I’m doing a happy dance here, because, finally, finally, the first of the Claudia Seferius mysteries is available as an e-book. Now they just have to digitize the rest of the series!
Have you read any of Marilyn Todd‘s Claudia mysteries? If not, run to your computer, download the first book — I, Claudia — and prepare for a great read.
The novels are set in the Rome of Augustus, and the plots center around Claudia, the noble wife of wine merchant Gaius Seferius. The secondary lead is usually Marcus Orbilio, a patrician who has chosen to work as an investigator for the Imperial Security Police, on his way to a Senate seat and to falling for Claudia. Doesn’t sound exciting? Oh, read on.
Spoilers ahead for the major storyline of I, Claudia so read no further if you don’t want your enjoyment of the first book to be spoiled:
Our heroine, Claudia Seferius, is, on the surface, a proper Roman matron. Prior to the novel, she lost her first husband, a judge, and her three children to a plague which also sickened her. When she recovered, she traveled to Rome in an attempt to escape her grief, and now is married to Gaius Seferius, a rich wine merchant in the equestrian class — what we would probably call the upper middle class.
She is quite a bit younger than Gaius; it’s a second marriage for him as well. However, Claudia is doing her best to live up to her marital and social obligations. She plans parties and entertainments to further her husband’s business. She steps into her role as stepmother to Gaius’ nervous daughter and prepares her for an upcoming arranged marriage. Okay, so she does some of these things very, very grudgingly, and maybe she has a little gambling problem but really, her life as a rich noble matron of Rome should be good.
Except she’s not a noblewoman. Claudia came from so far on the wrong side of the Roman road that you can’t even see it from the top of the Coliseum — unless you’re a Roman man who’s interested in the naughtier side of life. You see, the original Claudia died of the same plague that killed the rest of her family. Our Claudia, who started her professional life as a ‘dancer’ in the provinces, took the identity of the dying Claudia and came to Rome to make her fortune.
Claudia is determined to end up with a son in the Senate. It just takes one million sesterces. Which would possibly be achievable – if she didn’t have that little gambling problem.
Who am I kidding — it would be more accurate to say that Claudia has a major, life-ravaging gambling problem. If there’s something to bet on, she’s betting on it. And in Rome, there’s always something going on which involves a betting pool. Normal Romans track the year by major religious holidays. Claudia tracks the year by the games, races and entertainments associated with those holidays and the other celebrations of Rome’s upper-crust.
As the book starts, Claudia has ended up in debt to a thoroughly unpleasant moneylender, and to recover, she’s slipped back into her earlier profession – you could call her an upper-level prostitute-dominatrix who specializes in indulging the peccadillos of Rome’s elite. It’s a fine line balancing between her gambling losses and her naughty income stream – and then someone begins killing off seemingly unconnected upper-class Romans. Only Claudia sees the connection – all of the victims are her customers.
Enter Marcus Orbilio, who’s been assigned to track down the killer. Marcus is a shrewd person – and he quickly determines that these men are connected in some way with Claudia. (The fact that she travels in a litter with a very distinctive orange canopy doesn’t help to hide her whereabouts.)
Needless to say, Claudia solves the murders, with Marcus hard on her heels. But there’s more to solving the murders than just protecting her new identity. And that’s where Claudia really begins to develop into a person you can root for – the moment she discovers she has, all gods help her, developed a conscience.
On first acquaintance, Claudia strikes you as an abrasive, self-absorbed character interested only in her own future, someone who can’t really be bothered with other people’s problems. She’s sarcastic, impatient, and tends to verbally abuse and threaten when she’s unhappy or feels in danger. And let’s face it, she’s probably committed every crime in the book and then some during her life. Claudia, shall we say, does not hesitate to take any actions necessary to protect herself and further her goals.
But while she is all of that, mixed in is the fact that, while she might not want to admit it, Claudia does care about other people. And she will protect and avenge those people that belong to her, or that she identifies with in some way – and preferably in a way that furthers her goals.
For example, in this first book, Gaius ends up dead. Allegedly, he committed suicide because he was the one murdering men who were infatuated with or interested in his wife. In reality, he was murdered for an reason unrelated to the serial murders (not going to give you more than that!). Humiliatingly, while she plans a magnificent funeral for him, no one attends, by order of the Senate. So Claudia digs into his death, and makes certain that her husband’s killer is satisfactorily dealt with by Claudia herself. And then, she solves the series of murders in such a way to both remove Orbilio from her surroundings (she thinks!) and clear her husband (and herself).
In later books, Claudia travels widely throughout the Roman world. She escorts a Vestal Virgin home after her thirty-year term of service, vacations at an exclusive resort that experiences some unfortunate circumstances, and visits/is lured to Gaul and other provinces while running her wine business. In each book, she extracts a rough form of justice for crimes against her and her ‘people’. I sometimes found myself rooting for her form of judgment, especially in circumstances where Roman justice bowed to those in a position of power and money and ignored those who were poor and unimportant.
The books are incredibly detailed – from the furnishings of the houses to the clothes worn by different strata of society to the everyday life in Augustinian Rome. You really can form a picture in your mind of what the settings were like, and how it would feel to wend your way through the crowded noisy streets filled with all kinds of people and activities. The characters in each book are never cookie-cutter, always interesting, and frequently contain multiple hidden layers underneath the polite veneer they exhibit to society.
There are a few drawbacks – for example, sometimes the language includes what seems to be more modern slang, and on occasion, unless you’re paying attention, the minor characters in some of the books can become confusing, especially when their names are similar or only mentioned once or twice. However, Todd does get past this by having Claudia, or another character, reference them along with some identifying detail, and then they snap back into focus.
Overall, though, I absolutely loved this series – I read books 1-5 (the list is below) when I found them at a now-defunct mystery-specialty bookstore in Bryn Mawr. And I was able to find the latter four books in my local library. I’ve yet to read the middle books, because, unfortunately, the books themselves tend to sell for high prices, depending on the websites.
I really don’t understand why Steven Saylor’s Roman novels were such a hit, and Claudia didn’t catch on. I would say it’s the heroine, but frankly I find Saylor’s main character much more annoying and unlikeable. Marilyn Todd has a second series of books now, the Ilona mysteries, dealing with a priestess in a temple in Greece. Unfortunately, they just don’t hold the charm for me that Claudia does.
Ah well, each to his or her own tastes.
As I said, read these books. I’ve already downloaded I, Claudia, and I’m now going to visit Amazon and harangue the publisher to please, please, please digitize the rest of the series.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping to find the books, somewhere, at a reasonable price (early books were paperback only, later books hardback only). This is a series I’ll want in both digital and paper format.
The Claudia Seferius Mysteries