SPQR Blues is set in ancient Rome in the years leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius during the reign of the emperor Titus.
Mostly, it’s about the daily lives of the ordinary people of the city of Herculaneum, though there are the occasional murders, mysteries, wars, imperial banquets, and bears.
An easy way for US readers to think of how this time in Rome’s history relates to the time of Julius Caesar is to compare it to how we look back at the Civil War today. Other readers can probably (unfortunately) find similar times of upheaval about a century or so ago in their own history.
Chapter I synopsis (spoilers)
Felix, newly discharged from the Roman legions, arrives in the seaside town of Herculaneum—near Mt. Vesuvius—looking for a job, a home, and a stiff drink. He gets help from his former babysitting charge, Mus. Felix rents a room from a well-heeled local, Petronius Stephanus, and gets a job from a barkeep named Vitalis: bodyguard for Petronia Iusta, her daughter with Stephanus. Vitalis believes the girl is in danger from her peculiar stepmother, Calatoria Themis. Felix sees several advantages to his new situation: one, a place to live; two, free meals and drinks from Vitalis; three, a chance to follow the lovely Iusta around; four, free drinks; five, proximity to the willing slave Spendusa; six, free drinks.
Although his parents are wealthy, Mus sneaks into the loft over Petronius’ kitchen to sleep at night. He is discovered by Spendusa, who offers him lodging with the owners of Lucky Sextus’s bakeshop, who are mysteriously friendly to strangers. Meanwhile, Felix has a run-in with the Blues, the private police force hired by the city’s wealthiest family; chases off intruders; has dreams of a bossy goddess; and almost successfully survives a brawl with thugs who seem to be after not Iusta, but Felix himself. His wounds are treated by Helvius, Iusta’s tutor. While putting him back together, Helvius asks Felix how he ended up with a letter D branded on his chest, which gives Felix the perfect excuse for a flashback.
Chapter II synopsis (spoilers)
Alexandria, Egypt, several years previously.
Felix’s father has two pieces of advice for his young son: keep your personal business private, and stop hitting your cousin Mus, because you might need his friendship some day. Felix’s mother urges her husband to tell Felix the most closely guarded family secret. Whatever that is.
As a teenager, Felix spends summers in posh Herculaneum minding Mus. Mus’ father brings the awful news that Felix’s parents have died, and sends him back to Egypt to start a proper career as an accountant. Felix sneaks away to the local recruiting office, where the family name still inspires nostalgia in legions founded by Felix’s namesake, Marcus Antonius, over a hundred years before. He spends his first year as most new soldiers do: digging ditches, paving roads, quelling riots. But the Emperor is fighting a difficult war in Judaea, and Felix’s legion ships out. After a severe injury in a skirmish, Felix has visions of a mysterious woman. His search for her leads instead to Lolla, a camp follower. As a reward for heroism—or just survival—Felix is promoted into the legion commanded by the Emperor’s son and heir, Titus . . . to be a payroll accountant. The Emperor’s younger son, Domitian, suggests a lucrative side job: spying on Titus. Titus offers a second side job: spying on Felix’s fellow soldiers. It’s a living.
Titus’ demands lead to assassination work; Domitian’s jealousy leads to the disappearance of Lolla, her son, and the young slave Felix won from Domitian at dice. Eventually, Domitian coaxes Felix’s most closely guarded secret from him. Revealing it to someone as paranoid as Domitian turns out to be a death sentence, so to save his life Felix proposes something Domitian cannot resist: a wager for the highest possible stakes. Domitian, unfortunately, is a sore loser. Who likes to play with branding irons in the shape of the first letter of his name. He intends to exile Felix, but does not take into account the fierceness of the payroll department. The accountants whisk Felix away under cover of night. Felix hides in a fishing village for a while, but the urge to return home is too strong. He ends up in Herculaneum, but is not welcomed by Mus’s father, who questions him on his role in the fall of Jerusalem and the massacre of its citizens. Just when it looks like Felix has nowhere to go, Mus finds him.