by counting heartbeats. It's not like they were using the stopwatch on their cell-phone.

On to "A Gladiator Dies Only Once" by Steven Saylor:

"The month was Junius, at the beginning of what promised to be a long, hot summer. The blue sky and undulating green hills were especially beautiful here in the Etrurian countryside outside the town of Saturnia, where Cicero and I, travelling separately from Rome, had arrived the day before to attend the funeral of a local magistrate." - p 27

I love those details: Junius, Etrurian, Saturnia, Cicero. Imagine a story written about where you live now but written by someone 800 yrs in the future. Everything in yr world wd seem 'exotic' & odd to the hypothetical future reader. 'Yes, this was once a city called "Pittsburgh" before the great razing, before it was turned into a giant demolition derby attraction & then flattened for cruiser-class spaceship landings. People of that time had individual buildings to live in before we realized how inefficient that was. Glory be that it was discovered that everyone could be inter-mattered & placed in storage altogether in a cylindrical container about 4 feet high & 2 feet in diameter when not working or being TV-fed!'

Of course, one of the things that most people know about ancient Rome is that there were gladiator matches. I recently read & wrote a review of Mack Reynolds's "The Earth War" ( ) in wch he went into gladiator history. Not surprisingly, I'm on Spartacus's side. This story gives more history.

""Eventually, instead of simply strangling the captives, the Etruscans decided to have them fight each other, allowing the victors to live. We Romans took up the custom, and so developed the tradition of death-matches at the funerals of great men.["]" - p 31

What'll they think of next?!

On to Michael Jecks's "The Hostage to Fortune".

"They assume that their leaders are being held in foul conditions, because that's how they'd treat us; it's impossible to get them to realize the benefits of civilization. Well, how could they? They haven't the foggiest idea. Poor devils, living in their cold, draughty huts, sleeping on a pile of rags on packed earthy floors, if they were lucky . . . that's why we have a duty to invade them. It's their destiny ­ and ours. We have to lead them, and in the end they will learn to appreciate the benefits of Roman culture." - p 81

Yes, it's impossible to teach the Romans that not everyone wants their society imposed on them. Well, how could they? They've been raised with such an arrogant superiority complex that their heads are too far up their asses to be able to realize that not everybody thinks their shit smells like roses.

& then there's javelin design. Coincidentally, I was watching a Star Trek episode last night, after having rejected Star Trek for the last 60 years or however long it's been in existence, & it has Spock in charge of an exploratory mission that goes wrong. In it, he analyzes the construction of a javelin rather than mourning the person that's just been killed w/ it. Small world.

"They even tried to throw back our own javelins, but they were designed to stop that. Each point had a soft, deforming, section of steel behind the hardened tip, which made them fly badly once they'd been used, and we were safe from their return." - p 92


John Maddox Roberts's "The Will".

""I am Caesar's heir and I've come to claim what i[s] mine by right!" The way he said this was profoundly unsettling. In spite of myself, I was reminded of our recently deceased Dictator.

""You were Caesar's friend," Agrippa said. "You are married to his niece. You should want to see his will carried out."

""I would very much like to see the provisions of Caesar's will carried out," I told them. "He left me a generous bequest. But what I really, truly want abovve all is not to be murdered like he was. Bring murdered is a messy business and it can ruin a perfectly good toga. Defying Antonius is a good way to get murdered.["]" - pp 121-122

Now that people don't usually wear togas anymore what excuse do we have for avoiding being murdered?

""Clodius came of the family of the Claudia Nerones, who are insane. Octavian's heritage is that of Octavius and Atius and, most importantly, Caesar, all fine and sensible families." She had a patrician's grasp of family connections. She also had their blindness to the fact that it is wealth that determines any family's importance, not any splendid qualities they are fancied to have inherited." - p 126

So just who did Caeser leave everything to?

""Brutus!" Julia all but shrieked. "He left everyhting to Brutus! I can't believe it! He adopted Octavian!"" - p 139

Irony, anyone?

