The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem

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The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem
The Slave-girl from Jerusalem cover.jpg
First edition, 2007
Author Caroline Lawrence
Illustrator Richard Russell Lawrence (maps)
Cover artist Peter Sutton,
Fred van Deelan
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series The Roman Mysteries
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Orion Books
Publication date
2 April 2007
Media type Print (Hardback, Paperback)
Pages 240pp
ISBN 1-84255-188-4
OCLC 77257695
Preceded by The Charioteer of Delphi 
Followed by The Beggar of Volubilis 

The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem is a children's historical novel by Caroline Lawrence. The novel, the thirteenth in The Roman Mysteries series, was published in 2007. It is set in December AD 80 in and around Ostia, and deals with death, slavery and the Roman legal system.

Plot summary


Jonathan's sister, Miriam, is approached by Hepzibah, a girlhood friend from Jerusalem. Hepzibah is in serious trouble. Formerly a slave owned by the wealthy landowner Dives, she claims that she was manumitted (set free), but Dives has just died, and 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 Hepzibah 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, and then Mercutor, a freedman on Dives's (now Celer's) estate.

Before long, Celer brings charges against Hepzibah 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.

Hepzibah is tried in the basilica; the children's old friend Pliny 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 Gaius Valerius Flaccus (or, as Flavia calls him, "Floppy").

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 Hepzibah is strong: witnesses say that Dives wanted to marry her, but she ran away, screaming that she hated him. Hepzibah is forced to admit this is true. Moreover, the two murder victims were killed by someone unfamiliar with a sword, most likely 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 Hepzibah, 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 Hepzibah. 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. Hepzibah 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;
  • Hepzibah'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 except 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.

Hepzibah 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.


Jonathan is disturbed by repeated prophetic visions of a traditional Roman funeral procession, which he believes to be his. This is exacerbated by the cremation of Dives, which he witnesses, and is communicated to his friends, who all make wills which are interspersed through the story.

Rather than being the funeral of Jonathan, the prophecy is that of the funeral of his sister, Miriam, who dies in childbirth when she is only fifteen, having given birth to twin sons. Subsequently, her will reveals that she had been given a vision from an angel, foretelling the future work and importance of her sons. She willingly sacrifices her life for them, and recruits Hepzibah to be their foster mother after her death.

As a Christian, Jonathan prays in some agony to his Lord over his sister’s death, and receives a revelation that he was being prepared for the funeral eulogy, through which he is to encourage and console his father, friends and step-brother in their sorrow and anguish. Jonathan’s eulogy ends the story with his declaration that his sister had not only had a “good life”, but, triumphantly and with tears, the “best life”.


The events of the novel are mentioned in the collection Trimalchio's Feast in the short story "Death by Vespasian", which takes the form of a letter from Bato to the Emperor.



Death is a major theme in the novel:

  • It opens with Jonathan having a premonition that someone in his family will die soon, and his chance encounter with the hired mourners at Dives's funeral;
  • After becoming conscious of their own mortality, all four of the children make their own wills, as do Miriam and Marcus's patron, Cordius. In her will, Miriam also includes a message that she had been given a vision of her own death, and chose to sacrifice her own life rather than those of her sons;
  • Papillio the decurion dies in Nubia's arms, and Mercutor the freedman is found dead in Hepzibah's room.
  • In fact, this is the first novel in the series dealing with the deliberate murder of a human being; the first book, The Thieves of Ostia was based around the murder of household dogs, and the previous novel, The Charioteer of Delphi featured sabotage leading to sometimes fatal accidents, but not with deliberate killing as its goal.
  • The book ends with Miriam's death in childbirth and her funeral, and the role of her Christian faith in her life and sacrifice.

Roman Law

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 Hepzibah 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, 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.


Both the villain, Celer, and the primary victim, Dives, are presented as somewhat ambivalent. Celer is a cold-blooded murderer, who kills out of greed, but his motive becomes somewhat understandable when he reveals Dives' own selfishness.

The deceased Dives is portrayed as genuinely regretful of his past actions, and as trying to make up for it by leaving his property to Hepzibah, to his Jewish slaves, and to the synagogue. Yet at the same time, he built his fortune by stealing a religious artifact, and at the cost of his comrade's life. Also, his guilt appears less noble when it is mixed with desire, even lust, for Hepzibah.

He is also portrayed as a hypocrite: in his will, he claims to despise his clique of fortune hunters and gives them a mocking goodbye; yet he was happy to receive their attention while he was alive, and so kept his real will a secret. Had he not done so, he might never have been murdered, which allowed Celer to produce the forgery as genuine.

Historical references

  • 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 Hepzibah, were refugees from that siege;
    • Hepzibah was one of the few survivors of the siege of Masada, while the rest of the Jewish defenders committed mass suicide.
    • Before the events of the book, Hepzibah and her mother were interviewed by Josephus, author of the history The Jewish War.
  • Quintilian the rhetorician appears as a minor character.

TV adaptation

The Slave-Girl From Jerusalem was the last novel adapted for the television series.

One major difference of this television episode from its source book is that Miriam bat Mordecai dies after the first day in court, not after Hepzibah is freed. Another major difference between the television series and the book is that the television series is finished with this episode, but the book series continues. Here are some other notable differences:

  • Celer is the son of Dives in the movie though in the book he is the son of Dives' friend and tent-mate.
  • The merchant Mecator is not included in the TV series.
  • Hepizbah becomes the owner of Dives' estate in the movie (as well as a freedwoman) but in the book, she becomes a Junian Latin like Nubia.
  • Nubia gets caught by the vigels in the TV episode, but safely stays hidden in the book.
  • Like his father Mordecai, Jonathan is a Christian in the book. However his Christian response to his visions is omitted entirely in the TV episode, changing the ending from one of hope and triumph to one of hopelessness and banality.

See also

External links

  • The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem at the Roman Mysteries website
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