I expect that a lot of people who read this blog are already very familiar with the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis – in case you aren’t, pop along to Lindsey’s website and get a flavour of what’s on offer. Falco is an informer (in the gum-shoe detective tradition) living in a Rome ruled by the emperor Vespasian; he’s done his duty in the army in Britain, came home to his mum, and then set about making a living. Through the course of the novels, the reader becomes familiar with the colourful cast of characters who populate his world. Nemesis is what looks like the final book in the series (fear ye not, there looks like there will be a spin-off!), so if you haven’t read any of the Falco books before, then come back to this post when you have!
There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to blog about Nemesis, not least of which is saying goodbye to Falco, who has been a very enjoyable companion in my reading since I was a teenager. But there were also a couple of things about the book which, oddly enough, happened to coincide with the work I’ve been doing to get the ad Polybium article up to scratch, and I wanted to draw out how Davis explores that knotty historical issue in fictional form.
You see, one of the things that has been getting on my nerves as far as Polybius is concerned is that I actually don’t quite understand how on earth he came to have a brother in the first place – and not just one brother, but multiple surviving brothers as well. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed me grumbling about this as I’ve slogged my way through Henrik Mouritsen’s The Freedman in the Roman World and P.R.C. Weaver’s Familia Caesaris – grumbling, because while both of these books are critically important, neither of them seem to care too much about slave siblings. This is all complicated because slaves are not legally allowed to marry since they’re slaves and thus have no legal existence - they can join in contubernium, a sort of slave marriage, but its existence is dependent entirely on the whim of their owner, who may decide to sell one partner off at any time. Given the fragility of a slave family, and the potential for any member to be moved around at or sold at the owner’s whim, I had serious issues with working out how the sort of family that Polybius seems to have could even exist.
I suspect that the answer is ‘because he was an imperial slave’, that is, a member of the imperial household, before he was freed. Other imperial slaves of Claudius’ period also have brothers – for instance, the notorious Pallas had a brother, Felix, who became governor of Judea (yes, that governor of Judea – it’s a small world). So if you belong to the imperial family, according to evidence from well before the time period in which Nemesis is set, there is the possibility of maintaining relationships with your blood kin.
Now, what’s really interesting about Davis’ attitude is she takes up this question of imperial freedmen and their relatives, and runs with it. I shan’t give the main plot point away, mainly because it’s the hinge upon which the mystery rests (I will admit to being very pleased with myself for solving the riddle halfway through, but I credit that to a few weeks of swearing about this problem myself). What I can say without spoilers is that Davis creates a family of imperial freedmen who are not like Polybius, Pallas and his brothers – who, in fact, are their exact opposites, rural slaves who appear to have been released to get them out of the imperial estate’s hair, and who are making a mischief of themselves in Campania. (Cue also a quick education in the dangers of hanging out in swamps – Davis manages not to go all Maleria Jones on us, but it’s a salutary reminder of life before modern medicine.) So not only do we get a family that has somehow managed to stay together, we also get a family that’s milking its connection to the imperial court for all it’s worth. An unsurprisingly rich vein of plot for a murder mystery writer!
All of the Falco books revolve, to some extent or other, around the concept of family – the opening of Nemesis reveals not one but two familial losses, and part of the appeal of Falco in general is its commitment to grounding Falco in that context (messy, complicated and inconvenient as it is – and, let’s face it, offering a number of good stories, which Davis unwinds with considerable aplomb). Taking the family in another direction, and exploring a family that is as large and complicated as Falco’s but far less coherent and loving, is a really interesting way to end the series – and, for that matter, indirectly brings our attention to one of the things that long-time readers love most about the books. Falco is not a detective apart from things – he is embroiled and entangled in them, and lives life accordingly to the full. It’s one of the things that makes the novels such good reading – and why I’m looking forward to the spin-off.