The Ides of April

Author:  Mary Ray

Illustrator:  Gino d’Achille (cover)
Era:  62 A.D.
Published: 1974 (first publisher unknown)
Award:  None known
Age Range:  12 years old and up
Review:  ★★★★

Senator Caius Pomponius Afer is murdered in his bed and the household slaves are taken into custody to face the sentence of death if even one has perpetrated this crime.  Aulus, Pomponius’ valet and the first slave to happen upon his master after the assassination, is suspected, but when he dies in prison, who will prove his innocence?  Yet the slave list has been neglected and so, no one is aware that two of the slaves are missing. Where is Assinius, the Senator’s steward, who had not been seen days before the murder?  And Hylas, the Senator’s Greek secretary is not in the party.

Arch of Nero (completed 62 AD)
Thomas Cole – 1846
source Wikiart

Hylas, as it turns out, escaped detection in the house and is working steadfastly to find out who committed the dastardly deed.  He is certain that it was not one of the servants, but who could have had the opportunity and motive to commit such a vile execution.  Enlisting the help of Pomponius’ son-in-law, Camillus Rufus, the nobleman and slave investigate, and unearth devious plots that could possibly rock the foundations of Rome’s political body and cost them their lives.

Ray included various historical characters in her narrative including Thrasea Paetus, a Senator and former consul, who lived during the times of three Roman emperors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  We also have a glimpse of Seneca and Emperor Nero whom Ray portrays in a realistic fashion.

The Cascatelli (View of Rome from Tivoli)
Thoma Cole
source Wikiart

The real life of Publius Clodius Thraea Paetus is particularly compelling. By his actions in the Senate and in public life, he exemplified a man of honour and convictions, often going against the status quo in favour of principles.  Upon Nero’s murder of his own mother and the Senate’s obsequious behaviour towards the Emperor, Paetus walked out of the Senate meeting, refusing to be part of it.  His opposition to Nero continued and eventually his admirable ethics caught up with him.  Nero contrived charges against him, accusing him of neglecting his senatorial duties and he was sentenced to death by his choice.  At his suburban villa, he elected to have the veins in his arms opened and died with serene dignity.

While the mystery aspect of the story suffers from some contrived plot manipulation, this disappointment is balanced by the rich description of Rome and the historical detail painted within the pages of the book.  It’s certainly a story by which any child would be captivated.

An extended summary of the book can be found at my children’s blog, Children’s Classic Book Carousel.

Deal Me In Challenge #8 – Four of Hearts

Defence Speeches by Cicero

“I imagine you must be wondering, members of the jury, why it is that, when there are so many leading orators and men of the highest rank present here in court, I of all people should have stood up to address you; for neither in age, nor in ability, nor in authority do I bear comparison with these men who have remained seated.”

So begins, Cicero’s first speech, Pro Roscio Amerino, his first speech delivered in a criminal court when he was a young 26-year-old defence advocate.  While Defence Speeches contains five speeches that Cicero gave during the years 80 B.C. to 52 B.C., this speech is my favourite.  It shows Cicero as a fresh, young advocate, willing to take chances, yet also using his wiles to sway listeners to his point of view.  His rhetoric is at once firm and decisive, yet also almost self-effacing at times, but in an astute and cunning manner that only serves to increase his power.  His client, Sextus Roscius, was, in the end, acquitted of patricide, and this case helped begin Cicero’s journey to rhetorical fame.

The defence speech, Pro Milone, is one of Cicero’s most famous, as he defended Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murdering the tyrant, Publius Clodius Pulcher.  It was an unusual defeat for him, but it is one speech for which we have an independent account from a 1st century scholar, Quintus Asconius Pedianus.  Because of the secondary source, we can target possible inconsistencies in Cicero’s presentation of the facts, which are backed by other evidence.  It is said that because the trial was so politically volatile and emotions so unstable, Cicero had to perform under unusual circumstances.  Ancient sources disagree as to the cause of Cicero’s less than stellar performance (some say threats from Clodian supporters, some say the soldiers stationed around the forum made him uneasy) but the end result was a vote of 38 to 13 of “guilty” and Milo was sent into exile.

In spite of the defeat, Milo did not seem to hold a grudge.  When Cicero sent a copy of this defence speech, written at a later date, to Milo, Milo joking replied that it was fortunate that a speech in that form had never been heard in court because he would then not be enjoying the wonderful mullets in Massalia (Marseilles – his place of exile).

Cicero denounces Cataline (1882-88)
fresco by Caesare Maccari
source Wikipedia

If one is familiar with the history of Clodius, one can only conclude that Milo did the empire a favour by getting rid of him.  Suspected of committing incest with his sister, Clodius employed gangs to terrorize the citizens of Rome and the surrounding country, for his own political and monetary benefit.  In 63 B.C., he was able to exile Cicero for his involvement in the illegal execution of five Catlinarian conspirators, and while Cicero was away, proceeded to demolish his elegant house, attempting to have the ground consecrated to deny any further right to build upon the site.  Upon Cicero’s return, Clodius’ gangster tactics continued, as he regularly had his gangs harass Cicero’s workmen as they attempted to re-build his home.

Also included in this book are the speeches, Pro Murena, Pro Archia, and Pro Caelio, where he defends against electoral malpractice, illegal exercise of citizen rights, and civil disturbance, respectively.

From some of these speeches, the reader is given a window into Rome during its more turbulent times, and one realizes, among the grandeur, learning and sophistication, there is continual political unrest and moral decay, boiling in a cesspool of men grasping wildly for prestige and power. It’s a book that probably should be read in “doses”, but the value of the historical import and the insight into human ambition cannot be underestimated.