The Thieves of Ostia

Number in series


Told Through

Flavia Gemina


June 79 AD


Ostia, the port of Rome, in Italy

First published

20 September 2001

Number of pages



The Secrets of Vesuvius

The Thieves of Ostia is the first book in Caroline Lawrence's The Roman Mysteries. It is published by Orion Children's Books.


June, 79 AD

"In Ostia, the port of Rome, Flavia Gemina , a Roman sea captain's daughter, is about to embark on a thrilling adventure.

The theft of her father's signet ring leads her to three extraordinary people - Jonathan, the Jewish boy next door; Nubia, the African slave-girl; and Lupus, the mute beggar boy - who become her friends. Their investigations take them to the harbour, the forum, and the tombs of the dead, as they try to discover who is killing the dogs of Ostia, and why."

(The above text is an extract from the blurb.)

Plot SynopsisEdit

Flavia Gemina is sitting in her house's garden on Green Fountain street, reading a scroll, when her father, Marcus Flavius Geminus, asks for her assistance in finding his lost signet ring, one that came from her deceased mother. As he leaves to attend to his duties, Flavia notices a magpie's print on one of the scrolls. Knowing that magpies are birds that are attracted to shiny objects, she uses her bulla as bait to find the nest. The magpie takes it and leads her out into the necropolis, forcing her to lock herself out of her house.

She finds the nest up in a tree and retrieves her father's signet ring and her bulla. She also takes other jewellery she finds. However, before she could lower herself to the ground, a pack of wild dogs had gathered below her, panting hungrily up at her.

Screaming for help, she is surprised when some of the dogs yelp and jerk in pain, as if they were struck. A voice commands her to come down, and she falls, spraining her ankle. A boy helps her to her feet and assists her in walking, alternatively throwing stones at the dogs with his sling.

As they near the town wall, the boy leads her to the door beside her house and they tumble through. Safe, she meets Mordecai ben Ezra, a Jewish doctor and her next door neighbor who treats her ankle and offers her mint tea, and his children, Miriam, who tends to her asthmatic brother, and Jonathan, the boy who saved her life. She also meets Bobas, their sweet, white house dog.

Three days later, on her birthday, her father takes her out to the blacksmith in hopes of selling the jewelry she found in the magpie's nest so she could use the money to by th Aeneid. On the way, she spots a group of shivering naked girls in chains being whipped to walk by Venalicius, a slave trader rumoured to kidnap children. Flavia notices one African girl at the end of the line who did not flinch or shiver and whose wooden plaque beared her price: six hundred sestercii.

In the shop, the goldsmith offers her six hundred sestercii for her jewelry, and she accepts. She asks to be taken to the forum, where slaves are sold, and her father walks up to Venalicius to buy the African slave girl. However, the slave trader increases her price to seven hundred sestercii, a hundred short of Flavia's money. Marcus pays off the extra hundred as a birthday gift to Flavia.

Back in her house, Flavia cleans the girl and feeds her. The African girl introduces herself as Nubia, but does not understand Latin and only minimal Greek. Later that night, she invites Jonathan and his family for her birthday dinner and introduces them to Nubia. In the middle of the party, Nubia disappears, and they find her sleeping in the storeroom, curled up beside Flavia's dog, Scuto.

A few days later, Jonathan and his family accompany Flavia and Nubia to the town's harbour to see Marcus off on his trading voyage. Also with them was her father's partner, Titus Cordius Atticus, a sad man who lost his family, and his freedman who he considered adopting, Libertus. Flavia promises to her father that she won't get into any trouble while he is away. Marcus sails off.

As they walk back to their street, they notice a trail of blood leading ot the opened door of Jonathan's house. There they discover that Bobas, their dog, has been killed and his killer had taken his head. Nothing is stolen, and all that is left behind is a dice. After settling the ordeal, Miriam is sent to relatives to calm her down, and Jonathan, Flavia and Nubia agree to find the murderer.  

They first start questioning Libertus, who was the only person in the street at the time. He tells them that he saw a frightened man running away with a leather bag. He gives them a few details, including the direction the man was running towards: the necropolis. 

As they go to the tombs, Scuto leads them to a mn crying over a tomb. But as soon as he sees them, he shouts for them to take Scuto away, and that he hates dogs. Retreating, they return to the tomb to find that he is gone. Then they notice that he was crying over a young girl's grave, Avita. 

