The Gabinian Affair by Ray Gleason
Book Review by Alex Johnston
The Gabinian Affair answers the age old question: How does a poor farmer’s wife, burdened by an expensive mortgage incurred in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses, afford to give her son an elite, liberal arts education? Answer: Find a rich guy, and uh, persuade him to help.
Mama was Roman, married to the descendant of a Gallic Roman citizen. And she wasn’t exactly poor. Her father was an equestrian businessman, and a pretty good one at that. He gave his daughter a not too shabby dowry of 25,000 denarii. But no way were she nor her father going to let their boorish Gallic relatives get their grubby hands on that. Helvetia (Mama) demanded that her husband take out a mortgage that he couldn’t afford to build her a proper Roman-style house.
Why did her father marry her to a Gaul anyway, even one who was a citizen? Well, her father-in-law saved the life of THE Gaius Marius, the famous general – that’s how the family got their citizenship. So there was a tenuous relationship with the Julii through that connection. But mostly, because she was a pain in his ass and he wanted to be rid of her.
Our hero, Gaius Marius Etc. had an older brother. In a primogeniture-based world, he had about as much chance of getting his hands on any of that dowry as his beleaguered father. But Helvetia did love and care for him, and decided that he needed a proper Roman tutor. Since she was unable (or at least unwilling) to pay for one, she hit upon the plan of foisting Gaius off on the family of a rich neighbor. That rich neighbor was Aulus Gabinius, paterfamilias of a noble Roman family, and father of a son who gained some fame during the Late Republic. Another son, Marcus, was about the same age as Gaius, so Helvetia figured that she would just gussy herself up, march right over to his place and suggest to Mr. Gabinius that since he was already paying for a tutor for his son, would he be so kind as to let her son join in for a free ride? Helvetia was a fierce red-head, and she didn’t lack grit, that’s for sure.
Why would Aulus Gabinius agree to such a one-sided plan? Well, when they met, there were winks, flushed faces, and subtle hand-holding mentioned, and I found myself wondering if maybe the word “Affair” appearing in the title was a sly joke about what went on there. Who knows? Maybe it was just that she promised that her son would work like a slave for him to help defray the cost. But the real kicker was a deus ex machina of sorts. Turns out that Helvetia’s father was a client of Gabinius’, so there was a patronage obligation there. You’d think she would have known that, but maybe not. What’s important is that her son got accepted, and we get to witness first-hand his education, which was the real meat of the book, this being a coming-of-age story setting up the series for further adult adventures.
And what an education! Gaius gets his letters from a Dickensian magister who delights in caning him in substituto for the mistakes of his actual student Marcus. Marcus is a dummy, but a noble dummy, so of course he goes unscathed. Gaius takes his licks, but he does learn his Roman and Greek. By injecting bits of Greek, Latin, and Homer into this part of the story, Mr. Gleason keeps it fun and interesting, in the manner of good historical fiction.
Gaius learns his fighting skill from Macro, an ex-army officer wounded in the leg in battle who worked on the family estate. This wasn’t part of the deal between Helvetia and Aulus Gabinius – Macro just saw something in the lad and started training him to fight. This part of the book really shines. In a relatively short section of a relatively short book, the author finds a way to devote real time to explaining the drilling that Gaius underwent to learn his fighting skills. I won’t get into details here – but read it; good stuff.
And, of course, our lad needs to learn about love, right? Enter Gabi, the daughter, who at first mistakes Gaius for a slave, but eventually gets sufficiently involved with him to cause problems with her brother, Aulus Gabinius Junior. That problem is solved in the time-honored fashion of the Foreign Legion, which leads our boy to Aquileia and to the beginning of Caesar’s Gallic campaigns, which is where the story ends. Ironically, he never even got to home-plate with Gabi, which led me to think that maybe the title-word “Affair” was actually a subtle reference to that!
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Fun story. As a culture, we frown upon caning and the like, and rightly so. But I have to admit – the boy got a first-rate education, and grew into a tough, smart young man – qualities which will no doubt come in handy in his further adventures with Caesar.
Mix in with the above some interesting Gallic history and a very humorous tone, and you get an enjoyable read. (Gaius’ Gran’pa, who loves his beer, refills his mug after giving his grandson a fascinating account of the “Land of Youth.” “Storytelling’s dry work,” he explains to his grandson. His wife replies, “For you, breathing’s ‘dry work.’”)
I look forward to more of Gaius’ adventures!
Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.