Seven boys attend a prestigious school in Ancient Rome called the Xanthos School. Their teacher, Xantippus, is Greek and seems to them a learned, humorless man. It is hard to pay attention when the school is open to the street, and so many interesting things are happening outside. One of the boys, Caius, keeps poking another, Rufus, with his stylus. Rufus can't concentrate, and when he is scolded, he writes "Caius is a dumbbell" on a wax stylus and hangs it up on the wall. A fight between the boys ensues, with Rufus getting kicked out of school.
The next morning, the boys arrive at school to find their teacher missing, and soon they discover that the very same words on the wax tablet have been painted on a temple in bright red paint: Caius is a dumbbell. What has Rufus done? The temple is dedicated to the Emperor, and although Rufus claims he's innocent, he is sure to be arrested for desecrating the temple if his friends can't prove his innocence. The boys' search for the truth takes them into dark and scary places where they discover things are not always what they seem.
I read this book to my children, 7 and 9 years old. The older one had been studying Ancient Rome in school, and I fondly remembered reading this when I was a child. At first I thought it was going to be too complex for them, with the strange names and unfamiliar setting, but from the very first night we began the book, they begged for another chapter every single time we read it. I had to stop to explain things a few times (particularly who was who - and even I had trouble telling the boys apart, as they are rather indistinguishable from each other), but we all truly enjoyed it. I had no idea that there was a sequel to this one called The Roman Ransom, and we will definitely be reading that one some time soon.
This book was written sixty years ago, and I have no doubt it will still be read sixty years from now. It is exciting and funny, presents an intriguing mystery with well-placed clues, and it explores both the bright and dark side of human nature. I also enjoyed learning about the inspiration for the novel: "During the 1936 excavations of Pompeii, a temple wall came to light on which had been scribbled, in a childish hand, the words: CAIUS ASINUS EST. That scrawl from the days of Ancient Rome was the inspiration for this book."
Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld; illustrated by Charlotte Kleinert; translated by Richard Winston (Harcourt Children's Books, 1956)
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