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A case of mistaken identity -- solved

Lindsey Davies needs me

Nov 28, 2016

A while ago, a good friend introduced me to Marcus Didius Falco, the Roman detective who features in a whole slew of whodunnits by Lindsay Davis. Falco is an informer, working mostly for the emperor Vespasian, who roams about the empire solving mysteries and giving readers like me insights into ancient Rome.

Of course, I'm not a classicist or historian, which may be the reason I find the Falco novels such fun. Where else would I have cause to learn the intimate workings of Archimedes' hodometer? I mention that because it plays a key part in the book I have just finished, A Dying Light in Corduba. And because I am not a historian, I take as gospel everything Davis has to tell me about hodometers and everything else in the Roman empire.

But I am a biologist. So when Lindsey Davis writes:

The great soft-hearted lunk looked completely absorbed by his pretty cockerel and three hens as they pecked up maize

as she does on page 212 of my edition, I tsk silently and move on. 1

No biggie.

On the other hand, when I read, on page 179 of my edition:

'I was delighted when he took his new tenancy,' the old man said in a tone of voice I found irritating, as if Marius Optatus were his pet marmoset.

something inside me snaps.

A marmoset in Ancient Rome, I shriek inwardly. Call Thor Heyerdahl, to prove that the Romans explored the coast of South America and returned with adorable New World monkeys.

And then I set to detecting. Is this just silliness? That seems unlikely. So I consult a Latin-English dictionary. There's no Latin word for marmoset. Darn. I check Latin words for monkey. And there, at the bottom of the list, it is: callithrix, callitrichos/is.

Definitions:

  1. An Ethiopian monkey
  2. waterwort (Asplenium trichomanes) (for hair coloring)

As I say, I'm not a historian or classicist, but as a biologist I know my Greek and Latin roots, and as a result that second definition actually makes more sense to me than the first, callitrichos meaning roughly "beautiful hair". 2

So maybe this Ethiopian monkey was possesed of a particularly beautiful coat. Could be a male gelada baboon, I suppose, or a black and white colobus. Or perhaps Lindsey Davis knew the word and context from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, looked up callithrix in an English dictionary and discovered it meant marmoset.

Unlike Falco, I have no evidence to support going public with any of this. But I do feel a great sense of satisfaction.


  1. Somehow corn, which was most likely wheat but could equally have been barley or (unlikely in southern Spain) oats, has appeared in the Roman empire about 1400 years before it should have. 

  2. Leaving aside, obviously, the fact that the common name waterwort does not usually attach to Asplenium trichomanes, which is much more commonly known as maidenhair fern., Oh yes, I love Latin almost as much as I dislike "common" names. 

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