SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion by John Maddox Roberts: A review

Decius Caecilius Metellus, now Senator Metellus and married to Caius Julius Caesar's favorite niece, Julia, is tapped by Caesar to oversee his current pet project of revising the calendar. It is 46 B.C.E. and the calendar currently in use in Rome has become hopelessly out of sync with the seasons of the year. Caesar, in his best, practical, problem-solving manner, has called in astronomers and astrologers from around the known world to put matters right by inventing a new calendar that will keep time accurately and not have to be revised every few years. Much as they love Caesar, his fellow Romans hate the idea of having their old calendar tinkered with, and so when the astronomers start dying in violent ways, there is no shortage of suspects in the murders. 

Two of the astronomers are killed by means that even the best doctors in Rome cannot decipher. How will Decius ever figure it out and catch the culprit? 

The SPQR series is truly one of my favorite historical mystery series. The character of Decius Metellus is meticulously drawn. The stories are written as his memoirs when he is an old man living in the time of the "First Citizen" Octavian, or Caesar Augustus. With a certain sly humor, Decius looks back at the time of Julius Caesar and his plans for a bigger and better Rome. The portrait that is painted here of Caius Julius one instinctively feels is probably very close to who the real man was, and we see the history of that turbulent period through the clear eyes of the very observant, if somewhat cynical, Senator Metellus. As we look at the actions of Cicero, Cassius, and Brutus, as well as Atia and Servilia, even though we know how it is all going to end for them, we hang on every word. Roberts' writing is that good. 

The key to this outstanding series is, of course, John Maddox Roberts' research. He knows ancient Rome. He understands and is able to evoke the life of the streets, the action in the Forum, the revelries at the palace of Cleopatra, and the everyday concerns of ordinary citizens and slaves in the great city. 

One of those concerns of the ordinary citizens was the uprooting of their normal day-to-day planning and routines by the institution of a new calendar that changed everything. Caesar had faith that they would learn to accept it when they saw its benefits and that faith in ordinary plebeians was probably not misplaced. Unfortunately, his faith in his own class, the patricians, was not borne out as we know all too well from history and as we shall surely see in some future book in this series. I look forward to reading that book when it is written. Meantime, The Year of Confusion is a wonderful and aptly-named lead-in to that final act.


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