John Maddox Roberts

The Catiline conspiracy

New York : Avon, 1991; Neuausg. New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, 2001

- English version -

Translation by Richard M. Heli


The Quaestor Decius Caecilius Metellus is in the audience for the triumphal return from the East of Lucullus, who after a yearlong wait can finally celebrate. Afterwards he supervises the storage of plunder and military standards at the treasury at the temple of Saturn and then attends the triumphator's banquet. There he meets, among others, his father, the current consuls Cicero and Antonius Hybrida, Catilina, Marcus Antonius and Clodius.

One autumn day Metellus comes upon a corpse, that of the knight Manius Oppius. In the temple of Saturn he runs across a secret weapon store. He asks his friend Milo who advises that someone seems to plan an uprising. Metellus attends a reception of the Egyptian ambassadors where he meets Sempronia, wife of Decimus Brutus, the poet Catullus and the banker Rabirius Postumus, a business partner of the murdered Oppius.

The next morning Metellus learns of a second murder. The victim is the building contractor Sextus Calenus who has been attacked by two men on the way home from a meal; no one can think of any motive. From his relative, the praetor Metellus Celer, Decius Metellus receives permission to conduct further investigations in both cases.

Metellus partakes in a meal at the home of Fulvia, the beloved of Quintus Curius, who he suspects has something to do with the weapons store and the murders. Also putting in an appearance are Catilina and his step-daughter, Aurelia.

Further murders of rich equites occur. Metellus takes up investigations in the Circus Maximus where one of the dead has been found. There he meets Crassus, renews acquaintance with Aurelia and a Gallic chariot driver. After a talk with his father about conditions in Gaul, Metellus is invited by the inhabitants of the Subura to represent them in the festival of the October Horse; representing the Via Sacra will be Metellus' arch enemy Clodius.

Paying a call to Catilina, Metellus gets to know the envoys whom Parthia has sent to Rome. Then comes the festival of the October Horse, a bitter conflict between Metellus and Clodius, riding nearly to a tie. Metellus wins and in accordance with custom, his horse is sacrificed. The head of the horse is then the object of a contest between Via Sacra and Subura; Metellus succeeds, against considerable resistance by Clodius and his followers, in bringing the head to the Subura. He himself is injured in the process and must be looked after by the physician Asklepiodes on the Isle of Tiber.

In the evening he attends a meal given by Catilina who, before his band of rebellious youths, explains his plans to overthrow the government. Metellus presumes that there are others behind the conspiracy; Catilian concedes this and names several, more improbable names, noticeably not that of Crassus). Afterwards Metellus spends a night of love with Aurelia.

In order to gain the trust of the conspirators, who want from him proof of his earnest intentions, Metellus plans the murder of the physician Asklepiodes (the others had removed their respective creditors). He reports on the conspiracy to Cicero (who already knew some of it); immediately so does Fabius Sanga, who as the patron on the Allobroges has witnessed how Catilina has brought them into the conspiracy.

Asklepiodes stages what appears to be his death, and even manages to deceive Metellus. At a great family meeting of the Caecilii, Metellus is able to tell Metellus Creticus, awaiting his triumph just outside the city, about the conspiracy. He also speaks with the tribune-elect Metellus Nepos, a supporter of Pompeius.

Now Catilina wants to start the insurrection. Metellus gets Aurelia to admit, during their last night together, that she was present at the murder in the Circus Maximus, the only one who had not killed a moneylender; the victim had accidentally learned of the conspiracy and therefore had to die. Cicero begins the struggle with Catilina, whose co-conspirators are rounded up and at Cicero's urging put to death.

In Picenum Catilina has gathered together a force against which the praetor Caecilius Metellus and the consul Antonius Hybrida take the field. Decius Metellus is present when Catilina falls in battle near Pistoria.


Shortly after one another two American authors have published historical mysteries based on the famous Catiline Conspiracy. While Steven Saylor, Catilina's Riddle (1993), attempts a revisionist reading (see separate text in German), Roberts follows the conventional interpretation. This is somewhat deleterious to the story as mystery; actually one cannot commend this work as a mystery novel because Metellus' efforts to explain the murders are quickly overwhelmed by the (not very developed) overlay of the conspiracy. To lay the murders at the doorstep of the conspirators is such a flat idea that one actually expects a surprising turn at the end, but all we get there for several pages is a banal paraphrase of Sallust. I didn't find the novel particularly suspenseful at any point, especially the way the narrative plodded through many a page of antiquarian description (see below). Metellus goes from one evening banquet to the next; this may not be entirely unrealistic, but it interests us just once and not again. The handling of the first novel of the series was in any case dissimilarly more complex.

One can detect without a doubt that Roberts has put in prodigious research and in most cases his information is accurate. From the historical standpoint this volume is an improvement over the first. The scholarliness goes too far at times, for example, the almost two-page excursion on the Parthians (pp. 101-2 American edition) or the still longer description of the Circus Maximus. At least in part one can explain this away by the narrative situation: the aged Metellus wants to explain to his listeners at the age of Augustus all that has changed since the time of his youth; however, these proceedings have a rather artificial effect.

We can point out that Roberts' first person narrator Decius Caecilius Metellus as well as his identically-named father, who at the time of the story has already been consul, is a fictional character (the grandfather and great-grandfather mentioned on p. 212, both named Lucius, might be L. Caecilius Metellus Calvus, cos. 142, and his son L. Caecilius Metellus Delmaticus, consul in 119, for whom no son is attested). The other Caecilii Metelli presented in the novel are, in contrast, historically attested. One should also note that "Decius" is not a Roman praenomen (which is known to the author, p. 203); Roberts changes it not only for his fictional Metellii, but also in place of the correct "Decimus" for D. Brutus (p. 190). Like other authors he also sometimes uses known names for fictional individuals, so an official of the "Reds" is called the Helvidius Priscus.

Without wanting to appear pedantic, I must remark that in this novel, in any case in its German edition, a few oversights stand out, which in view of the otherwise excellent ancient scholarliness strike me as especially annoying. (See German version for a more detailed breakdown.)

Further Thoughts

Distinctly more positive than mine is the impression made on Fred Mench, Classical world 86 (1992/93), 77:

"As before, Roberts details Roman society and history, explained clearly and with sufficient motivation or used as unobtrusive background. Narrating the story during the Principate, Metellus can reasonably explain to his readers how things were 60 years or so before. Again, Roberts' historical research (Cicero and Sallust) seems good [...] Many things that readers will asume to be anachronisms are just unusual or strikingly modern-seeming. This is more political thriller than mystery."