Arms of Nemesis is the second novel, following Roman Blood, in Steven Saylor’s mystery series featuring ancient Roman detective Gordianus the Finder. A book of short stories, The House of the Vestals, takes place between the two novels but was written later. Arms of Nemesis is set during Spartacus’ slave rebellion. A knock on the door in the middle of the night summons Gordianus and his adopted son, a mute boy named Eco, to Baiae, not far from Pompeii. Baiae was the playground for the rich in ancient Rome. It turns out that Lucius Licinius, cousin of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was murdered in Crassus’ villa. Lucius had been the overseer of the estate, and Crassus blames two runaway slaves for the murder. An inscription found near the body reads “Sparta," so Crassus thinks the slaves murdered Lucius, then ran away to join Spartacus. Crassus, who wants command of the army against Spartacus, decides to have the remaining 99 slaves in the household slaughtered, to make an example of them. Gordianus, who believes the slaves are innocent, convinces him to put off the massacre until after the funeral games, so he will have time to find the real murderer. But he only has three days to prove to Crassus’ satisfaction that someone else killed Lucius.
There are many possible suspects at the villa, including Lucius’ not-so-unhappy widow, two noblemen who are followers of Crassus, a builder of baths, a philosopher, a retired actor, and a female painter and her assistant. The painter is one of the strongest, and most interesting, characters in the book. In the course of his investigation, Gordianus is attacked and wounded more than once, finds a mysterious, possibly cursed, figurine in his bedroom, and consults the legendary Sibyl of Cumae, who has suspicious paint stains on her hands. On the way to Baiae, Gordianus experiences the horrific conditions on a slave galley. There is a thrilling climax at the gladiatorial games in the arena near Baiae. Arms of Nemesis is a suspenseful read, and provides the reader with fascinating details of life in ancient Rome. You learn a lot about the horrors of slavery, and the history of Spartacus’ rebellion, without ever feeling that the author is lecturing you. The series can be read out of order, but it is probably best to start with Roman Blood, or the prequel series featuring the young Gordianus, which begins with The Seven Wonders.
Arms of Nemesis is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.