Sunday, March 27, 2011

Steven Saylor: Italian Mysteries II: Mystery Readers Journal

Mystery Readers Journal: Mysteries Set in Italy (Secondo) (Volume 22:1/Spring 2006) is now available as a .pdf  (and hardcopy).

This issue was the companion issue to Mysteries Set in Italy (Primo). To see the table of contents of II or to order the secondo issue, go HERE.

Here's Steven Saylor's Author! Author! article from Mystery Readers Journal: Mysteries set in Italy (Secondo)

STEVEN SAYLOR is the author of EMPIRE: THE NOVEL OF IMPERIAL ROME (2010), a follow-up to the international bestseller ROMA: THE NOVEL OF ANCIENT ROME (2007). These two epic novels comprise a multi-generational saga that spans the first 1200 years of the city, from Iron Age trading post to the height of empire under Hadrian.
Steven is also the author of the ROMA SUB ROSA® series of historical mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder and set in the ancient Rome of Cicero, Caesar, and Cleopatra.

What Made the Matrons Murder? A Poison Plot in Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor

Rome is my bread and butter. When I was a boy growing up in rural Texas, watching gladiator movies, playing with my battery-operated Roman galley, and dressing up as Cleopatra (just kidding!), I could never have guessed that I would someday make a living writing about ancient Rome, but so it goes.

My series featuring Gordianus the Finder, sleuth of ancient Rome, is now up to 11 volumes (9 novels and 2 collections of short stories), translated into 18 languages. Despite a bit of a scare I put into some readers with the ambiguous ending of the latest novel, The Judgment Of Caesar, Gordianus is still alive and well, and the series is not over. I've just signed a contract for the next two books.

Twice I've dared to venture away from Rome, both times back to my native Texas (and staying in the crime genre). A Twist At The End recounted America's first known serial murders in Austin in 1885 (and very gruesome they were); Have You Seen Dawn? was a bit of autobiography-done-with-mirrors (to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal) set in my tiny Texas hometown, with murder added to the mix.

Now I'm venturing out of the mystery genre (only temporarily!) but digging deeper than ever into Rome. My current project (to be published in late 2006 or in 2007) is Roma: The Novel Of Ancient Rome, which follows the James Michener/Edward Rutherfurd model; the epic story follows the fortunes of a single bloodline over the course of a thousand years, from the earliest beginnings of an Iron Age settlement on the Tiber to the age of Caesar and Cleopatra and the end of the Roman Republic.

Yes, even before Julius Caesar there are a thousand years of Roman history, full of extraordinary people and events. Everybody's heard of Romulus and Remus, the Sabine women, and Hannibal and his elephants. Hopefully, after Roma, readers will also know about the Gracchi brothers (left-wing politicians from a patrician family who were both assassinated; any resemblance to the Kennedy clan is strictly intentional), the capture and burning of Rome in 390 B.C. by invading Gauls (despite the honking alarms of the sacred Geese of Juno), and the tragic traitor Coriolanus (the fascinating subject of one of Shakespeare's least-known plays).

None of the episodes in Roma is, strictly speaking, a murder mystery. But of course, amid all that research, it was inevitable that I would come across some criminal mayhem. One of the most intriguing tidbits involves what may be the first recorded mass murders in history. Here's the tale as recounted by the Roman historian Livy (Book VIII, chapter 18), writing about Rome in the year 332 B.C.:

This year gained an evil notoriety, either because of pestilence or human guilt. Since the authorities are not unanimous on the point, I would gladly believe it was disease, not poison, that carried off so many victims. But lest I impugn the credibility of our sources, I shall relate the sordid details just as they've been handed down to us.

The foremost men in the state were being attacked by the same mysterious malady, which in almost every case proved fatal. A maid-servant went to the city magistrate, Quintus Fabius Maximus, and promised to reveal the cause of these suspicious deaths, provided the state would guarantee her safety. Fabius went at once to the consuls, who referred the matter to the senate, which authorized a promise of protection and immunity.

The maid-servant then accused certain women of concocting poisons. If officers would follow her at once, she said, they could catch the poison makers in the act. The officers followed the informant and did indeed find the accused compounding poisonous substances, along with batches of poisons which were already made up.

The evidence was seized and brought into the Forum. Twenty high-born matrons, at whose houses poisons were discovered, were brought before the magistrates. Two of the women, Cornelia and Sergia, both from ancient patrician families, contended that the concoctions were medicinal preparations. Accused of lying, the maid-servant suggested that the women should drink some the supposed medicine themselves, if they wishes to prove it was harmless.

The court was cleared of spectators. The accused women consulted among themselves. All consented to drink the potions, whereupon they all died.

Their attendants were arrested at once, and informed against a large number of matrons. Eventually, 170 women were found guilty.

Up to that time there had never been a public investigation of poisoning in Rome. The whole incident was regarded as a evil portent, and the women were thought to have acted out of madness rather than deliberate wickedness.

No wonder Livy couldn't resist relating this episode—he knew a good story when he heard one! Here we have multiple murders among the high-born, betrayal by a servant, mass suicide, and an ever-expanding circle of accusation and guilt. There's even an attempt to explain the event as the result of mass hysteria. But in ancient Rome, there was no insanity defense.

I come across such extraordinary material all the time in my research; when there's murder involved, my interest is especially piqued. Naturally, I had to find a way to incorporate this incident in Roma, and so I set about uncovering all I could about the poisonings. In the end, the tale is only a small ingredient in what I hope will be a rich banquet of a book... but a little murder, like a powerful spice, goes a long way.

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