I believe it was friend and commenter Michael Lonie who brought to my attention John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series, for which I am deeply in Michael’s debt. I have finished the first two books - The King’s Gambit and The Cataline Conspiracy - and found them to be excellent.
The series stars Decius Caecilius Metellus, a low-level public functionary from a large old noble family, whose talent for snooping enables him not only to solve murders but to ferret out threats to the Republic. Falling somewhere between the philosophical amiability of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder, and the wise-guy brashness of Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco, Decius, though a young man of high integrity, has no illusions concerning the shortcomings of Roman government, or the human foibles of his fellow man (including himself). Written in the first person, the narrative is characterized by a ready wit and a healthy dose of honest introspection, which are combined with plot lines taken from the pages of real history.
In The King’s Gambit, Decius thwarts a conspiracy by consuls Crassus and Pompey against a successful Roman general who is fighting against the kingdom of Pontus (although his discovery and attempted prosecution of high-level corruption nearly costs him his life). His weakness for beautiful women – who tend to be involved in the skullduggery – adds to the danger, although there are, ahem, compensations.
And, as with all of the best writers of historical fiction, we are given some very interesting history lessons:
…since some god had seen fit to put Mithridates in my mind, I reviewed what I knew of him. There was always some rogue of that name troubling the eastern world, kings of Parthia or Pontus. The one giving us so much trouble that year was the King of Pontus, the sixth Pontine king of that name. He was something of a marvel, because he had been no more than eleven years old when he inherited the throne from his father (Mithradates V, naturally), had been a prize troublemaker for every minute of his reign and was still alive at sixty…The Catiline Conspiracy takes us into a world of embittered schemers, who begin by killing moneylenders (the conspirators are nearly all heavily in debt), and end in a last stand that features a desperate battle between the rapidly-constituted legion of Lucius Sergius Catalina, the chief troublemaker, and two regular roman legions. The story is awash with spies and double agents, and ambitious men whose lust for power takes them to the verge of madness. Our hero comes close to madness himself, of a different kind, as he is seduced by the sensuous step-daughter of Catalina.
He was said to be a huge man, a champion with all weapons, the fastest foot-racer in the world, a superb horseman, a poet and more. It was said that he could speak twenty-two languages and that he could outeat, outdrink and outfornicate any ordinary human being. But then, it is always the Roman tendency to ascribe heroic qualities to someone who has repeatedly bested us. We did the same, briefly, for Hannibal, Jugurtha and even Spartacus. It would be too humiliating to admit that our most successful foe was probably some disgusting little Asiatic hunchback with a squint and a hanging lower lip.
For lovers of mysteries and Roman history, the SPQR series is highly recommended.