A Murder on the Appian Way


Steven Saylor


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

December 28, 2007

Murder on the Appian Way is the seventh book in Saylor's series about Gordianus the Finder, a "detective" in the last days of the Roman Republic. The series is called Roma Sub Rosa (The Secret History of Rome - as seen through the eyes of Gordianus - the rose was the Roman symbol for Harpocrates - the god of silence.) This is the first book I have read in the series, it is not necessary to begin with the first book to follow the story, though the novel does make some reference to previous adventures. And clearly the series continues after this volume, because the subplots involving the slaves in Gordianus' household are not resolved by this novel's last page.

The Roma Sub Rosa series in chronological order:

Roman Blood

The House of Vestals

A Gladiator Dies Only Once

Arms of Nemesis

Catalina's Riddle

The Venus Throw

A Murder on the Appian Way


Last Seen in Massilia

A Mist of Prophecies

The Judgement of Caesar

And if you read all of that series, Lindsey Davis has written at least 18 historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, while John Maddox Roberts has his own ancient Rome mystery series (SPQR) that is up to eleven volumes. Curiously, both series have one book titled Saturnalia - I may have to read both volumes to compare and contrast, just like I read both books called A Cloud Atlas.

A Murder on the Appian Way is the story of how a powerful politician Plubis Clodius and his team of bodyguards was ambushed and slain on the famous road by his arch rival Titus Milo. Rome is in an uproar, because Clodius stood for the "common man" against the interests of the aristrocrats. There is rioting in the streets, and the threat that Rome itself may burn down. Meanwhile, Milo claims that there was no ambush, but that the two parties merely happened to meet on the Appian Way. Insults were exchanged, and violence erupted. Milo says that he was only defending himself. Which story is correct?

Unfortunately, for the first third of the novel, Gordianus the Finder is really just Gordianus the Observer. The riots break out, and his own home is ransacked. Gordianus has more inside information than most citizens due to his convenient acquaintance with such luminaries as Cicero and Clodia (the sister of the murdered Clodius). Only when Pompey calls Gordianus to his palace does the Finder finally get on the case.

Gordianus, his son, and their loyal slave-bodyguard set off down the Appian Way, and survivors and witnesses are interviewed. But instead of resolution, what we get are more mysteries. Gordianus has to return to Rome to report to Pompey what information he has learned, but he gets waylaid on the return journey - and here the plot sort of meanders off. The momentum is lost, and we find Gordianus in scenes which don't pertain to the plot at all. It almost as if Saylor wanted to make Gordianus a witness to some of the great events of the last days of the Roman Republic, even though those great events have nothing to do with the story line. Why the journey with Cicero to Julius Caesar's camp? I think Saylor constrains himself too much by trying to stick to factual scenes (apparently, there really was a murder of a Clodius by Milo on the Appian Way) - he should be less concerned with the historical details and concentrate more on the plot. Gordianus doesn't really come across as a great detective in this book, he does some interviews, but there aren't any amazing plot twists. Perhaps other volumes in this series are better, it is always dangerous to pick up a book this late in a series. I may give this series another try.