Book Review: A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon

A book about murders in Ancient Rome? Gimme!

This is a non-fiction work, covering not just the notable murders — but the Roman people’s attitudes towards killing. A great piece to understanding both the ancient world and ourselves, as we take our modern viewpoints to evaluate historical accounts.

What to expect

Southon does a credible job of surveying this cast subject. From first defining the characteristics of murder (a moral judgement) vs general homicide (the fact of killing), to then examining them in various contexts.

Southon covers senatorial murders (by and of senators), murders in the law courts and in private, murder of emperors down to slaves, murders as spectacles — even murders by magic. Giving notable examples, she goes into the sources (and the associated problems and biases with them) to reconstruct the mind-set of the Romans when killing is involved.

What I liked

I absolutely loved the style of writing, very light and fluid, which keeps you engaged even as she doesn’t shy away from the horrors and implications of murder. This becomes a book not just about killing, but about reconstructing the way people thought and felt that at times seems so alien to us. At the same time, you also get a glimpse into the study of history, into how sparse and biased our sources are, and how we should approach them in these tasks.

By keeping a modern tone with plenty of pop-culture references (as is evident from the title), Southon helps bridge the gaps in our understanding of ancient Romans, guiding us in understanding both how they were like and us and where they were entirely dissimilar.

What to be aware of

The subject matter is, naturally, gruesome and confronting. This is a a book about examining history in all its ugliness, and as such isn’t for those who’re easily triggered and prefer to rewrite history in a sanitised version.

This also isn’t a book to study about historical events. Rather, it is a book to better understand those events by getting into the minds of the people present then (or at least the people who wrote about it — wherein often lies a wide gulf).

Felix’s review

Felix thought this was bang-on. As one of the invisible plebs, removed from the top 0.1% and yet embroiled in their struggles occasionally, he concurs with Southon’s portrayal of the way human life and killing. His world, of course, diverges somewhat on the aspects of magic, but the similarities are still there: the close, ambivalent, attitudes towards medicine, magic, poisons are just more pronounced as magic is more potent.

Summary

If you love Ancient Rome and want to get into the mind set of people who lived then, if you enjoy examining history for what it was (understanding it, not passing moral judgement on it), this is definitely a book for you. If you enjoyed my novels you’ll likely enjoy this non-fiction resource as well.


Enjoying the reviews, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow? Glad you asked! He’s the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome. Come meet him on the free short stories and novels!

3 Comments

  1. Excellent. I think I know how you feel.

    I’m a little bit of a Japanophile and I’ve been fascinated with Japanese history since reading Shogun in high school. I was reading a manga that was an alternate history of Japan. Normally, I’m not a fan of alternate histories because they don’t always do their homework, but this was brilliant, postulating one change–a plague that killed 80% of the men in Japan–and using this little fact and their attempts to cover this up to the outside world as an explanation for many of the really bizarre behavior early in the Shogun era. I was both fascinated and repulsed because nearly every character remotely likable had horrific tragic ends and the need for keeping up appearance covered up a great deal of brutality, but once I started reading, I literally couldn’t stop. It was fascinating and thought-provoking and I usually had sleepless nights every time I read it because it makes me think so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I should probably note the name for anyone interested: Ooko: The Inner Chambers by Yoshinaga Fumi – it won an award from Japan and isn’t the first series of hers to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

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