Back to top

Crossing the Rubicon

Cover of A Fatal Thing Happened on
A review of A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon

I'm a fan of true crime tv and podcasts and will listen to a wide variety of them, but when it comes to books, I'm a bit more particular. I think this choosiness has to do with being able to distance myself a bit from the content and for me, when I'm reading, it can feel so much more immediate. So for nonfiction crime books I gravitate to historical crime with the natural distancing of time making it more enjoyable. A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum really fit that bill.

I don't have to give you much synopsis since it's all there in the title. Southon is exploring ancient Rome and its history of people killing other people (homicides and murders, she gives you a definition of both). She starts off with the murder of Julius Caesar as any good historian of murder in Rome would do, but then she flashes back to the murder of an earlier politician - likely one you haven't heard about - Tiberius Gracchus. Southon argues that Gracchus's murder was the true beginning of the downfall of the Republic and led to, after about 100 years of senators killing off other senators, the rise of Julius Caesar as Emperor. After that Southon breaks the book into sections and focuses on the different kinds of killings that were happening; political, within a family, for entertainment, and those that affected the imperial succession (in one 50 year period 26 emperors were killed). 

Southon's conversational style with its irreverent asides worked for me - though that may not be the case for everyone. Aside from the histories of the crimes themselves, I also appreciated her exploration of how societal norms can be pushed and pushed. Each incremental action, what might once have been completely unacceptable, becomes normalized and less alarming, until you've crossed the Rubicon (if you'll forgive the too apt metaphor) and there's no getting back. A timely reminder about the peril our society is experiencing in the present day (though with less murder).

Dec 5, 2023