Roman numerals: Could M stand for murder or mystery?

As befits its geographical location at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, the land of Turkey is a vast treasure house of remains from the Greco-Roman era. Conquering armies marched through, leaving their mark in the form of bridges such as the Septimus Severus Bridge in Adıyaman province, or in the form of the dead straight roads that still cross parts of Central Anatolia. It was ruled over by provincial governors, who left their mark in the form of city walls, aqueducts and other civic monuments. Its wealth was enjoyed by the landowning classes who left us the mosaics, statues and stucco friezes that decorated their homes.

The mosaic collections of the museums of Antakya and Zeugma are among the richest in the world. The sculptures of Aphrodisias are among the most beautiful in the world. And the open-air museum of Ephesus is one of the most amazing Roman sites in the world. There are countless more sites, dotted all over Turkey that have been excavated and revealed to us.

But how many more Roman remains lie buried under our feet? The Marmaray project was delayed for a number of years due to the discovery of a wealth of archaeological remains, some pre-Roman and others of the Roman period. Other projects in and around the city, including the much-debated Kanal Istanbul, are bound to yield similar finds, as most of the towns around the Marmara date back at least to Roman times.

The Romans called the Mediterranean Sea Mare Nostrum (our sea), they called the Marmara Sea Propontis (before the Black Sea) and the important provinces of Thrace and Bithynia had a coastline on this sea.

Travel east along the Asian shore of the Propontis from Istanbul and you pass Gebze, where Hannibal is believed to be buried. Continue on for half an hour and you come to the busy industrial city of İzmit, epicenter of the tragic 1999 earthquake. Below the streets of the old town of İzmit lie Roman wonders that are only recently being uncovered.

Among the backstreets of one downtown neighborhood you can find a small gallery opened by a civil society group to display some of the finds from their backyard, literally. İzmit, or Nicomedia as it was known to the Romans, was an important city; it was the seat of the governor of Bithynia and it later had an emperor’s palace. When Emperor Diocletian persecuted the Christians in the 4th century A.D., many were killed in the amphitheater here, and an old Roman inscription commemorating this horrific event was found in the back garden of this gallery. Next door to the gallery lie columns waiting to be reassembled and underground there is a two kilometer tunnel still intact!

The İzmit Museum is hoping to attract funds and international interest in excavating these remains further. In 2011, they launched a project in the name of international and religious tolerance commemorating the many victims of Diocletian who died for their faith and whose skeletons have been found under the streets of the city.

Often our knowledge of the lives of those who walked before us so many centuries ago is limited to archaeological finds. In the case of İzmit, we have the detailed letters of Governor Pliny, famous to Latin scholars the world over. Pliny wrote to his emperor on countless occasions, giving him progress reports and asking for his advice.

Inspired by the personality that leaps off the pages of his letters, Bruce Macbain’s “The Bull Slayer” presents us with a Roman murder mystery set in Nicomedia, with Governor Pliny as chief sleuth.

This is a whodunit play in three acts, set at the beginning of the 2nd century A.D.

In the first act, Macbain beautifully sets the scene for a crime. On the third day in his post as the new governor, Pliny realizes the full extent of the rebellion, corruption and crime that exists in his province. If any are wondering whether the new broom will sweep clean, they only need to recognize in Pliny a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder who will leave no stone unturned in his quest to institute Roman order. Sedition and turbulence may have been the order of the day in this part of the great Trajan’s empire, but they hadn’t had a governor that was hard to bribe before.

Neat, short chapters keep the story moving quickly as we witness a parade of Greeks and Romans, slaves and freemen, the powerful and the cunning. Pancrates, oracle of Asclepion, has returned to the city at last. Hints of mystery are liberally sprinkled throughout scenes where we meet the various characters. The oracle, however, knows “how to draw out their secrets so subtly that he seemed, to their amazement, to read their unspoken thoughts.” Religion is clearly as strong a power in Nicomedia as the might of Rome.

With a new governor determined to clean the place up, a Roman procurator in charge of funds who’s an ex-centurion and a bully, an oracle with the scent of blackmail, a network of informants, the cult of Mithras worship and its strange rituals and a governor’s wife teetering dangerously on the brink of having an affair, the scene is deliciously set for a mystery.

At the start of Act Two, Bulbus, the procurator suddenly disappears. Has he run off? Is any of the state money missing from the Treasury? No riderless horse has found its way home, so there is plenty for a governor with an obsession for detail to get his teeth into as he becomes the chief detective in his role of investigative magistrate. Imagine Poirot meets Monk meets “I, Claudius.” Will Bulbus be found with a knife in his ribs? Or has he run off to hide a history of embezzlement?

Then a maggot-covered body is found bloated and blackened in a shallow grave 8 miles from town. He still has his clothes and his rings, so it wasn’t robber who broke his neck…

To avoid any more plot-spoilers, I will skim over Act 3. Suffice it to say that the newly launched murder investigation leads to other murders, an astrology book, and to Pliny almost losing control of a city on the verge of civil strife, all set against the backdrop of his wife’s illicit love affair and manipulation by the Oracle.

This is a satisfying, neat, murder mystery story that contains enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s interest. We’re drawn into the atmosphere of a bustling Greco-Roman city, with all the necessary rivalry and hatred between occupiers and occupied. We’re also drawn into the personal world of one of the most famous governors in Roman history.

It would be churlish to criticize the fact that no remains of the cult of the sun-God Mithras have been found in İzmit, since the author points this out for himself in the afterword.

Instead, buckle up your toga for an escapade through the Roman streets of Nicomedia, where Pliny asserts “every crime has a logic to it if we can discover it. It is always the final act in a long train of events.”

“The Bull Slayer” by Bruce Macbain is published by Head of Zeus Ltd (2014). 7.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-178185261-3

Rating: Five stars out of five