Steven Saylor

Arms of Nemesis

New York : St. Martin's Press, 1992

- English version -

Translation by Richard M. Heli


1. Teil "Corpses, Living and Dead"

One night Gordianus receives a visit to his house in Rome from Marcus Mummius, who wishes to summon him to a secret commission, without first disclosing who is hiring him. Gordianus accepts, after he receives five times his usual fee. With his mute, adopted son Eco he departs immediately; Mummius takes them to a river barge on the Tiber and then to a fast trireme. They head south and Gordianus divines that they are being taken to Baiae. The client appears to be the stinking rich Crassus. Gordianus gets to know the awful life of a rowing slave.

At the landing in Misenum, Gordianus is received by Faustus Fabius, like Mummius a member of a distinguished family and working for Crassus. He explains to Gordianus a bit the affair he has been called upon to investigate. At a large villa in Baiae, to which they will now go, Crassus has installed Lucius Licinius as his overseer. He was found dead five days ago.

Mummius once again takes charge of Gordianus and Eco and goes with them to the splendid baths which Sergius Orata has constructed at the villa. Then they meet Licinius' widow, Gelina, who has heard of Gordianus from Cicero. She reports how her husband was found dead five mornings ago; two slaves have disappeared, the secretary Zeno and the young Thracian, Alexandros, who was often looked out for by Zeno. Near the corpse on the floor was written SPARTA, without a doubt the start of the name of Spartacus, to whom at the moment many escaped slaves are flocking. Gelina asked Gordianus to come because she doubted the guilt of the two disappeared slaves. However, Crassus intends after three days to exercise his ancient right to put to death the entire slave population of the villa: 99 persons!

Gordianus examines a bloody cloak, which was found near the villa after the murder. He realizes that the matter is more complex than it first appeared. Mummius tells him who besides the slaves still lives at the villa: the painter Iaia with her assistant Olympias who were not in the house at the time of the murder, the "house philosopher" Dionysius, Sergius Orata and the former actor Metrobius.

2. Teil "The Jaws of Hades"

In the evening Gordianus and Eco dine with Gelina and the house guests. Dionysius talks about earlier slave revolts and the slave Apollonius sings a song. After Gordianus has already fallen asleep, he is summoned to Crassus who has arrived late in the evening. He demonstrates little interest in Gordianus' investigation, but will not hinder it. Gordianus notes that in the library in which Crassus works, blood is sticking to a statuette; it must have been the so-far unidentified murder weapon. Gordianus becomes lost on the way back to his room and notices activity at a boat house on the shore. As he starts to investigate there, a disguised figure attempts to knock him down. After a short struggle the unknown makes off. Back in his room, Gordianus finds in his bed a magical statue.

The next morning he shows the statue to the young slave Meto, who seems to know where it comes from, but refuses to say. In the library, Gordianus and Eco discover more blood stains; in fact, this was the where the murder occurred, and from which Licinius was dragged into the hall for his corpse to be found. Gordianus talks with Iaia, who is decorating the anteroom of the womens' baths with frescoes. From her and Metrobius with whom he goes to the baths, he learns more about the dead Licinius, who was a weak figure. Metrobius adds that Mummius is, after Gelina, most responsible for bringing Gordianus into the case. Mummius is not concerned with saving the entire slave population, but only Apollonius with whom he has fallen in love.

Now Gordianus finds in his bed a note (in Iaia's handwriting?), suggesting that he consult the Sibyl of Cumae. Gordianus and Eco ride out with Olympias, who every day looks after Iaia's house in Cumae. They pass the camp of Crassus' private army which he will lead against Spartacus, then Lake Avernus, the alleged entrance to the underworld. When Olympias has left them at the Sibyl's temple, Eco notices that Dionysius follows the girl home.

The Sibyl is consulted by Gordianus in a secret rite. She gives no direct solution to the murder of Licinius, but says that both of the fleeing slaves are still in the area, one of them on the Avernus. Gordianus notices that the Sibyl (who futilely encourages the mute Eco to speak) looks a lot like Iaia.

