Roman citizen I might be – indeed I was born a nobleman in my own tribe – but I was also an ex-slave and a tradesman, and the gulf between myself and Marcus was as great as that between me and the bath-house attendant himself. Without the most explicit instructions I would never have dared to come seek my patron here.
In late second-century Glevum (modern Gloucester), a body is discovered in a shrine to the Emperor Commodus, living embodiment of Hercules. The mere fact of the crime is shocking enough, but complicating matters are the facts that the emperor is not one to take sacrilege of his divine person lightly and that the victim appears to be an ambassador from Rome.
Then the body disappears, and there are reports of unearthly wailing and phantom bloodstains.
As the highest-ranking magistrate in Glevum, Marcus Aurelius Septimus is responsible for finding and dealing with the perpetrator(s) of the crime, but it is his client, pavement-maker and freed former slave Libertus, who assumes the actual task of solving the mystery. Upon receiving news of the imminent arrival of another imperial legate, Libertus must do so quickly, even as rumors spread through the city that he committed sacrilege against the emperor.
I’ve read several of Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus mysteries in the past year, so it follows that I enjoy them. I do, though not for the mysteries themselves, which I find rather thin. Rather, it’s her attention to historical detail, in particular the incredibly complex nature of ancient Roman society and interactions between patron and client, patrician and ordinary citizen, free and slave, and Roman and Celt, that pulls me in and holds my interest.
As a student of history I’m wary of historical fiction in general because it tends to fall into two categories: those that include every imaginable microscopic detail in the name of authenticity, but fail to produce a narrative structure sturdy enough to support all that detail; and those that throw in a few historical details to make the story seem authentic, but the wildly anachronistic characterizations undo any potential realism. When I do read historical fiction it’s usually set in Britain during the Roman occupation because it falls within the general purview of my historical interests but doesn’t land right in the center of my specialization. That way I can enjoy the story and the efforts at authenticity without being too bogged down by details I know are wrong.
Rosemary Rowe is, in my opinion, the best – as in most authentic – writer of this particular subgenre precisely because of the attention she gives to the way Roman society functioned back then. (For the record, I find Ruth Downie’s Medicus mysteries more enjoyable as a casual reader, but Rowe’s make my inner historian wriggle with delight at the details she includes.) In truth, Rowe loses me with her use of the first-person narration, which has rarely ever not annoyed me in long-form fiction.
Libertus, however, is an appealing and sympathetic protagonist; his efforts to re-establish a relationship with his former wife, with whom he has recently been re-united after they were separated and sold into slavery twenty years before are especially moving. Marcus is likeable as well, in his own privileged and self-centered way; it helps that he occasionally reveals glimmers of self-awareness, in that he recognizes, if not acknowledges, who’s actually driving the cart. Ultimately, it is their relationship and the many challenges they must negotiate in accordance with Rome’s arcane beliefs and traditions about one’s place in society, that truly makes these books worth reading.