Dead Romans opens in 2nd-century Ephesus, where the shepherd boy Daphnis is faced with the mysterious death of his flock. As his sheep fall prey to an unexplained malady, his harsh master threatens to sell his sister into prostitution if Daphnis cannot keep up his yields. Becoming increasingly desperate, Daphnis is driven to steal from his friend and lie to his father in an attempt to meet his master’s demands.
One day, Daphnis encounters the beautiful Panthea, the emperor’s mistress. She tosses him a coin, and soon after the narrative shifts into Panthea’s perspective. Daphnis and his troubles fade to little more than background noise as the plot swerves to focus on Panthea’s dubious plight: though her lover the emperor is by all accounts handsome, brave, and doting, Panthea is suffering severe ennui caused (it would seem) by unresolved Father Issues. She is diverted by pastoral poetry written for her by the humble poet Aristides – but he in turn is a henpecked victim without clear goals or motivations.
‘Though the story of the spread of plague in Ephesus could have superb dramatic potential, this tale languishes in amateurish writing and cardboard cutout characterizations. None of the protagonists is particularly likeable – Daphnis is alternately duplicitous and helplessly naïve, while Panthea plays the clichéd role of the victimized beauty and Aristides the role of the sentimental poet. The narrative vacillates bizarrely between childish generalizations and graphic sexual content, leaving the intended readership open to question. Even for those interested solely in the historical setting, the history is not well signposted, as there are no dates, chapter headings, or end notes to help sort out fact from invention. Even the most devoted fans of historical fiction set in ancient Rome should give this book a miss and seek out worthier titles.