Cover image of "The Silver Pigs," a mystery novel set in Imperial Rome

Imperial Rome continues to fascinate. To us in the 21st century, the Roman Empire may seem impossibly distant in time. But first-century Rome, the setting for the inaugural entry in Lindsey Davis’ twenty-book series of historical mysteries, represented the culmination of many thousands of years of human development. What today we regard as civilization had begun 3,000 years in Rome’s past. And the sophistication of the empire’s engineering, administration, and military operations reflected that. It all shines through in the pages of The Silver Pigs.

A disreputable private investigator

The novel introduces Marcus Didius Falco, a disreputable example of what was termed an informer in Imperial Rome. Today we would call him a private detective. A former legionnaire with a fondness for wine and loose women, Falco is forever dodging the landlord of the sixth-floor hovel he calls home. But he’s not at all a bad man. It develops that much of the money he earns goes to help support his older brother’s widow and child as well as his meddlesome mother. Falco is, his faults notwithstanding, a moral man. And because he always insists on doing the right thing, he stumbles into the midst of a massive conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Trouble is afoot again in Imperial Rome.


The Silver Pigs (Marcus Didius Falco #1 of 20) by Lindsey Davis (1989) 340 pages ★★★★☆


Artist's rendering of the emperor's palace in 1st century Imperial Rome
The Imperial Palace in Rome under Emperor Nero, a handful of years before the events portrayed in the novel.

A turning-point in the history of Imperial Rome

Davis sets her tale in the first century CE shortly after the death of Emperor Nero (37-68). It’s the year 70, immediately following the Year of Four Emperors. In the chaotic months after Nero’s suicide, first one, then two more soldiers and politicians briefly reigned, quickly losing favor and then their office. The chaos gradually gave way upon the accession of Emperor Vespasian (9-79) in the year 69, who proceeded to rule for ten years. He was succeeded by his sons Titus (39-81) and Domitian (51-96), extending the Flavian Dynasty until the year 96. All three men—Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian—surface as characters in The Silver Pigs.

The title explained

The mystery at the heart of the novel revolves around the identities of the conspirators who hope to assassinate Emperor Vespasian and install his younger son, Domitian, on the throne. For months, they have been stealing silver from the mines in the west of Britain and shipping it to Rome. The plotters plan to use the wealth to bribe the Praetorian Guards to kill the emperor. But this is not yet the pure silver that comes from the mines. The precious metal is embedded in 200-pound ingots called “pigs” that are composed of partially refined ore of lead with traces of silver. Hence, the book’s title.

Falco proves his mettle

For Marcus Didius Falco, the drama begins when he comes across a terrified teenage girl fleeing captors in the Forum. Sosia Camillina, who is clearly from a prominent family, is also charming and beautiful. Falco is smitten. And when Sosia is soon murdered, although he is devastated, Falco sets out to find her murderer. But he doesn’t have a clue what he’s getting himself into. It’s clear, though, that something big is happening. Because somehow the conspirators have mislaid one of the silver pigs they’d stolen, and Falco now finds himself its temporary guardian.

The subsequent investigation involves Falco with Sosia’s family: her uncle, Decimus Camillus Virus, a Senator; her father, Publius Camillus Meto, a prominent merchant; her cousin, Helena Justina; and Helena’s ex-husband, Gnaeus Atius Pertinax, an aedile, a minor elected official. Soon, Falco finds himself traveling to Britain at the fringes of the Roman Empire. There, he seeks to learn how and by whom the silver is stolen. He meets Helena for the first time. And that is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Davis writes well. The story is endlessly suspenseful and full of surprises. It’s easy to see how Falco and Helena could become the protagonists of a twenty-book series. Which, of course, is precisely what happens.

About the author

Image of Lyndsey Davis, author of this mystery novel set in Imperial Rome
Lindsey Davis pictured at her home in Birmingham, England. Image: Edward Moss

Lindsey Davis is the author of the twenty novels of the Marcus Didius Falco series published from 1989 to 2010. More recently (2013-21), she has written seven novels to date in another series set in Ancient Rome. The later books feature Flavia Albia, the British-born adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco. Davis was born in Birmingham, England, in 1949, and lives there today. She holds a degree in English literature from Oxford University.

For more reading

The British thriller writer Robert Harris wrote a trilogy grounded in the life of the legendary Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero: Imperium, Conspirata, and Dictator. I reviewed the latter two of the novels:

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