The Charioteer of Delphi
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First edition, 2006
|Cover artist||Peter Sutton
Fred van Deelan
|Series||The Roman Mysteries|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||210 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PZ7.L425 Cha 2007|
|Preceded by||The Sirens of Surrentum|
|Followed by||The Slave-girl from Jerusalem|
The Charioteer of Delphi is a children's historical novel by Caroline Lawrence, published in 2006. It is the twelfth volume of the Roman Mysteries series. Like several of Lawrence’s novels, it explores a particular aspect of daily life in Ancient Rome: in this case, chariot racing.
September, A.D. 80: Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia, and Lupus are celebrating Nubia's birthday with their families and their friend Porcius, when a teenaged boy named Scopas arrives from Delphi with a message from Lupus’s mother, Melissa. She sends her love to her son, and asks, as a favor, that he help Scopas find a job with one of the chariot racing factions in Rome. He has already won races in Greece, despite being barely 13 years old. Though Scopas is awkward and strange in his manner, Flavia agrees to help him, and sends him to Rome with a letter asking her uncle and avid racing fan, Senator Cornix, to arrange an introduction.
A few weeks later, Scopas sends a letter to Ostia, saying that he has been taken on by the Green faction at the Circus Maximus, which is facing a crisis: their prize racing horse, Sagitta, has disappeared, and the Greens are offering a 100,000 sestercii reward for his safe return before the start of the next games. Flavia and the others arrange a trip to Rome when Flavia's father has to commission some repair work on their home, and leave on another voyage.
Arriving in Rome with Aristo, they are taken to the Greens’ stables to meet Scopas, who works as a groom. The lead trainer, Urbanus, says Scopas is the best groom he has ever known, but the other grooms despise him for his strange behavior (and possibly out of jealousy).
Among the Greens' recently acquired horses, Nubia recognizes a stallion named Pegasus, who was previously owned by Publius Pollius Felix (in The Sirens of Surrentum). Nubia confides that she has been having nightmares about being trapped in a burning tent; showing a surprising empathy with the horses, she believes that both she and Pegasus have terrible memories of losing family members to fire when they were very young.
As the children leave the stables to begin looking for Sagitta, a one-legged beggar says he knows exactly where to find the horse. Flavia is skeptical, but Nubia gives him a coin, and to everyone's amazement, the horse is indeed waiting right where the beggar said he would be. The horse is healthy, though there are signs that his legs have been burned. They lead the horse back to the stables in triumph, earning the reward, free entry permits to the stables, and a complimentary ride in the team's chariots during one of their practice runs.
When Flavia and Co. attend the first day of the races with Senator Cornix and his family, things begin to go wrong for the Greens. Inexplicably, the horses being driven by the most prestigious charioteers go berserk on the track, throwing their riders and causing terrible, often fatal, crashes. In the stables, the four friends find other examples of sabotage, including stealing the charioteers' personal votive statuettes, and replacing the pins of the chariots with wax replicas.
Flavia theorizes that someone has a grudge against the Greens, or else is trying to fix the race to win at gambling. She suspects Urbanus, who is strangely ambivalent about their success in exposing several of the sabotage tricks. But her theory seems to fail when two charioteers from the Red faction are also put out of action.
Lupus scouts out the track during the next race, and sees a boy, disguised as one of the Greens’ stable boys, hiding near the track with a bone whistle. Flavia realizes that several of the Greens' star horses have been abducted, and then returned, after being tortured with fire and conditioned to fear burning when they hear a high-pitched sound. Urbanus is skeptical, until Nubia blows a note on her flute and Sagitta goes berserk inside his stall.
Urbanus panics, realizing that without Sagitta, he does not have a team ready to run in the next day’s race. Scopas steps forward, volunteering to drive a team with Pegasus in Sagitta's place. Urbanus grudgingly agrees.
Flavia realizes that all of the targeted charioteers were drivers for the Greens in the previous year, including the two who now race for the Reds. The only one left is a man named Hierax, who they are told retired after being maimed in a crash a year ago. The friends return to their seats with Senator Cornix, to watch the remainder of the races. But when they get up to leave, Flavia realizes that Nubia and Lupus are gone. Running back to the stables, they see that Pegasus is also gone.
It turns out that the one-legged beggar who helped them before has convinced Nubia to lead Pegasus away from the stables, rather than risk him being hurt in the races. Nubia has come to love the horse, and seizes on the chance to take him to a better place. The beggar leads them to a supposedly abandoned house in Rome, which has a stable outfitted to receive Pegasus.
