The Sirens of Surrentum
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Peter Sutton
Fred van Deelan
|Series||The Roman Mysteries|
|3 March 2006|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||214 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PZ7.L425 Si 2007|
|Preceded by||The Fugitive from Corinth|
|Followed by||The Charioteer of Delphi|
June, AD 80: When Flavia Gemina's father Marcus leaves on another sea voyage, she and her three friends – Nubia, Jonathan, and Lupus – accept an invitation from their friend Polla Pulchra to spend the rest of the month at her father's luxurious villa in Surrentum. Behind the invitation is a plea for help: Pulchra's mother, Polla Argentaria, seems to fall ill whenever they have houseguests, and Pulchra suspects someone is trying to poison her mother. On the pretext of a matchmaking party, Pulchra has convinced her father to invite all of Pulchra's suspects: three young widows and three bachelors.
Romance is thick in the air: Flavia still nurses a secret love for Pulchra's father, the charismatic Publius Pollius Felix, despite the difference in their ages. She is flustered to find that the male guests include the young lawyer Gaius Valerius Flaccus, who shared a past adventure with them (in The Colossus of Rhodes). Pulchra also takes a shine to Flaccus, even while growing closer to Jonathan. Flavia also meets, for the first time, the young senator's son she has been betrothed to: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. The two do not make a favorable impression on each other, but gradually she is won over by his inquisitive nature and willingness to help in their investigation.
Flavia assigns each member of her new "team" to watch one of the young bachelors or widows, but no obvious suspect turns up. However, their surveillance does reveal the disquieting fact that Felix regularly cheats on his wife, with the female houseguests, the young slave girls, and several women from the nearby town of Baiae (whilst there are no explicit depictions of sexual activity in the novel, there is certain implicit material). They consider whether one of the young widows (or even Felix himself) is trying to poison Polla to make way for a new marriage.
Tranquillus has the idea of consulting a poisoning expert in Baiae, Locusta (purportedly the daughter of the famous poisoner employed by Nero). Locusta says Polla's symptoms are consistent with poisoning by hemlock, which shows that the poisoner must be an amateur: hemlock is only lethal if used in the correct dose, and when it is fresh. Locusta draws the conclusion that Polla has built up a resistance to hemlock because of this.
Flavia has the idea of laying a trap: she lets the adults overhear her angrily scolding Tranquillus for bringing back a packet of incredibly lethal poison from Locusta for "research purposes," and tells him to hide it in an isolated part of the villa. They lie in wait to see who steals it, and the poisoner turns out to be Polla herself. Driven to despair by her husband's repeated infidelities, she has been trying (somewhat half-heartedly) to commit suicide. Flavia watches her swallow a cup of wine laced with the non-existent poison, then faint from its imagined effects. Flavia then confronts Felix, telling him how much his selfish behavior has wounded his wife. When Polla regains consciousness, Flavia likewise reprimands her, calling her a coward for preferring death to a life in which she has everything a woman could ever want - beauty, wealth, and two loving children - except a perfect marriage.
Pulchra, who once idolized her father, is so distraught by her parents' behavior that she makes her own half-hearted attempt at suicide, swimming out to sea to drown herself. Flavia convinces her to come back, telling her that her parents can mend their relationship, and to remember that Flavia and the others are still her friends.
Felix calls Flavia into his study to thank her in private for helping his wife and daughter. To her surprise, he moves closer, as though wanting to kiss her. Though she has dreamed about him doing this before, now that it is about to happen, she is suddenly repulsed, and excuses herself in a hurry. She runs out, deciding to forget that she has ever loved him.
Tranquillus receives a harsh letter from his father, who has heard about some of the wilder goings-on at the villa, and put a scandalous interpretation on some of his innocent exchanges with Flavia. The letter ends with his father ordering him to end the betrothal and return to Rome. Tranquillus is furious, but has no choice but to obey. Flavia is saddened, as she was honestly getting to like Tranquillus.
As the four friends depart the villa, she decides that she is in no hurry to fall in love and get married. Instead, she is determined to enjoy her childhood for as long as possible, and have as many adventures with her friends as she can.
Explanation of the title
The title refers to the myth of the Sirens, creatures with the bodies of birds and the heads of beautiful women who perched on rocks at sea and lured men to their deaths with their hypnotic singing. The sirens appear in Homer's Odyssey, which Flavia recites to an interested audience. The allusion comes up since each of the three widows invited to the villa for the false matchmaking party is both young and very beautiful, drawing the attention of all the men.
There is also a humorous scene parodying the passage from the Odyssey, when the women and girls of the villa decide to skinny dip in the ocean and sunbathe naked on a rock out at sea. In excitement, the boys try to slip out in a boat to spy on them, but end up running aground on some nearby rocks.
Allusions to real-life persons, places, or events
- Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus will grow up to be the famous historian Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars, among other works.
- Publius Pollius Felix was a real person, the owner of a luxurious villa in the Bay of Naples, and the patron of the poet Publius Papinius Statius, who described the villa in his poems. However, it is conjecture that the site described in the novel was the villa of the real Felix.
- The fictional Polla claims to be the widow of Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, the famous poet. In her afterword, Caroline Lawrence writes that Polla Argentaria was indeed the name of Lucan's widow, though it is controversial whether this Polla was the same Polla who was married to Felix.
- Polla tells Flavia about many past women who have committed suicide, either in despair over lost loves, or in loyalty to dead ones: Queen Dido of Carthage (as described in Virgil's Aeneid), the wife of Seneca the Younger, and Arria the wife of Caecina Paetus.
- During one dinner party the guests debate the relative philosophical merits of Stoicism versus Epicureanism.