Review: The Thieves of Ostia

Caroline Lawrence’s The Thieves of Ostia is the first in her 17-book Roman Mysteries series for MG readers, which follows the various crime-solving exploits of its young heroine Flavia Gemina and her friends in various locations across the Roman Empire. This first novel sees Flavia assemble her squad (her Jewish neighbour Jonathan, the African slave Nubia, and mute orphan Lupus) and solve the murder of Jonathan’s dog Boba.

The novel’s primary purpose is didactic, as its back cover copy announces: it “tells you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome.” (Interestingly, the same is true of the BBC TV series later adapted from it: Wikipedia cites a Times review calling it “a tremendous way for younger viewers to learn about ancient history.”) So, the gang careers around a historically accurate map of Ostia in AD 79; the text is sprinkled liberally with Latin and Latin-derived words like “pater”, “impluvium”, “sestercii” (all defined in a glossary at the back of the book); characters discuss, rather infodumpily, concepts like at what age it’s appropriate for one to recline to eat.

Does it really “tell you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome”? Well: it certainly contains a lot of facts about Roman life and customs, woven quite palatably into a light crime narrative which is less upsetting than you’d expect given the number of dogs that die in it. Unfortunately, that factual density doesn’t really translate into a coherent emotional sense of what Ancient Rome was like: these are very much psychologically modern protagonists living in a Roman theme park. On the very first page, for example:

Flavia had just settled herself in the garden by the fountain, with a cup of peach juice and her favourite scroll.

I think it’s the facetiousness of “her favourite scroll” that makes this so wince-inducing; the implication that young Romans related to scrolls – cumbersome, handwritten things – exactly as we relate to books in an age of mass print media. Would it even have been practical to read a scroll on a bench in the garden, given the rather cumbersome format? What, for that matter, is Flavia’s “favourite scroll”?

Lawrence’s handling of slavery demonstrates a similar conceptual mismatch. Flavia buys Nubia early in the novel because Nubia is pretty and about Flavia’s age, and Flavia feels sorry for her – as are we supposed to. She treats Nubia as a friend and equal, and at one point has a discussion with her father about freeing her. Meanwhile, the slaver Venalicious, who sold Nubia to Flavia in the first place, is one of the text’s villains, a bogeyman who threatens to enslave Flavia and her friends at every opportunity. We’re not, however, encouraged to feel sorry for Flavia’s father’s house slaves, Caudex and Alma, who are both generally depicted as happy members of the family who just happen to do all of the menial work. Funny, too, how the perp turns out to be a greedy freedman (called, with thudding literalism, Libertus). Lawrence wants to establish Flavia as a sympathetic protagonist who does good whenever she can, but her cultural background doesn’t support that reading.

(It’s worth noting that there were other choices Lawrence could have made that wouldn’t have had Flavia endorsing slavery: Jonathan’s family don’t keep slaves for moral/religious reasons.)

Does this matter? The Thieves of Ostia is, after all, a children’s book; and one that’s pretty diverse for its age (how many other children’s novels from 2001 can you name that feature a black girl, a disabled person, multiple non-middle-class perspectives and a Jewish boy among their main characters? that aren’t Issues novels?). Is it really a failing that it does not portray Roman exceptionalism in all its gory detail?

Well, yes, in that it contributes to the general nostalgic rose-tinting of history in the West which falsely constructs the past as “a simpler time”, as basically just like today except without computers and gay people. (You can see this going on very clearly in that passage about the peach juice and Flavia’s favourite scroll: that’s so blatantly a cup of tea and a good book given a Roman spin.) Roman cities were crammed with shoddily built multi-storey tenements that would fall down at a moment’s notice. Roman women – even high-born ones like Flavia – had vanishingly few rights. Fire and disease were constant threats. Like, some of this stuff is alluded to in the text, and especially in later novels, but it’s all in this highly sanitised “oh isn’t this quaint” fashion which, to return to the claim on the book’s back cover, does not in any way convey what it would really have been like to live under those conditions. Or, more interestingly, how the Romans thought about those conditions – which would undoubtedly have been different to how we think about those conditions. Children are a lot more astute as readers than we give them credit for; children’s fiction should challenge preconceived notions and attitudes, not reinforce them.

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