What is it with Pliny the Younger? You may remember the worst Roman mystery series ever
(where Pliny was Sherlock Holmes and Tacitus was a really dim incarnation of Watson). And now there seems to be a new series by Bruce Macbain, who is a real live Ph.D. in classics: the "Plinius Secundus" mysteries. The inner flap promises that Pliny will be paired with Martial to solve the murder of a notorious delator in the last years of Domitian's terror.
I will probably do a full review/rant when I finish (and it's a fleet book), but I'm now six chapters in. There is a LOT of info-dump, to the point where it the author periodically drops his novelist persona and starts writing an introductory textbook on Flavian Rome. That said, it appears to be a decent, if not super-subtle, textbook, and Macbain is not so in love with Pliny as a modern avatar that he can't integrate him into Roman elite norms and show him as a patriarchal, self-important pompous ass. It's still a much
more positive and moderate picture than just about anyone who reads Pliny's Letters
comes away with.
The thing that is ridiculous about historical novels based on literary figures is that they inevitably adopt absurdly biographical readings of their work -- it's a problem I'm not entirely sure can be avoided. Nevertheless, Martial is pretty entertainingly drawn, if with a certain amount of eye-rolling "grit and realism", and I'm a little impressed that Macbain appears to be going the Roman pederasty route with one of his main characters.
There is someone who seems, dare I say, conspicuously absent from this novel, however. Tacitus, one of the more notable of Pliny's acquaintances, does not appear in the list of characters, and I'm fairly sure he won't be appearing in this mystery. What's odder, though, is that Tacitus doesn't appear anywhere in the "for further reading" afterward. Macbain recommends Cassius Dio, for crying out loud (not that there's anything wrong with Dio), but he omits Tacitus
Now I do know that Tacitus doesn't have to be everywhere, and not everyone has to love him, and that Tacitus is inevitably going to overshadow Pliny whereever the two appear together. Furthermore, we don't have a sustained Tacitean narrative of the end of Domitian's reign. But when you have your hero pondering the question of whether "a good man can exist under a bad emperor" and justifying his own "useful obedience" with "those senators who insisted upon throwing their lives away in futile defiance," it's a little ungrateful not to acknowledge that author anywhere. I'm just sayin'.
ETA: Ultimately, a decently-balanced book. Having Martial as a cynical scrappy secondary point of view who can see through Pliny's self-delusion really helped, and Pliny, I have to say, was done really quite well as an ambitious time-server who tells himself that he is serving the public good so he doesn't have to face his share in the collective shame of serving a tyrant, &c. A few really howler-ific lines, as when Pliny muses that "anyone with a bit of philosophy knows that slavery is unnatural." There was ultimately a single reference to Tacitus, where Pliny recalls Annals
15.44 (it seems unbelievable that Tacitus would be known as a historian at all at this point, let alone be giving recitations from the Very Freaking End of his extant work, but whatever), but Tacitus continued to be pervasive: if someone hypothetically read this mystery, and was interested in Life Under Domitian (at least as the senators tell it), sure, I would advise hir to read some of Pliny's letters (the Regulus ones, the one about the hair-cutting ghost, the ones about Fannia and Arria), but the main thing to read would be the Agricola