|The Slave-girl from Jerusalem|
Number in series
December 80 AD
2 April 2007
Number of pages
December, 80 AD
"Ostia is gripped by a case of triple murder. The defendant seems the most unlikely criminal - a tragic and beautiful slave-girl with a haunted past.
Who will defend the slave-girl? And is she really innocent? Justice must prevail in the courtroom, but it isn't easy when the vices and virtues of everyone concerned - even Flavia and her friends - are brought into question."
(The above text is an extract from blurb.)
The story opens with Jonathan ben Mordecai having a premonition of a death and subsequent funeral procession. He cannot tell who has died; he only knows that it is someone close to him. When he wakes outside, to several black-clothed people mourning in the mist. He finds out that they have been hired to grieve for Dives, a wealthy landowner.
Jonathan's sister, Miriam, is approached by Hephzibah bat David, a girlhood friend from Jerusalem. Hephzibah is in serious trouble. Formerly a slave owned by Dives, she claims that she was manumitted, but now that Dives is dead, his heir, Nonius Celer, says he has no proof of her freedom and insists on keeping her as part of the estate.
Miriam asks Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia, and Lupus, to help prove Hephzibah is free. But they have barely started investigating when the town is upset by a series of murders: first, Papillio, one of the town Decurions, is stabbed; he dies in Nubia's arms. Then Mercutor, a freedman on Dives's (now Celer's) estate, is found dead in Hephzibah's room.
Before long, Celer brings charges against Hephzibah for murder. His theory is that the Decurion would have confirmed that she was never set free; and the freedman must have suspected that Dives didn't die of natural causes – Hepzibah killed him. She had a motive: Dives was a soldier - as was Celer's father - in the legions that sacked Jerusalem during the Great Revolt.
Hephzibah is tried in the basilica; the children's old friend Pliny the Younger offers to help, but withdraws quickly when Celer retains the legendary orator Quintilian to present his case. The children turn to their other friend, aspiring lawyer Flaccus.
During the first day in court, however, things do not go well; Quintilian is polished and smooth, while Flaccus's speech comes off as rehearsed and insincere. The evidence against Hephzibah is strong: witnesses say that Dives wanted to marry her, but she ran away, screaming that she hated him. Hephzibah is forced to admit this is true. Moreover, the two murder victims were killed by someone unfamiliar with a sword, which implies a woman.
Even worse, the children's old ally, local magistrate Marcus Artorius Bato, appears as a witness for Celer, and does everything possible to slander Hepzibah and her friends, including the children and every member of their family. Elsewhere, Celer's agents have been digging up dirt against the children to discourage them from helping Hephzibah, and Nubia is forced to go into hiding when it is revealed that her own manumission was not legally completed.
Before he died, Papillio managed to whisper a clue to Nubia to "find the other six." At first, Flavia believes that this is a reference to the siege of Masada, of which there were only seven survivors, including Hephzibah. But then she realizes that, under Roman law, a will requires seven witnesses. The two murder victims must have been witnesses to Dives's real will, and they have to find the other five.
On the second day, Flaccus rallies and gives a riveting oration, while Lupus and Jonathan search the town for the real will. But in the middle of the trial, Flavia solves the case, and whispers the solution to Flaccus, who is so overjoyed that he kisses her in full view of the gallery.
What really happened was: Celer knew he had been cut out of Dives's will, so he killed Dives and forged a will, then tried to eliminate the seven witnesses to the real will. Hephzibah had to be silenced, because Celer suspected that she might be one of the seven, or even that Dives's real will left the estate to her.
The proof? Flavia realizes that the wounds on Papillio and Mercutor's bodies show that they were both killed by a left-handed man – which also explains the killer's unfamiliarity with a sword, since left-handed men are not allowed to serve in the Roman army. Flaccus demonstrates, then points out that Celer is left-handed.
