One of the most novel spins I’ve encountered on the concept is Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries, which manages to do something new with the concept by ironically setting it in the ancient past.
Though, given that Nancy Drew was first published in the ’30s, maybe the genre of crime-solving kids is acquainted with ancient history, after all.
The main characters of the series are a group of four tweens in first-century Ostia (Rome’s port, not far down the Tiber from Rome). The mainest character is Flavia, a girl from what is essentially the Roman upper-middle class. The second main character introduced is Nubia — that’s not her real name; the Romans are clearly just calling her by the region she’s originally from — a slave rescued from a cruel slave trader by Flavia’s family.
Yes, The Roman Mysteries depicts the Roman institution of slavery pretty frankly. Yes, it passes without comment from most characters — historically, slavery was a major social and economic component of the Roman Empire; only a few fringe religious and philosophical movements were opposed to it during this period.
No, The Roman Mysteries is not endorsing or defending slavery. The books are merely depicting Roman society and its inhabitants with period-accurate behaviours and attitudes.
However, I will not fault you for being upset by these scenes. History was very often brutal and depressing. And, as you’ll learn with any superficial level of study, the Romans were not very nice people. And, despite being a kids’ series, The Roman Mysteries really doesn’t pull any punches about that fact (more on that later).
Moving on to the other two main characters. Later on over the course of the first book, The Thieves of Ostia, Flavia meets the other two main characters: Jonathan, a Jewish doctor’s son (there was indeed a well-established Jewish community in and around Rome at this point in history) and a mute beggar boy called Lupus (technically, his name is “Lykos”, he’s Greek — both names mean “wolf” and Lupus is the Latin).
That’s a very diverse (both in terms of ethnicity and social status) cross-section of the Roman population and I appreciate the books for offering a glimpse of how diverse Roman society actually was.
Once the four main characters are together, the spend the rest of the series kicking around Ostia and environs, occasionally crossing paths with real historical figures, then stumbling upon mysteries to solve.
That all sounded a lot more dismissive than I intended…
Look, I’m not big on mystery fiction, so for me the appeal isn’t the Mysteries part of the series, is the Roman part.
I have a Classics MA. AD 79 Ostia is, as the cool kids say, my jam — well, technically, my jam (by which I mean “thesis subject”) was Judaism in Late Antique Roman society.
But, still, ancient Rome has been something I’ve loved reading about since I was a kid. My copy of the Eyewitness Rome book got a lot of mileage.
If you want a historical reference point, I found a map of the Roman Empire in 79 here. So, check that out if you’re interested in seeing just how big the Empire was (it managed to get even bigger; Roman territory maxed out around 117).
Incidentally, the website I found these maps on, Omniatlas has an amazingly comprehensive collection of amazingly comprehensive historical maps. So check that out if you’re into maps.
Daily life of average people tends, both in pop culture and academia, to take a back seat to the big, exciting decisive set-pieces of history — the battles, the conquests, the assassinations, the big heroic dudes (and it is usually dudes, rather than women…) doing big heroic things.
Part of that is because the surviving sources are (again, almost invariably male) historians writing about the things historians like to read about. And part is the fact that most people think that “And then Scipio beat up Hannibal at Zama” is more interesting than “And then Quintus the Cypriot bought a new hat.”
Where I think The Roman Mysteries really shines is in describing the details of daily life of average, everyday people. And one of the major details of daily life in Rome that quickly becomes apparent is that ancient Rome wasn’t really a great place to live.
In just the first book we have: a pretty frank description of a Roman slave market, Flavia’s memories of her mother and newborn siblings dying in childbirth, Nubia being sold as a slave, parents mourning the death of their young daughter from rabies, dogs getting killed (though the most graphic instance of this is potentially mitigated by being done in self-defence), religious intolerance, Lupus having had his tongue cut out, and a suicide described in a nightmarish amount of detail that is shocking for a kids’ book and still pretty unsettling in general.
Now, that is all historically accurate, but still, wow.
In a kids‘ book?
Overall, the level of reading comprehension required for The Roman Mysteries isn’t much different from my Realmgard stories (which you can read here), which is part of why I thought the level of violence and upsetting themes was so shocking.
I’m not even offended by it, I’ve just been caught off-guard by how intense a series with such simple, accessible writing has been.
So, if you’re a parent or an easily-upset adult, proceed with caution.
But I don’t know, maybe I just haven’t read enough kids’ books and I’ve been underestimating the amount of dark themes kids can actually handle…
Still, upsetting scenes aside, The Roman Mysteries is a very entertaining series that I think offers a lot of very illuminating glimpses into a lot of aspects of daily life in ancient Rome that have been neglected by other pop culture depictions of Rome.
So, go read them.
Or as they say in Latin (I think; I’m a little rusty): Ite legere!
Copyright 2021 J.B. Norman
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