Marilyn Todd's "Honey Moon".

"Rome needed babies. As the Empire swelled, so did its population, but it was swelling with the offspring of slaves, not baby citizens."


"Widows of childbearing age had two years in which to find themselves a new husband. And if it wasn't a man of her choosing, then by Jupiter, she would be force to accept the choice of the State." - p 150

& WE complain?

Philip Boast's "Damnum Fatale".

"It was a windy night outside the Villa Marcia. The shutters rattled, setting the candles flickering as he bent over the books. Fascinating. A new invention, far easier to read than scrolls. A whole new class of book-writers had sprung up almost overnight, seizing the new medium to air crazy personal views about ­ anything. Anything at all."


"Books. Easy to hand round, quick to slip under clothes, small enough to be taken out and read aloud to men of the low sort, women, even slaves. Fashionable enough to impress the well-off, often written in the form of personal letters to increase the reader's sense of self-importance, of being party to a privleged communication." - p 171

Lest we forget.

"She said: "I have come because you're the one man in Rome who is not afraid."

"He said nothing for a while. This could be a very dangerous conversation. The Emperor Nero was subtle and devious and believed himself all-powerful; his mother his mother had murdered his adopted father the Emperor Claudius, and Nero himself had murdered Claudius's young son, and then his own mother, then his wife. No doubt he had not stopped there. Any man in Rome with sense was afraid. "Am I unafraid?" he said. "Perhaps you know more than I do."" - p 176

If you find that sort of thing interesting I highly recommend the afore-mentioned Suetonius's "Twelve Caesars".

Simon Scarrow's "Heads You Lose".

"Even this chance to slake their bloodlust and taste for booty had failed to rally the legions. They knew that they would pay a high price before the seige was over. The surviving factions of the Judean rebels were a game lot, and knew that they could expect no mercy from the Romans. The would fight with the frim desperation of the already dead, each one determined to take as many legionaries as possible with them to whatever afterlife the Jews believed in." - p 199

Michael Kurland's "Great Caeser's Ghost".

One thing that caught my attn right away was this part of the intro bio:

"Michael Kurland has established a solid reputation in the fields of science fiction, crime fiction and rock music ­ he edited the music paper Crawdaddy for some years." - p 222

Crawdaddy! That's almost as ancient as the Roman times in this bk! Well, ok, not quite, it folded in 1979 after being a pretty successful rock magazine for 13 yrs. I'm shocked to find that I don't seem to have a single issue of it in my aRCHIVE.

I hearken back to Petronius again:

"If my mentor had somehow incurred the emperor's displeasure, would Vespasian throw him into a dungeon, or send him home to commit honorable suicide" - p 224

Gotta love it:

""When the improbable passes over into the impossible, the wall of truth has been breached," he said.

""I can't write it down," I told him. "Very nice, whatever it means, but I can't write it down."

""But it doesn't have . . . yes, I suppose you're right. See if you can remember it to include in my collection of aphorisms for the young."' - p 247

If I had an amanuensis hanging about I think they'd have a nervous breakdown w/in a wk. It just wdn't be fair to them.

Caroline Lawrence's "Bread and Circuses".

"But Nubia was not looking at the trough. She was looking at the place where years of donleys' hooves had worn a ring into the stone floor.

""See the flour coming out?" Porcius was saying to her. "This millstone makes the finest flour for our best rolls."

""He seems wretched," whispered Nubia. "Behold where his fur is rubbing off his shoulders."

""It doesn't hurt them much." Porcius said. "Animals don't feel pain like people do. Come on, Nubia. I'll show you where we mix the flour with water to make the dough."" - p 291

I particularly like the above touch. Some young people are trying to solve a crime so they've tricked another young person to show them around a bakery where a donkey is being used to turn a grindstone. One of the young people notices the donkey's suffering. So true, eh? One imagines that it wd've been true in ancient Rome as much as it wd be today.

