Death on the Appian Way

Written by Kenneth Benton

Review written by Paul Doherty


Death on the Appian Way
Ostara Crime
RRP: £10.99
Released: March 16 2017
PBK

Cicero’s famous phrase “Cui bono? – who profits,” aptly sums up the plot of this remarkable novel, first published in 1974.

The story is set between the years 63-52 BC as Rome moved from being an oligarchy to what escalated into a fight to the death between would-be dictators. Three great generals had emerged on the political scene: Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, the latter was a multi-millionaire who died fighting the Parthians; he was defeated, taken prisoner and the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat! Pompey died in Egypt and Caesar, of course, met a similarly bloody fate on the infamous Ides of March. Murder, assassination and the basest betrayal accompanied these Roman politicians in their struggle for power.

One political doctrine developed quite soon: whoever held Rome controlled the Empire, the Senate and, above all, the army.  In order to hold Rome, a dictator would need troops but, above all, control over the city mob, a many-headed hydra, bloody and fierce and constantly baying for fresh blood.  Behind the generals were the politicians who influenced these gangs, men such as the lawyer orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Clodius Pulcher; the latters’ equally ruthless and lascivious sister Claudia Pulchra and the likes of Milo, a former gladiator, a dagger man who, to quote the words of Scripture, “feared neither God nor man.”

Kenneth Benton’s breath-taking novel is based on Cicero’s speech “Pro Milone,” which is Cicero’s defence of the former gladiator who met Clodius Pulcher, supposedly by chance, on the Appian Way, that great road leading into Rome along which Spartacus and his army had been crucified. Violent words were exchanged, weapons were drawn and Clodius was killed.  Milo, acting the innocent abroad, maintained the meeting was an accident: how he had rightly defended himself whilst Clodius had simply got what he richly deserved.  Through the eyes of the hero of the novel, Marcus Caelius, Rufus, Benton skilfully analyses the truth behind this murder.

I had to study Cicero’s speech for my 'A' Level and re-reading Benton’s novel brought back to life all those sinister characters and creatures who wandered the filthy streets of Rome: those shadow-men used by the Great and the Good for their own murderous ends. 

In my view, Death on the Appian Way is a generic historical murder mystery which has had many imitators in both style and content.  Kenneth Benton adroitly walks the tightrope between fact and fiction yet he maintains the balance and harmony between them. Roman actors performed on stage behind masks and this novel about the seedy politics of Ancient Rome brilliantly conveys this very skilful use of masks. People are not what they seem to be. They do not say what they mean or mean what they say. They are courteous and charming but their fingers are never far from either the phial of poison or the dagger. They cheerfully betray each other with an alacrity even Judas would have blushed at.  Kenneth Benton gathers these fascinating but macabre figures and presents a drama which is both chilling and enthralling.

There is no real hero to the novel; it’s almost as if Kenneth Benton is presenting a fresco of a feast of murder in all its rawness.  For those who think Cicero was a little goody-two-shoes, and that’s how he projects himself in his letters and speeches, Kenneth Benton offers an alternative view. He emphasises that very famous Roman saying, “When you lie down with wolves, if you awake, when you awake, you do so howling.” This certainly applies here as the plot is clearly based on another Roman saying, “Homo Lupus Homini – Man is a wolf to man.” An appropriate phrase. Rome was allegedly founded by a foundling suckled by a wolf.

This is a thrilling story about human wolves at a time when the pack is preparing to turn in on itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the book when it first came out and I was delighted to make its re-acquaintance.  I understand that Kenneth Benton served as an intelligence officer and, for a certain amount of time, he was based in Rome. He has exploited both experiences to write a book which is now undoubtedly a most entertaining classic.



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