But Nubia realizes that the house isn't abandoned at all, it belongs to the “beggar” who reveals himself to her at the same time Flavia and the others learn his true identity: he is Hierax, the former charioteer. After losing his celebrity and his leg after the chariot accident, he has become bitter and vengeful; in his paranoia, he now believes that the crash and everything that came after was a conspiracy by Urbanus and the Greens to get rid of him. He has arranged the whole series of accidents to get his revenge on the Greens.
But as he steps forward to tie Nubia up, Pegasus rears and knocks over a lamp, setting the stable on fire.
Lupus has followed Nubia as far as the house, and runs back to the Circus to fetch reinforcements. Urbanus, Flavia, Jonathan, and Senator Cornix rush to the house as it begins to burn. Inside, Nubia douses herself and Pegasus with water and then mounts him, whispering that the only way to save their lives is for Pegasus to brave his fears and jump through the flames. He does so, and they escape the house. But Urbanus has already run inside to see if there are any others, and is trapped by falling debris. Remembering the other victims of the great fire in Rome, that he blames on himself, Jonathan rushes inside and drags Urbanus to safety, suffering a near-fatal asthma attack as a result of smoke inhalation. Everyone recovers, and Hierax and his accomplices are brought into custody.
The next day, Scopas convinces Nubia that, although chariot racing may be very dangerous, both he and Pegasus truly love it. Nubia senses through her bond with Pegasus that this is true. She gives Pegasus her blessing before he runs his first race.
To everyone's great amazement, Scopas wins the race, something unheard of for a novice charioteer in his first run. The children's friend, Senator Cornix's slave Sisyphus, wins his freedom on a bet from Senator Cornix, and makes a small fortune betting his savings on Scopas. Scopas receives his victory crown from the Emperor himself, and as he takes his triumphal ride around the track, he invites Nubia to join him, calling it her victory as well as his. Senator Cornix's two young children, yelling Scopas’s name, say “Scorpus” by mistake, and the crowd takes up the chant with enthusiasm. Scopus says he doesn't mind. “It can be my new name for my new life.”
- Nubia’s extraordinary affinity with animals is shown as being something close to telepathic communication; also, this is the second time that someone has taken advantage of her naiveté and her wish to spare others harm (the other being The Pirates of Pompeii).
- However, kindness to animals and to others in general is shown to be a positive trait; Nubia’s bond with Pegasus allows them to overcome their shared fear of fire and save their lives. By contrast, the reader learns from Urbanus that Hierax may have been a good driver, but he was cruel to the horses he drove. It is even implied that the crash that maimed him was partially his fault, when he used his horsewhip on another driver to get him out of the race.
- Scopas’s strange behavior appears to be a form of autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by an inability to socialize and communicate normally with other people, repetitive behavior, and sometimes physical clumsiness. Autism was not diagnosed in Roman times, and so a variety of other explanations are offered, one of which is that Scopas was raised by centaurs rather than humans.
- Among Scopas’s behaviors are:
- a lack of inflection in his voice;
- a habit of referring to himself in the third person;
- an aversion to being touched by other people;
- a habit of repeatedly knocking his head against something when distressed;
- a habit of repeating apparent nonsense words to himself to calm or encourage himself;
- Another possible explanation is that Scopas is a feral child – according to Urbanus, Scopas was abandoned as a child and lived in the wild for several years before being taken in by a temple in Greece – and thus has grown up without normal experience with human language and socialization;
- Scopas also appears to be what is now termed an autistic savant – a person who has an amazing natural talent in a certain field or fields despite his other impairments; as Scopas himself says, “Scopas does not understand people, but Scopas understands horses.” Nubia notices that his normal physical awkwardness disappears when he is behind the reins of a chariot: “he drives like Apollo.”
Allusions to other literary works
- When Nubia tells Flavia about her nightmares involving Pegasus and burning tents, Flavia compares it to the myth of Bellerophon, who tamed the flying horse Pegasus and, with him, defeated the fire-breathing monster, the chimera.
- The premise of the antagonist's plot (conditioning horses with fire to suffer a panic attack triggered by an ultrasonic whistle) is exactly the same as that used in Dick Francis's 1965 novel For Kicks.
Allusions to history and science
- Scorpus was a real person, a celebrated charioteer in Rome who won an unprecedented 2,000 races before being killed in a crash at the approximate age of 27. Scopas’s character is clearly based on him.
- In her afterword, Caroline Lawrence notes that most modern audiences’ knowledge of Roman chariot racing comes from the 1959 film Ben-Hur, which recreates the excitement of a chariot race but contains several historical inaccuracies. She says that the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur, which has footage of an actual fatal crash that occurred during filming, would probably give the viewer a better idea of what a real chariot race would have been like.