"Porcius nodded. "Pater beat the slaves yesterday to see if they knew anything about some missing bread rolls." He noticed the look on Nubia's face. "It doesn't hurt them much," Porcius said. "Slaves don't feel pain like other people."" - p 297

& then the bakery boy uses the same rationalization to justify abuse of humans that he did for abuse of animals.

More historical details of interest to me:

"Flavia lingered at the top of the stairs, and ntoiced that the slave girl carried a bath-set: a bronze ring with strigil, tweezers, ear-scoop and oil-pot attached." - p 293

After I was arrested for & made infamous for my "Poop & Pee Dog Copyright Violation Ceremony" in Sept, 1983, I was approached by a Jewish mystic who challenged me to decipher this 'magic square' that I was already familiar w/ but that didn't really mean anything to me:





ROTAS" - p 305

Now I encounter it in "Bread and Circuses".

""Your magic square was the clue I needed," said Flavia. "The palindrome." Flavia opened her wax tablet and held the clay oil-lamp up to it. "I realized that if you arrange the letters in the shape of a cross, they spell out PATER NOSTER twice with an A and an O left over. Alpha and omega: the beginning and the end."


""Is Arepo another name for your god?"

"He nodded. "It's a secret name for God's son, whom we worship."" - p 318

There're many stories that feature the way Christianity was 1st outlawed & then adopted by the Roman Empire. This contributed to my realizing that the Roman Empire never exactly fell, instead it transformed into the Catholic Church & is still with us.

"The Missing Centurion" - Anonymous.

In the intro to this story I learned that crime stories set in ancient Roman times are a modern invention:

"If it really does date from 1862 then it's the earliest crime story with a Roman setting that I have read." - p 321

Now I'll be on the lookout for earlier examples.

Darrell Schweitzer's "Some Unpublished Correspodence of the Younger Pliny".

More historical detail of interest to me:

"Tragically for the Flavian emperors, under whose rule it started so promisingly with Vespasian, it ended all too familiarly with the reign of terror of Domitian's final years. But thankfully better days were to come and after the brief reign of the elderly Nerva, Trajan became emperor. He would be both popular and successful." - p 341

This story has Christians operating in secret.

"they secreted themselves, night after night, to a necropolis outside the city, where they participated in the abominable rites of the Chrestianoi. The leader of the cult seemd to be some awesome personage, a thaumaturge called the Masked One, who promised, among other things, that his followers would live forever in the flesh and need never fear death. This presumably would allow them to continue in carnal rites until the end of time" - p 347

In another review I probably described a cartoon that I saw once that showed Christians in all black robes worshipping the crucified Christ. In the next panel the same people were ridiculing some mostly naked black people worshipping a statue of a man w/ a huge erect penis. Do you ever think about how weird & occult Christian beliefs are? Christ was born to a virgin who was inseminated by God?! How many Christian cults have there been run by megalomaniacs out for all sorts of demented thrills?

"under a variety of assumed names, and presenting himself to his followers in a mask, claiming that his face was too holy to look uponand that he was an actual contemporary of Jesus - which would make him more than a hundred years old, unaged and (so he asserted) immortal.

"This much I learned mostly from him during his interogation, after which he proved quite mortal when I had him executed.

"Therefore I am writing to you, sir, to assure you that this time the pestilence of Chrestianoi has been eradicated" - p 360

Jean Davidson's "A Golden Opportunity".

Enter the Druids, or something.

""Sir - in my opinion his throat was cut and his blood drained. Look how pale he is. His blood was taken from him."


""It's said that that is the way their priests ­ wild men called Druids ­ carry out their sacrifices. Others say that they never made human sacrifice but only worshipped trees and rivers."" - p 375

"We are going to build a wall. The greatest the world has ever seen, with towers and forts all along it to protect our land. It will stretch from one sea to the other, either side of this island and we, men, are going to help build it." - p 380

Hadrian's wall, I don't think I'd ever heard of it before. The extremely shallow that I did about it after reading this section taught me that the ambition of having be such'n'such a size & all stone apparently had to give way to more practical methods in which part of the wall was turf. I think it's interesting. Apparently the wall's been mostly scavenged since the Romans left Britain & that makes sense but I sortof wish it's stayed intact. I wonder if Rump, The Idiot King, modelled himself after Hadrian w/ his wall between the US & Mexico, one of the stupidest things, IMO, that Rump ever put forth. Why, it's obvious that the US needs a force field bubble around it instead. If the Romans had only held out a little longer they wd've come up w/ that. But, 1st, they wd've had to refine their time-keeping a bit further.