For the finale, Lupus and Jonathan deliver the copy of Dives's real will, which Flaccus reads aloud to confirm that Celer had a motive:
- the estate is left not to Celer, but to one of Dives's Jewish freedmen;
- Hephzibah's freedom is confirmed, and she is left a sizable portion of the income (usufruct) from the estate;
- a similarly sizable portion is left to the synagogue in Ostia.
In mockery, Dives leaves a pittance to the sycophants and fortune-hunters who have surrounded him all his life, and to his so-called friend, Celer, nothing but a coil of rope, "with which he may hang himself". The will also names the seven witnesses to it, including the murdered men.
Trapped, Celer confesses, but angrily says that he had a better claim to the estate than anyone else: Dives built his fortune using a relic looted from the Temple of Jerusalem; Celer's father saved Dives's life, at the cost of his own, when they were both trapped by a fire in the Temple; in exchange, Dives promised to make the elder Celer's family his heirs, but selfishly changed his mind later.
Hephzibah is acquitted, and several citizens step forward to bring suit against Celer, thereby almost having him arrested. It is revealed that Bato received a large sum of money from Celer in exchange for his testimony. Quintilian, impressed by Flaccus's speech and not at all abashed at having represented a murderer in court, offers Flaccus an apprenticeship with him in Rome.
In a sharp contrast to the joy of the successful trial, the novel ends tragically: Miriam dies in childbirth, aged only fifteen. Her father, Doctor Mordecai, has the chance to save her, at the cost of her twin sons' lives, but she makes him promise to save the boys, instead of her.
In a letter it is revealed that Miriam knew she was going to die bearing her sons and has arranged for Hephzibah and two wet-nurses, Priscilla and Lydia, to look after them. She requests that the boys be named Philadelphus and Soter.
With the funeral that follows, Jonathan's dreams are made true, Miriam being the body. His father and brother-in-law, Gaius, are so wracked with grief that they are unable to give the expected eulogy. He takes the responsibility on himself, speaking of Miriam's incredible faith and how it had carried her to Paradise. He honours her sacrifice for her sons and, through tears, states that Miriam's life was "not just a good life" - it was "the best life".
- The events of the novel are mentioned in Death by Vespasian, from the short story collection Trimalcho's Feast, which takes the form of a letter from Bato to the Emperor.
The novel contains many references to the first Jewish-Roman War of AD 66-73:
- Dives was a soldier in one of legions that laid siege to Jerusalem;
- Jonathan and his family, as well as Hephzibah, were refugees from that siege;
- Hephzibah was one of the few survivors of the siege of Masada, while the rest of *the Jewish freedom fighters committed mass suicide.
- Before the events of the book, Hephzibah and her mother were interviewed by Josephus, author of the history The Jewish War.
The book illustrates several unique aspects of the legal system in Ancient Rome:
- A person's last will and testament requires seven witnesses; in the modern world, fewer witnesses are required, and sometimes none at all, in the case of holographic wills (i.e., wills that are entirely handwritten by the testator).
- In addition to the formal ceremony, payment of a "freedom tax" is required to complete a slave's manumission; Nubia's freedom is jeopardized when it is revealed that Flavia never paid this tax;
- Lawyers, like physicians, are not legally allowed to accept payment for their services; compensation usually comes in the form of gifts during traditional festivals, such as Saturnalia;
- Freed slaves may own property, but there are restrictions on their ability to inherit it; for that reason, Dives cannily leaves Hephzibah a portion of the income from his estate, rather than a portion of the estate itself;
- Criminal enforcement is largely private in Ancient Rome; unlike today, there is no public system of enforcement, such as a prosecuting attorney ostensibly bringing a case on behalf of the community (e.g., People vs. _______, or Crown vs. ________.) For instance, Nonius Celer confesses to murder in the gallery, before several witnesses, but the judge states that he has no authority to try Celer unless another citizen brings suit against him.
- Many aspects of a Roman legal trial seem strange to a modern viewer; for instance, the emphasis on oration rather than evidence, and the permissibility of character assassination.
- Court procedure and the practice of rhetoric are portrayed during the murder trial.