(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Some fiction writers who depict the Roman world, like Steven Saylor, tend to set their work during the traumatic time of Julius Caesar and M. Tullius Cicero in the late first century b.c.e.; others, like Robert Graves, set their works amid the ruthless intrigues of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the early first century c.e. Lindsey Davis’s Didius Falco detective series, however, is unusual among Roman historical novels in its focus on the period surrounding the relatively peaceful reign of the emperor Vespasian (69-79 c.e.). The emperor himself, his sons, and his staff appear as occasional characters in Davis’s novels. Falco faces imperial summons, commissions, and less frequent rewards for services rendered. Even in absentia, the powerful imperial presence is often felt in the novels.

In her first novel, The Silver Pigs, Davis introduced her tough hero Falco in 70 c.e., early in the reign of Vespasian. By her seventeenth novel, See Delphi or Die (2005), only six years had passed. Because of the relative political stability of Vespasian’s reign, Davis is able to send her hero around the Roman world from Britain in The Silver Pigs to Greece in See Delphi or Die, and to every place in between.

Several major historical events underlie Davis’s plots. Falco’s older brother M. Didius Festus lost his life fighting in the Fifteenth Legion in Judaea in 68 c.e. during the First Jewish Revolt, famously described by the historian Josephus (37-c. 100). From about 59 to 66, Falco and his friend Petronius served in Britain in the infamous Second Legion (Augusta), which was disgraced following the uprising of Queen Boudicca in 60/61. Neither man speaks much about the nightmare events of this war, but their military experiences and training prepare them well for their careers as imperial informer and captain of the urban vigiles (or firefighters) in Rome. Inevitably any Falco adventure calls on the hero to demonstrate hand-to-hand fighting and even fighting dirty, skills acquired growing up on the streets of Rome and honed in the army. As Falco wanders through his beloved Rome during the eighth decade of the first century, he watches the construction of the huge Flavian Amphitheatre, known today as the Colosseum. Vespasian’s great census of 73 c.e. sets the scene for another Falco adventure in Two for the Lions.

Except for members of the Roman imperial family, all the characters in Davis’s novels are fictional. Many of their names are intentionally humorous and reinforce the satirical tone of the series. The name of Nux, Falco’s pet dog, for example, means “worthless” in Latin and is a commentary on the animal’s usefulness and reliability. The name of Ventriculus, the plumber in Shadows in Bronze (1990), means “Little Pipe.” Davis has said that Leonidas and Draco, the title...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)