What lies on the other side of the River Styx?

Who knows? You’ll have to read the engaging novel Across the River Styx to find out. You might have a rough voyage, but the reading won’t be rough.

Looking at the cover image below, you’ll see what this novel is: a mystery taking place in Ancient Rome. Other than the time setting for the story, it is pretty much a classical mystery—“classical” in the modern sense of the word, though it’s also classical in the academic sense.

Author Alan Scribner is neither a classicist nor a professional novelist, so far as I can tell. But he is a competent story-teller and clearly knows something about ancient Roman jurisprudence, perhaps because of his background in the office of famous New York District Attorney Frank Hogan. For instance, consider these sentences from the murderer’s defense attorney (name redacted to avoid spoilers):

Finally, I remind this Court that under Roman law the burden of proof is entirely on the prosecution, “on he who affirms not he who defends,” as the law phrases it. And this burden cannot be met with regard to either accusation of murder. So I say to this court that ___________ must be found innocent of any murders and must be acquitted.

So, this is a good illustration that although we got our ideas of democracy from the Greeks, we got our ideas of jurisprudence from the Romans. Scribner is old—even older than I am, in fact! But not so old as to have first-hand experience in ancient Rome. So clearly he has done his research. The front matter of the book provides some helpful information for readers who do not have the relevant foreknowledge, and you’ll pick up the rest as you read.

An interesting twist in the story is that the principal murder is that of a rabbi in a Roman synagogue. Ancient Rome, of course, is not the usual setting for rabbis these days, so you’ll learn something along the way. There are a lot of other interesting connections with the modern world, such as the environmental concerns of Vitruvius, who was rightly worried about poisoning from lead water pipes, and laws prohibiting weapons within city limits (knives, not guns, of course). As the cover tells you, the judge in this case is named Severus, which should clue you into something. One of the interesting things in the book is that the role of the judge is so much larger than that of a modern American judge, as Severus leads the investigation himself.

Unfortunately there is also some definite room for improvement in this novel. In general there is too much exposition: we came here for an entertaining work of a fiction, not a lecture. Instead of having the omniscient narrator explaining things to do us, Scribner could have shown it to us through realistic conversation and action. “Show, don’t tell,” as the maxim goes. Second, there are too many errors. Yes, the author isn’t a Latinist, but still he could have had the book checked by a Latinist with an eagle eye. A woman is addressed as “dominis”; what form is that supposed to be? A market building is called “magna macellum,” which makes no sense: “magna” is either feminine singular or neuter plural, but “macellum” is neuter singular. (I know, you think I’m being pedantic or at a minimum picky, and it won’t bother most readers, but it threw me right out of the story every time in came up.) A female fiancée is referred to as a fiancé (OK, a French error, not a Latin one, but it’s similarly jarring). A claim is made in a couple of places that a native Greek who is speaking Latin would aspirate the initial sound in a word beginning with a vowel (like a Cockney speaking English), but there are plenty of Greek words beginning with an unaspirated vowel sound (think of omicron, which is on all of our minds these days, where it’s omicron, not homicron). Anyway, none of that might bother you, but it certainly bothered me. I was even bothered by the translation in quotation marks in the passage from the lawyer above: “on he who…” That’s neither good English nor good Latin!

But I did get a good real-life algebra problem from this novel:

For every mile of aqueduct, the slope is one foot downwards; for every 300 feet, the drop is the width of one finger. No more, no less. That’s a very delicate slope. Too little slope and the water would stagnate, too much and the rush of water would tend to damage the pipes, creating cracks, springing leaks. So the slopes have to be carefully calculated by surveying, by mathematics, et cetera.

Categories: Books, Linguistics, Math, Teaching & Learning