Book Review: A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum // Emma Southon

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is brilliantly irreverent and funny, yet Southon’s authoritative tone is ever present. Covering a range of Roman murders—be it domestic, political, or even magical—Southon explores how Romans approached murder, from the formation of Rome, through the troubled Republic, and into the bloodstained Principate. In doing so she examines cases such as the rather odd killing of Apronia, in which the emperor Tiberius himself had a go at sleuthing, or the notorious murder of Julius Caesar.

The perfect balance of humour, wit and immense scholarly understanding of the topic make Southon’s work appeal to all. Indeed, it rather reminded me of some of my university lectures, that could go from listening to Bon Jovi, to an in-depth discussion of Catullus’s use of a single word.

Much of the irreverent humour comes from the disconnect between what most would think is a very serious and probably quite dry topic, with Southon’s informal conversational language choices. She writes as if explaining Roman murder to a friend over a drink or two. The book is littered with ‘fuck’, used as an intensifier just as it is in speech. Indeed, by using ‘dick’ repeatedly, the reader is spared from having to read the word ‘phallus’, which is used far too often in academic discussions of ancient Rome.

Southon similarly has mastered the use of irreverent modern references, with an analytic focus on specific details, to express complex concepts and events in a very approachable way. For instance, the comparison of the emperors, Titus and Domitian, to “stock characters in 1990s teen movies set in American high schools” is a stroke of genius. It very quickly gives the gist of their characters without needing too much explanation, so Southon can promptly get to the most relevant details.

This sense of fun, and a keen eye on the reader’s attention, does not mean that any detail is ignored. Southon, through her use of such references and her informal diction, manages to make comparisons of different sources engaging. She considers why Suetonius, for example, tells a different story to Cassius Dio and the far later Eutropius—who could easily seem a tad recherché—without losing focus on the murder itself or getting bogged down in a discussion of Roman historiography.

You could slightly question the title, as many of the deaths discussed are not what we would consider murder, but then Southon makes clear that such a state-controlled idea of murder did not exist. Even before, touching on the ancient ideas of killing, the introduction compares different modern countries and their legal systems, which treat killing in different ways and have different definitions of murder.

And anyway, this slight laxity with the definition of murder/homicide lets it cover political killings that stretch from having opponents executed on spurious charges (with the help of corrupt judges) to the simpler method of having politicians set upon in the streets by a mob. In covering these political deaths, Southon neatly puts pay to the idea of the Roman Republic or Principate being some noble ideal to model our modern systems on. The wider scope also causes the reader to reconsider cultural ideas of murder and death within society, and thus review historic sources with fewer modern preconceptions of what is normal.

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the best non-fiction book on classics I have read in years. So, if you have any interest in ancient Rome, murder, or just fancy an extremely interesting and entertaining read, pick up a copy.

 

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