They question Alma, Flavia's nursemaid and cook if she knew anything of the name. Alma tells them that the girl, Avita Procula, was the daughter of a sailor, Publius Avitus Proculus, who lived just up their street. Avita had died of a mad dog's bite while her father was away on a voyage.

They ask Mordecai about the effect of a mad dog's bite, rabies. In the midst of their disscussion, they hear the pack of wild dogs barking out of the window, and Mordecai attacks them with a bow and arrow. Looking out the window, Nubia spots a boy up a tree, climbing nimbly as the dogs barked up at him. 

Mordecai goes out into the necropolis with a knife and is attacked by the leader of the wild dogs. Out of instinct, he defends himself and kills the dog by beheading it. Flavia, Nubia and Jonathan follow him out, and they urge the boy in the trees to come down. However, he continues to climb higher, until a branch he was hanging on snaps, and he falls to the ground.

Mordecai treats him in their home and tries to get him to talk. However, they learn that his tongue has been cut out, therefore a mute. Flavia recognizes him as a beggar in the forum. Through gestures, they learn that his name is Lupus and he is an orphan. Mordecai then urges the girls to return to their home and invites Lupus to spend the night in theirs, and he accepts. Before she leaves, however, Flavia asks Lupus if he will help them in their investigation, and he agrees.

The next morning, the four discuss their investigation, and Lupus draws the Avitus on Flavia's wax tablet. They go over to Cordius' house, where Libertus is at, and show him the wax tablet with Lupus' drawing of Avitus. He recognizes the man as the one he saw running away the day of Bobas' murder. 

Jonathan and Lupus stay at Flavia's house as Mordecai goes to the magistrate's office and attends to his patients for the day. Flavia devises a plan to invesitage Avitus and Jonathan takes Lupus to the Bathes of Thetis. 

Flavia and Lupus, disguised as siblings and friends of Avita, visit Avitus' house and meet his wife, Julia as Nubia and Jonathan listened from outside the town wall, up in trees. Julia shows them to Avita's room, but is caught by Avitus, who scolds her for entering. He loses his anger and cries, bitter that he will never see his daughter again, unlike his wife, as they share the same religion.

Flavia and Lupus slip out, and Nubia and Jonathan discover that the head of the wild dog Mordecai had killed the day before is missing. Lupus agrees to follow Avitus as a beggar boy while Flavia, Jonathan and Nubia go to the marine forum to ask about Avitus. On the way, Nubia meets a fellow African selling flutes, but cannot buy one due to its price: one hundred sestercii.

At the marine forum, they do not gain much information about Avitus, except what they already know. As Nubia remembers the time when a girl from her clan was drowned by Venalicius, she spots three of his men walking towards them. She warns her friends, and they run for their lives. 

Lupus follows Avitus to several taverns where he would get drunk when he overheard a young man promising to pay off his debt with treasure found in captain Marcus Geminus' house the next day. He recognized the name as Flavia's father. 

Not knowing where else to go, Jonathan leads Flavia and Nubia to a shortcut that takes them to Ostia's synagogue. There, they are almost caught, but saved by a rabbi who looks at Jonathan dissaprovingly because he is Christian, much to Flavia's shock. However, he lets them out, blessing them on their way. The three decide to pass through the necropolis, at the risk of wild dogs over Venalicius' men.

Flavia questions Jonathan on his religion, which he defends angrily. However, their conversation ends when they notice a pack of wild dogs, and they noticed that, out in the necropolis, they had no where to hide. Although they initially try to ward them off by throwing sticks for them to fetch, Nubia urges them to follow her command.

Lupus continues to tail Avitus to a watchtower, but is stopped by the guard. Avitus goes to the top of the tower, and groups of people have begun to gather around to stare at him. Much to everyone's shock and horror, Avitus leans foreward and falls to the ground.

Nubia orders Flavia and Jonathan to remain calm, and she starts singing a song about the dogs, of their time in the wild, then as man's friend. Slowly, the dogs calm down to sit and listen. One by one, they leave the friends, who decide to enter the town by the gate.

