The Princess and the Pirates

Written by John Maddox Roberts
Review by James Hawking

The ninth entry in the SPQR series takes place in the period of the late republic, on the island of Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite and, for the time of this book, temporary residence of the Egyptian princess Cleopatra. Decius Caecilius Metellus has been given the assignment of containing local piracy, solving the obligatory murder along the way. Much of the interest of the book comes from descriptions of ancient vessels, and having a narrator with the traditional Roman ignorance of the sea enables the reader to learn along with him.

The main character has a Roman austerity and sense of superiority that owes little to modern sensibilities. He is convinced that his own Roman ancestry manifests itself even when he is in a simple tunic, but at other times he recognizes that this means he is descended from the fugitives who began the criminal enterprise with Romulus. The novel opens with Cleopatra who is the princess in the title, but she is not as central as this indicates. We have seen her before in the series and will no doubt see her again. A more memorable character would be Flavia, whose efforts to entertain six sailors at once cause Metellus to reminisce about his pornography collection.

Roberts invites comparison with other Roman mystery series, like those by Lindsey Davies, Steven Saylor, David Wishart, Anne de Leseleuc or Marilyn Todd. In some ways, the ground covered more closely resembles the series of political intrigue by Colleen McCullough, Allan Massie and Benita Kane Jaro. From either perspective, SPQR re-creates Roman history in an unusually convincing manner. Recommended.