Our Ancestors Were Us, but They Also Weren’t

“The past is a foreign country.” It’s a quote many of my History professors were fond of. What they meant of course is that the culture differences between us and say, the ancient Romans, are vast. Religious practices, sexual mores, familial relationships all might see familiar, but there’s a danger in ascribing modern perspectives to people who lived thousands or hundreds of years ago.

While accepting the differences, it’s also important to remember that they had the same minds, the same capacity for belief and treachery, love, and betrayal.

I’ve been a long time listener of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast. It’s been a great way to remember details I’ve forgotten since my History degree and for filling in many blank spots. The audio book recommendations, couched in a plug for Audible.com, given at the start of each show have really rounded out my library. A recent fiction recommendation was the Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis, a Roman noir novel.

Marcus Didius Falco literally collides with a fresh case in the Forum. The girl he saves from a pair of thugs knows far less than the full plot, but Falco is soon protecting the lady while avoiding his landlord, an aggressive Aedile, and his overbearing mother. Despite her innocence, the girl is tangled up in a crime whose reach crosses the Roman empire.

Davis does a fun job of weaving the ancient with more modern detective conventions. Falco has a big case to solve, and the job will take him from Rome’s seedier districts to the emperor’s palace and across the sea to Britain, a place he hoped to never see again.

Written in 1989, the Silver Pigs is a bit older, but you can do far worse in a detective story. There’s a bittersweet flavor to the ending that I really enjoyed, and if I happened to learn a bit about ancient history, well, that’s just a bonus.

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