Once at Green Fountain street, they see a group of soldiers gathered around Green Fountain street. Libertus was speaking to a magistrate when he sees them and gestures for them, saying that they knew who was killing the dogs. The three wonder what was going on, until they learn that Cordius' fierce red watchdog has been killed the same way as Bobas, his head also missing. 

They are questioned and they reveal Avitus as their suspect, whom the soldiers try to question but find that he has not yet arrived back. Mordecai arrives and they return to Flavia's house. Later that day, during dinner, Lupus arrives, and they exchange information, crossing out Avitus as the suspect. 

Jonathan and Mordecai leaves for the night, while Lupus chooses to stay at Flavia's. In bed, Flavia thinks things over, and suddenly figures out who the murderer is, when Nubia screams from the storage room. A thief has entered the storeroom. Their large doorslave, Caudex, catches the intruder, and they are surprised that it is Lupus. 

After a little questioning, they discover that Lupus was stealing from a golden amorpha filled with gold. Although initially angry, Flavia suddenly solves the crime and discover that the treasure belongs to her father's partner, Cordius. Not knowing about the treasure, she learns from Lupus that he overheard about it in one of the taverns he followed Avitus to. Flavia asks Lupus to draw the face of the man he heard it from, and she recognizes him, claiming that 'it had to be him'.

Later that night, after she and the rest of the household had gone back to bed, she dreams of being chased by wild dogs with Avita, until the dogs change to Cerberus, a three headed demon dog of the underworld. She wakes up sweating, but hears a woman's scream. Getting out of bed, she finds the house empty. She finds Alma, Lupus and Nubia staring out into the streets. Then she sees what they are.

A fisherman's trident with three dog heads, Bobas, Cordius' watchdog, and the wild dog, sticking out at the top. She begins to hallucinate, seeing Cerebrus and faints.

She wakes up in Jonathan's house, where they disscuss what has happened. Alma, who had also seen the dog heads, takes it as an omen of death and decides to leave until Flavia's father returns. Flavia, however, believes that the dog heads were to scare them off so that someone could steal the gold. They devise a plan to catch the thief.

The next day, Flavia's and Jonathan's household makes a show of leaving Ostia, but Flavia, Jonathan and Mordecai slip away and meet with Marcus Artorius Bato, a magistrate. They slip to the necropolis to Flavia's back door, where they watch the inside through a gap. There they see someone searching through the study and slip into the storeroom.

They enter quietly and follow him, when he exclaims in surprise at a sticky, red-purple stained substance on his hand. The magistrate arrests him for theft, and he is revealed to be Libertus. He needed money to pay off gambling debts and knew that Cordius moved his treasure to his partner's house. He killed the dogs to silence them and scared them so they would leave long enough for him to make his theft. 

Around a month later, after the death of emperor Vespasian, Flavia invites Jonathan, Mordecai and Miriam to a party in honor of her father's return, but the Jewish doctor is saddened to hear that Lupus is not invited. He urges them to forgive Lupus for his crime, and urges them to pray and apologize for their sins as well. They then set out to find Lupus.

Later that evening, in the party, Cordius gives each of the four friends a golden coin worth one hundred sestercii each. Flavia decides to spend hers on a set of scrolls, Nubia decides to spend hers on a flute, while Jonathan decides to spend his on a new watchdog. 

Nubia suddenly dissapears, but they decide not to search for her. Flavia explains how she figured out the killer. Libertus was the only one with information, and when it proved wrong, it meant that he was lying and therefore involved. 

Nubia returns with two puppies, offspring of the wild dog pack. Nubia asks to keep one and names him Nipur, after her dog in her past. She gives the other to Jonathan, who he names Tigris

Before the party ends, Marcus invites Mordecai, his children and Lupus to his brother's farm the next month, where he shall be bringing Flavia  and Nubia to the next month. Flavia's tutor, Aristo will also join them, to give them lessons. Mordecai accepts and they all toast to a peacful month in Pompeii.

caudex is a man who sales slaves

Maps Included

  • Map of Ostia
  • Map of Flavia and Jonathan's house

    Historical References

    As explained in The Last Scroll, ancient Ostia is located sixteen miles outside Rome as Ostia Antica in modern day. The map of Ostia is nearly accurate, such as the theater and synagogue. Vespasian's death and Titus' reign are also true.