The Thieves of Ostia
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Cover of first edition, 2001
|Cover artist||Richard Carr, Peter Sutton, Fred van Deelen|
|Series||The Roman Mysteries|
|Publisher||Orion Children's Books|
|20 September 2001|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||208 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Followed by||The Secrets of Vesuvius|
The Thieves of Ostia is a 2001 historical novel for children written by Caroline Lawrence, the first book in The Roman Mysteries series. It is set in Ostia Antica, the harbour of ancient Rome, in the last month of the reign of emperor Vespasian.
The story is set in first century Ostia. Flavia Gemina, a Roman sea-captain's daughter, solves her first mystery, the disappearance of her father's signet ring. While doing so, she meets Jonathan and his family, and gains the wherewithal to buy the African girl Nubia at the slave market. As they band together to solve the mystery of the brutal beheading of Jonathan's dog, they are joined by the mute beggar boy Lupus.
Flavia is sitting in the garden reading one of her favourite scrolls, when she hears her father call for her. Flavia enters her father's study to find him in a panic for he has lost his Castor and Pollux signet ring which Flavia's late mother gave to him. Flavia promises to find it, and the search leads her to a magpie's nest in the necropolis outside the city wall, where she finds a gathering of jewels that the magpie has stolen. Suddenly a pack of dogs chase Flavia and she is rescued by Jonathan ben Mordecai. He takes her back to his house next door to her own where she meets his father Mordecai ben Ezra, a doctor, and his sister Miriam.
Marcus takes Flavia to the harbor to sell the jewelry she found, and on the way she is moved to pity when she sees some recently disembarked slaves led by Venalicius on the way to the market. When she is given six hundred sesterces by the jeweller, she immediately decides to buy the young girl she saw with the slaves, to save her from a life of misery. Flavia treats the young slave-girl, who is called Nubia, very kindly, giving her dates to eat and beginning to teach her Latin. Later in the day she has a birthday party with her father, Nubia and the Mordecai family.
A few days later, after seeing Marcus off on a voyage, they are shocked to find that someone has killed Jonathan's dog Bobas and taken away his head. Flavia decides this is another mystery to solve, and her friends agree. Following a lead from Cordius's freedman Libertus, they suspect a sailor called Avitus who hates dogs because his daughter died of rabies after being bitten.
A young boy, treed by the wild pack, is rescued by Mordecai, who has to kill two of the dogs in the process. He looks after the boy when he falls from the tree and offers him a place to stay. He realises that the boy's tongue has been cut out and he cannot speak. Flavia recognizes him as the beggar boy from the forum and Nubia finds out that his name is Lupus, which is the Latin word for wolf. Lupus agrees to help them solve the mystery. They cannot find any evidence against Avitus, so Lupus offers to follow him around town, as nobody notices a beggar boy. Although he finds out that Avitus just goes from tavern to tavern getting drunk, at one tavern Lupus overhears a conversation between gamblers about treasure at Marcus Geminus's house. Later he sees the grief-stricken Avitus commit suicide by throwing himself from the top of the lighthouse. Meanwhile, Flavia and her friends narrowly flee from Vanalicius' men.
When Lupus returns to find that Cordius's dog has been beheaded that afternoon, he is able to clear Avitus of the crime. He asks to stay at Flavia's house that night, but in the middle of the night is caught stealing gold coins from the storeroom - Cordius's money, secretly entrusted to Marcus. Flavia is shocked, but instantly realises that this sheds light on the mystery. Someone is after the treasure, but very few people know about it. Lupus confirms the identity of one of the gamblers he overheard. Next morning, they find a horrible sight in the street, a trident with three decapitated dogs' heads stuck on it, obviously intended to frighten them away. Flavia decides to lay a trap for the dog-killing thief, which the guilty Libertus falls into. The team is successful.
Mordecai persuades Flavia and Jonathan to forgive Lupus, reminding them of his difficult life, and of their own imperfections, and they invite him to the celebration party. Cordius is grateful to the detectives and gives them all a reward of a gold coin, as Flavia explains the clues which led to the solving of the mystery. Nubia brings two puppies and gives one to Jonathan; they will be called Nipur and Tigris. Marcus promises them next time he goes away on a voyage, they will all go to his brother Gaius's farm in Pompeii, where they will be safe.
The main characters of the series first appear in this book, and their personalities and abilities can already be seen. Nubia has determination and a great and her musicality, particularly when she sings to calm the dogs. Her reward from Cordius will be used to buy the lotus wood flute which she plays in the other books. Lupus is good at trailing people and has artistic skill, his portraits of Avitus and Libertus being instantly recognizable.
Other characters from the series who first appear in this book include the members of Flavia's household, Marcus, Alma, Caudex and Aristo (the latter just at the end); Jonathan's father and sister, Venalicius the slave trader and Bato the magistrate.
- In the epilogue, it is mentioned that the reigning emperor, Vespasian, has just died of natural causes, to be succeeded by his son, Titus.
- It also talks about going to Pompeii which leads to the next book.
Allusions to other literary works
Flavia loves reading, and intends to buy a set of scrolls of the Aeneid by Virgil with the money she expects to get from the jeweller. Instead she receives the set as a birthday gift from Mordecai, who has two copies. He has many scrolls in his study, including a set of Pliny's Natural History. When he reads from one of the scrolls, it is the first time Flavia has heard of Pliny, who appears in The Secrets of Vesuvius. She is so interested in the Natural History that she plans to buy it with her reward from Cordius. Mordecai, a Jewish member of the Christian sect, quotes from the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Samuel, and a copy of the Torah takes pride of place in his study.
One of the themes of this book is the variety of lifestyles in the Roman town, showing four different households on the same street. Flavia's home is a typical equestrian household, an attractive and comfortable house with several bedrooms, a study and a central garden with a fountain, with two slaves to do the cooking, cleaning and shopping. Jonathan's house, next door, is similar but exotically decorated with multicolored carpets and cushions, and as they do not keep slaves on principle, they divide the chores between them. Cordius' house is far grander, with mosaics, frescos and a marble floor, a very large garden with an ornamental pool and bronze statues, and many slaves. The house down the street where Avitus and his wife live is divided into apartments, and is cramped and dilapidated. Lupus, on the other hand, lives outdoors and supports himself by scavenging and begging, until he joins Jonathan's household.