A respected Roman senator turns sleuth to solve a baffling closed-door mystery.
It’s 96 CE. Her husband already executed for atheism, Flavia Domitilla, niece of the Emperor Domitian, has been exiled to the island of Pandateria. With the wildly popular Ludi Romani (the Roman games of the title) only days away, Domitilla makes a bold move for freedom: a pleading message to the unpleasant Senator Verpa, who rebuffs her. Shortly after, Verpa is found murdered. His son Lucius blames house slaves. Respected lawyer and senator Pliny the Younger has the bad luck to be in the hot-headed (and perhaps paranoid) emperor's presence when prefect Parthenius begs off heading up an investigation. Pliny's teenage wife Calpurnia, pregnant for the first time, needs him, but the Empire needs him more. Against the backdrop of 15 crowded days, Pliny dutifully follows every lead. Verpa, well-known as an informer, had no dearth of enemies. Many of them turn out to be in his own household, including his concubine Scortilla and her attendant dwarf Iarbas. Nor does Verpa's son Lucius have a clean conscience. Others in the mix include puckish satirical poet Martial and a Vestal Virgin from Gaul with an unsettling secret. As if the tangle of the investigation were not burdensome enough, Pliny has to deal with the jealousy of Parthenius for his perceived intimacy with the emperor.
Macbain's debut novel convincingly re-creates everyday life in ancient Rome, weaving real and fictional characters with aplomb. But the formality of his prose keeps the hero at a distance.