Gordianus und Eco look for Iaia's house to which Olympias has no doubt gone. She returns with a basket to the shore and is observed not only by Gordianus, but also by the hidden Dionysius. In the basket, Gordianus discovers, is food. On the return trip he visits the sulphurous Lake Avernus and there finds the half-devoured skull of a man. Olympias identifies him as Zeno and sinks the skull in the lake.

3. Teil "Death in a Cup"

Back at the villa, Gordianus considers how he should proceed and decides to sleep on it, until Meto calls him to the evening meal. It seems this time very frugal because everyone must fast until the funeral of Licinius the next day. At the table there is talk about slaves (who in the eyes of Crassus are denied any human quality) and about how Crassus during the dark days of the Social Wars was forced to sleep in caves. When Dionysius has mentioned this, Iaia and Olympias are visibly disturbed.

Orata tells Gordianus that Licinius who always before had worked for Crassus, for some time had amassed considerable wealth and even wanted to buy the villa from Crassus. Gordianus witnesses a dispute between Crassus and Mummius who requests mercy for his favorite, Apollonius. In the library Crassus tells Gordianus about the start of the Spartacan revolt and mentions his pressing need for success against. Gordianus tells of the finding of Zeno's corpse and discovers that someone has washed the blood from the statuette.

The next morning the funeral procession takes place. Numerous guests arrive. Crassus gives a eulogy in which he blames Spartacus for Licinius' death. Eco and Gordianus return to the villa to find someone to dive for the objects which Gordianus has seen submerged at the boathouse. Meto, of whom they had first thought, cannot swim, but brings them to Apollonius who is in the barn in which Crassus has imprisoned most of the slaves. Apollonius finds something: a large quantity of swords and other weapons as well as sacks of coins.

Gordianus informs Crassus, who like Gordianus cannot rule out that Licinius was inolved in illegal business activities. In honor of the deceased a great banquet takes place at which the philosopher Dionysius suddenly dies of poisoning.

4. Teil "Funeral Games"

Crassus presumes that slaves were also responsible for the death of Dionysius; Gordianus believes otherwise, since others had the opportunity to poison the philosopher's herbal concoction, and looks through his room. There he finds business documents of Licinius which Crassus had been seeking thus far in vain. Crassus now presumes, with the concurrence of Gordianus, that Dionysius was on the trail of the escaped slaves and intended to present the captured Alexandros at the funeral games the next day; he is furious with Gordianus who by assuming the innocence of the slaves permitted the death of Dionysius, and throws him out.

Gordianus rides away with Eco; he is not allowed to take along the young slave Meto since by Crassus' command he is imprisoned with the other house slaves. Above Lake Avernus they are attacked; Gordianus, although wounded in the head, is able to throw the assassin off the cliff, Eco having disappeared however. Just before twilight a faint Gordianus seeks the hiding place of Alexandros in Cumae and finds it in a cave in the cliffs adjoining the shore which because of the high tide can only be reached with difficulty. Alexandros is sleeping with Olympias; Gordianus is able to convince both of them that his intentions are good and goes with them to see Iaia.

She disputes that she or Olympias has poisoned Dionysius, adding that she is one of the women through which the Sibyl speaks. Alexandros mentions that Licinius received a surprise visit from Crassus on the night of his death; in any case Zeno so identified him on the basis of his cloak. Both slaves came upon Licinius' corpse and then the visitor, who immediately accused them of being the murderers. Zeno und Alexandros were able to flee by horse; Zeno however was thrown from the horse and into the Avernus, while Alexandros was hidden by Olympias and Iaia. Iaia presumes that Crassus is not only the murderer of Dionysius and Licinius, but also the partner of the latter in his secret scheming with Spartacus.