"That was often the hardest part of all. The Romans have this convention of dividing the hours of daylight into twelve equal parts and calling the resultant divisions "hours" ­ (and the same thing for the hours of darkness too). But since most of us humbler citizens have no water-clocks, "the start of the seventh hour" is hard to calculate. So, to mark the official middle of the day, a trumpeter comes out onto the courthouse steps and blows" - p 394

Rosemary Rowe's "Caveat Emptor".

& what kind of ink did Romans use?

"Marcus said, "I'll send a messeneger to the jail at once ­ if you would seal the order, Mightiness." He nodded to one of his attendant slaves. "Fetch me some bark and writing ink at once. Best octopus, none of your watered soot."" - p 403

Gillian Bradshaw's "The Malice of the Anicii".

Complain, complain.

"On the occasion when a famine was feared and foreigners were compelled to leave the city, he interceded to secure the residency if his mistress's hair-dresser, but extended no such assistance to me" - p 448

Many of these stories revolve around a variety of clever dishonesties, something that the Roman culture is presented as excelling at.

"Dynamius had removed the original text of some of Silvanus' letters with a sponge, leaving only the signature, and had written instead other words which implied that Silvanus was planning treason. His plot was eventually discovered, but not before many men died." - p 454

To many people such a deception is clever. I cd live w/o such things, countering them is a waste of energy. Still, the person who DID counter them is someone I'd credit w/ actual cleverness.

This section of the tale about how one of the characters became a slave also interests me.

"Eutherius had been freeborn in Armenia, but while he was a small child he had been captured by a hostile neighboring tribe, who castrated him and sold him to some Roman merchants, and he had grown up a slave in Canstantine's palace." - p 469

Now eunuchs are made by sex-change surgeons.

Mary Reed & Eric Mayer's "The Finger of Aphrodite".

""The innkeeper would not think it strange that I choose to sleep on a stool if he had lived on a pillar for fifteen years as I have. When you are accustomed to sleep standing up, it is hard enough to sleep sitting down, let alone in a bed." Makarious spoke too loudly, perhaps because he was accustomed to having to sout down from a high perch." - p 489

What?! The only other time I've ever encountered such a thing was in Luis Buñuel's "Simon of the Desert". Did such people really exist?!

"["]Oleander, some call it. Every part of it is a deadly poison, even its smoke."" - p 497

Interesting. I've heard of oleander, probably even seen it. I never knew it's poisonous.

The stories are presented in the chronological order of their time. This last one is in the days when the Roman empire was going & Rome had been replaced by Constantinople as the capital.

""So you're going to try to leave Rome the next time the Goths attack?" the auxiliary asked.

""They can't be everywhere at the same time," John pointed out. "I'll slip out through some unchallenged part of the defences while they are fighting elsewhere along the walls."

""I see you are determined to attempt to return to Constantinople, Lord Chamberlain," Procopios put in." - p 499

Peter Tremayne's "The Lost Eagle".

""I shall come to that immediately. Did you know that the Ninth Legion disappeared while on active service among the Britons?"

""I did not know. I have only read Tacitus and some of Suetonius, neither of who mention that."" - p 504

To whom or not to whom?

""The Britons?["]"


"And have they not consistently fought against us Romans? Not simply in the days when our legionsruled their lands but even in recent times when they refused to obey the rule of the Mother Church in Rome.["]" - p 510

Christians went from being the oppressed to being the oppressor.

For people who want to read something for fun but also learn things in the process I recommend this bk highly.






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