Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Bull Slayer by Bruce Machain


Pliny the Younger, now more than ten years older than the vice-prefect of Machain's first novel, Roman Games (my review), arrives in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus with a directive from the emperor Trajan to essentially clean house.  Rampant corruption has left the country in ruins.  Partially constructed aqueducts, temples and baths, starved of funding that has been skimmed by ambitious Greek contractors and greedy Roman procurators, are scattered across the landscape.

The Roman Emperor Trajan.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.


Pliny dives into this task wholeheartedly both in the novel and historically, as reflected in his first correspondence with the emperor Trajan upon his arrival:

"I am at present engaged in examining the finances of the Prusenses, their expenses, revenues, and credits; and the farther I proceed in this work, the more I am convinced of the necessity of my enquiry. Several large sums of money are owing to the city from private persons, which they neglect to pay upon various pretences; as, on the other hand, I find the public funds are, in some instances, very unwarrantably applied. This, Sir, I write to you immediately on my arrival. I entered this province on the 17th of September, and found in it that obedience and loyalty towards yourself which you justly merit from all mankind. You will consider, Sir, whether it would not be proper to send a surveyor here; for I am inclined to think much might be deducted from what is charged by those who have the conduct of the public works if a faithful admeasurement were to be taken: at least I am of that opinion from what I have already seen of the accounts of this city, which I am now going into as fully as is possible." - Pliny to Trajan, correspondence XVI.

Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of
Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in 
Como.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
But, Pliny quickly learns that the local "Greeklings" have no affection for his diligence or any of their Roman caretakers.  So, when the latest procurator in charge of collecting taxes is found murdered, no one seems to want to cooperate in the investigation of his death.

Pliny begins piecing the clues together with the help of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.  Suetonius is often thought of as a gossip monger by modern scholars but he actually held a number of important posts in Roman administration and was Pliny's friend.  Although most famous for his literary work "The Twleve Caesars", at this point in his career Suetonius was working on a compilation of the lives of famous prostitutes, in his Pratum de rebus variis, a light natured work often referred to as the Playground.  So Suetonius' interest in the local prostitutes comes in handy when one of the clues leads Suetonius and Pliny to the wealthy madam of a local brothel.

They learn that the murder victim was a member of the mysterious cult of Mithras, the "Bull Slayer" of the novel's title.  With a doctorate in ancient history, Machain weaves the story artfully around what facts about the cult have been gleaned from the study of over 400 archaeological sites related to Mithraism.

Roman sculpture of Mithras slaying the sacred bull from
a Mithraeum in Ostia Imperial Period 1st - 3rd centuries CE.
Photographed in Ostia Antica by Mary Harrsch.
"Archaeological finds indicate the extent of Mithraism included most of the Roman Empire, from Rome to Turkey to Britain. It was especially concentrated in Rome (35 Mithraic temples found) and its port of Ostia (15 temples). In total, over 400 archaeological find-spots related to Mithraism have been found, along with about 1,000 dedicatory inscriptions and 1,150 pieces of sculpture.

A gilded frieze depicting Mithras slaying the bull (known
as the Tauroctony) from a Mithraeum  in Rome.  Photographed
 at the Terme di Diocleziano  (National Museum) in Rome, Italy
 by Mary Harrsch.
"As in its Persian form, Roman Mithraism was a religion of loyalty, contracts and friendship between men, especially between officials and rulers. There are no known women followers of Mithraism. The cult was supported by several emperors, including Commodus (180-92), Septimius Severus (193–211), and Caracalla (211–17). As part of an effort at renewing the Roman empire, Diocletian dedicated an altar to Mithra in Carnuntum (on the Danube near Vienna) in 307, designating the god patron of their empire (fautori imperii sui)." - Mithraism

Gilt Head of Mithras found in the Mithraeum of
Castra Peregrinorum under Santo Stefano Rotondo
 2nd century CE.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch
at the  Terme di Diocleziano in Rome, Italy
The murder victim held the rank of Lion, one of the seven ranks known from frescoes in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum in Rome and the mosaic pavement of the Felicissimus Mithraeum in Ostia. As the plot unfolds we discover other members of this clandestine sect hold the ranks of  Soldier, Persian and "Sun-Runner" (Heliodromus).  The youngest initiates join the group with the rank of Raven and Machain imagines the mysterious initiation ceremony in one of the novel's opening scenes.