Surprisingly Eco appears; he had reached Iaia during the night, but was unable to explain that Gordianus lay in the forest near Lake Avernus, and had slept until now. Gordianus sees that the only way to prevent the death of the slaves is to confront Crassus with his guilt since he has the cloak from the night of the murder, from which Crassus' seal has been torn out however. All except Iaia make for Baiae. From afar they see the gladiator battles in the arena into which the slaves are to be led. After a bonebreaking ride down a slope they arrive at the stage.

Before Gordianus can reach Crassus' box, a spear is thrown at him; Eco, who suddenly has regained his voice, warns him in time. Crassus is indignant at the interruption of his show. Gordianus states that he will reveal the true murderer and is just about to name Crassus when Alexandros points out Faustus Fabius as the man he saw near Licinius on the night of the murder.

The execution of the slaves does not take place and the villa that evening is dominated by a curious mood. With Olympias and Alexandros as well as Mummius and Apollonius two couples have found themselves; since the revelation of Fabius, Eco is unconscious. Gordianus speaks a last time with Crassus, to whom Fabius has confessed the missing items. Fabius had indeed carried Crassus' cloak and murdered Licinius as Crassus would have discovered their illegal business. He was later responsible also for the murder of Dionysius and the multiple attacks on Gordianus. Crassus wants to avoid further scandal and therefore Fabius will not be prosecuted, but instead fall during the battle with Spartacus; he relates that he will sell all hundred slaves, permitting no exception for Apollonius, Alexandros or Meto. Eco finally awakes and can speak again.


Two years later Gordianus receives a visit from Mummius in Rome; after the Spartacan campaign he has become Urban Praetor. He mentions Fabius' death; Crassus who is now consul with Pompeius, had him beaten to death along with soldiers he had designated for decimation. Mummius has succeeded in reclaiming Apollonius and Meto, who had been sold to Egypt and Sicily (Alexandros became a rowing slave and drowned when his ship sank); he gives Meto to Gordianus as a gift and on the same day Bethesda, whom Gordianus has freed and married, gives birth to a child.


The second Gordianus case confronts him with the well-known text from Tacitus ann. 14, 42 that in the case of murder of a head of household by a slave, the entire population is punished. This theme has already been tackled by Mary Ray (The Ides of April, 1975) and John M. Roberts (S.P.Q.R., 1990). As a criminal case, the story is quite reasonable, if not excessively developed.

In contrast with his first novel, here Saylor has no ancient text to use as a guide to develop the story. He places the theme of slavery in the foreground which is treated in its various aspects (galley slaves, slave revolts, gladiatorial battles) next to other antiquarian themes such as painting, drugs and poisons. The information is in all cases well researched; fewer oversights are apparent than in the first volume of the series. The depiction of the landscape at the Gulf of Cumae with the sulphurous fields and the Sibyl's cave is especially successful.

The atmosphere as before seems a little too modern, which however is a general problem in a first-person historical retelling because Roberts and Davis are also not always able to deliver a convincing historical impression and already even Graves' Claudius appeared as a character of the twentieth century.

The scene in which Gordianus sees the horrible conditions in which the galley slaves live, is directly influenced by the similar scene in Ben-Hur, as much from Wallace's novel as from the Wyler film, but stresses even more strongly the inhuman attitude, presumably too strongly, because we know almost nothing about the exact organization of the galley slaves in a Roman warship; slaves were used only in emergencies.

(For a listing of minor oversights and errors see the German version.)

The book is a respectable, but not outstanding effort.

Other opinions

Fred Mench, Classical world 87 (1993/94), 315-316, also at

"[...] As in Roman Blood, Saylor plots a fine murder mystery, with lots of action and twists, and is historically scrupulous in his portrayal of setting and characters. [...] Arms of Nemesis, excellent both as a murder mystery and as a historical novel, would make a good addition to a Roman daily life course. [...]"


Booklist 89 (1992), 242

Kirkus Reviews 60 (1992), 1093

New York Times Book Review 18. Oktober 1992, 34