Thursday, September 17, 2009

Alexandria

Earlier this week I saw that it was the 1,928th anniversary of the day (September 14) that Domitian, the last member of the Flavian Dynasty, became Emperor of the Roman Empire. The Flavian Dynasty lasted not quite thirty years, beginning in A.D. 69 when the Roman Senate declared the soldier Vespasian emperor and ended with the assassination of Domitian, his son. The only other emperor in the dynasty was Vespasian's other son Titus.

Titus was deified after his death; the Senate ordered the memory of Domitian to be obliterated. You may never have heard of the Flavian Dynasty but you have certainly seen photos of one of their massive construction projects, the one called the Flavian Ampitheater. You probably know it as the Roman Colosseum.

If you want to fill this void in your knowledge of ancient Rome and learn more about the Flavian Dynasty should head to the library or your local bookstore and pick up Silver Pigs, by Lindsay Davis. And when you finish Silver Pigs, you should read the rest of her novels in the Marcus Didius Falco series (in order) right up to her nineteenth, Alexandria.

Oh, don't worry. These aren't dry history books; these are mystery novels. As it says on the the flyleaf for Silver Pigs, the first novel: Down the mean alleys of ancient Rome, Marcus Didius Falco is the Empire's Philip Marlowe - streetwise, tough, too honest for his own good, and a sucker for a pretty face.

That's a pretty good description, at least of the early novels. He softens up a bit, though, over the years. After all, over the course of nineteen mystery novels Falco has not only solved mysteries. He's gotten married and had some kids. And acquired a foster daughter. These days I think he's a little more like Nick Charles to his wife's Nora. There is even an "Asta" although his dog is called Nux. Plus, Falco is more funny than Philip Marlowe.

In Alexandria, it is the year 77 A.D. Vespasian is still Emperor and Falco has taken the whole family on vacation to Alexandria, Egypt: Falco, his pregnant wife, his two daughters (ages 5 and 2), his foster daughter and his brother-in-law. Only Nux, the dog, has stayed in Rome. The Falco family were, in the grand old tradition of travel, staying with relatives: Falco's Uncle and his live-in boyfriend. Of course, a murder occurs and of course Falco solves it with the help of his wife and brother-in-law.

The joy of Lindsey Davis is that she makes 77 AD seem like 2009 in many ways while still allowing us a glimpse of an ancient past. What she seems to want to accomplish, besides creating a good mystery story, is to give the reader an idea of what living in the ancient world was like but only in a big picture sense. She doesn't worry too much about how it differed from our own. People are the same as ever, she seems to be saying in all of her novels. And I think she succeeds in Alexandria, as always.

Ancient Rome did, indeed, have many "modern" amenities that were lost during the dark ages. As a reader we take for granted the (relative) ease of travel throughout the Empire and focus on the ways in which travel was then, and still is, full of inconveniences and delights. Davis isn't making this up, though. A couple of years ago I read Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists by Tony Perottet and discovered a lot about Roman tourism.

The first society in history to enjoy safe and easy travel, Romans embarked in droves on the original Grand Tour, traveling from the lost city of Troy to the top of the Acropolis in Athens, from the fallen Colossus at Rhodes to the Pyramids of Egypt, ending with the obligatory Nile cruise at the very edge of the Empire. And as travel writer Tony Perrottet discovers, the popularity of this route has only increased with time.

Perrottet first discovered this ancient itinerary when he came across the world's oldest surviving guidebook in the New York Public Library—the Description of Greece, dating back to the second century AD.

Just as Perottet discovered in his research, Roman tourists like Falco and family were, in many ways, no different than modern tourists on vacation although they were seeing sights that no longer exist. In this case Falco sees the the Lighthouse at Pharos, and the Great Library of Alexandria, which no longer exist. But, at least the Pyramids of Giza are still around.

Davis throws in information in ways that you don't necessarily notice you are getting information. All the novels are written in the first person from Falco's point of view, so we learn what he learns. Here, Falco's brother-in-law Aulus is showing him the Great Library of Alexandria, built for the Egyptian ruler Ptolomy.

Demetrius Phalereus had built for Ptolemy one of the cultured world's great statement buildings. Oddly, it's core material was brick. 'Cheapskates?'

"Helps air circulation. Protects the books." Where did Aulus find that out? This was like him; whenever I condemned him as a lackadaisical, he came out with some gem. The main library faced east; that, too, was better for the books, he said.

The mystery Falco is asked to solve is the death of the head librarian at the Great Library who is found dead inside his locked office. The library is only one part of what is called the Museion, which also included buildings to study the science and the arts, a zoo and living quarters for scholars. It was much like our own universities and Davis portrays the relationship between the administrators and faculty as very similar to modern academia.

Faculty matters were as boring as you think and went on twice as long as you thought was possible.

This setting gives Davis the opportunity to write an Academic Mystery as, for instance, Dorothy Sayers did in Gaudy Night, although Davis has a little less reverence for academia than Sayers did.

We had already encountered the students hanging around outside, those who never did any work but just came to meet their friends. Inside were the weirder scholars who only came to work and consequently had no friends. Outside were the flighty souls who sat around discussing Greek adventure novels, dreaming that they could one day be authors of popular fiction, earning a fortune from a rich patron. Inside, I spotted the teachers who wished they could give it up just to be scholars.

The discussion that Falco listens to at the meeting of department heads could come from any novel about academia. And yet Davis manages to always keep us aware that we aren't in a modern novel. The modes of transport, the monetary system, the markets, the dining couches - all of this keeps the reader constantly aware that, although things seem familiar, we are still in another time.

By the end of the novel the Falcos have returned to Rome, back in "the modern, thriving west" as Falco puts it.

The first novel in this series, Silver Pigs, took place in AD 70, the year after Vespasian became emperor. After almost twenty years Davis has moved us up only to the year 77. I wonder how long she will continue. Vespasian dies in the year AD 79 and is succeeded by his "good" son Titus. AD 79 is also the year that Vesuvius erupts and destroys Pompeii and Herculaneum. I admit I want her to go there.