"Contemporary sources indicate this included ablutions (or baptism), purifications, chastisements, fetters and liberation, and ceremonial passwords. Frescoes at Capua (Italy) show the initiates blindfolded and kneeling. A simulated death and resurrection was probably part of the ceremony, as the ascent through the initiation grades was seen as prefiguring the ascent of the soul after death." - Mithraism

A reconstruction of a Mithraeum prepared for the communal meal at
Nijmegen, The Netherlands.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


Tertullian tells us that the simulated death involved the refusal of a crown:

"The Christian author Tertullian sheds some light on intitiation to the third level, "Soldier," in a treatise about Christians refusing crowns in military service. He notes that a Soldier of Mithras, during his initiation in some gloomy cave, is presented with a crown at sword-point. He refuses it, saying that Mithras is his crown, and he never wears a crown after that." - Tertullian (c.200), On the Soldier's Crown 15.

Pliny finds a book of astrology among the victim's possessions and assumes that joining the cult also involves the study of astronomy.  This is consistent with the beliefs of some modern scholars who have speculated that the typical iconography of Mithras slaying the bull found in Mithraic sites is an astrological allegory since Mithras is accompanied by a dog, snake, scorpion and raven, each representing astrological signs.

This fragmented sculpture of Mithras slaying the bull includes a dog,
snake and scorpion representing astrological signs.
Photographed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch.
So I found Machain's use of Mithraism as a plot point to be both entertaining and educational.

I only found one aspect of the novel troubling.  Machain uses Pliny's relatively young wife, Calpurnia, as  the foundation for a subplot.  Although the subplot was plausible, I had a hard time accepting that a proconsul's wife, and the level-headed and well educated Calpurnia in particular, could have become involved in something so foolish.  Her actions seemed to be more of a silly adolescent even though at this point in her life she was close to thirty years old.

One of the things I enjoy about Pliny's letters is his expressions of unabashed love for his wife.  Pliny clearly adored her in his letters.  One of the most poignant is his Letter LXXIV written to his wife while she is convalescing from a serious illness in Campagna.

"You will not believe what a longing for you possesses me.  The chief cause of this is my love; and then we have not grown used to be apart.  So it comes to pass that I lie awake, a great part of the night, thinking of you,; and that by day, when the hours return at which I was wont to visit you, my feet take me, as it is so truly said, to your chamber, but not finding you there, I return sick and sad at heart, like an excluded lover.  The only time that is free from these torments is when I am being worn out at the bar, and in the suits of my friends.  Judge you what must be my life when I find my repose in toil, my solace in wretchedness and anxiety.  - Pliny the Younger To Calpurnia, Letter LXXIV

Machain must have had this period of absence in mind when he was crafting the subplot although he applied a much darker undertone to the event than I would have preferred.  All marriages have their highs and lows but I would rather keep my vision of unblemished love between Pliny and Calpurnia that has endured through the centuries as revealed in the pages of his letters rather than replace it with a scene from a modern tabloid.

I assume Machain added this plot point to appeal to more female readers and maybe I am just a victim of my own streak of romanticism.

Nevertheless, Machain has once again produced an intriguing story filled with vibrant characters while, at the same time, providing a wealth of historical information about Rome in the second century CE.

Historically, Pliny disappears from the record while either in Bithynia or shortly after his return to Rome as no further correspondence between Pliny and his wide circle of friends has been found after this period leading scholars to believe he died at about the age of 50.  So, I'm unsure Machain will write another tale with Pliny at its core.  He leaves a few loose ends in "The Bull Slayer" that appear to be pointing to a sequel, though, so I am hopeful!


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