The Emperor Commodus is dead. It takes a while for the news to reach Glevum (Roman Gloucester) but when it does, amid a hysterical swirl of rumour and whispers, the scene is set for murder. The local nobleman, Marcus, is a good friend of the new potential emperor and wishes to hasten to Rome to give him some much-needed advice to prevent the Praetorian Guard from murdering him. But before he can do that, Marcus has to solve the matter of the disappearance of businessman Genialis, a man far from genial, in order to work out what he should do with Genialis’s rather appealing ward and his successful business. What that actually means is that Marcus needs his client, Longinus Flavius Libertus, to do it for him. Libertus is a mosaic ‘pavement-maker’, a freedman and now a citizen, who has a near unfailing ability to work things out.
As the snow falls, Glevum is gripped not only by ice and food shortages but by suspicion and unease. The omens aren’t looking good. Animals resist sacrifice while Libertus’ neighbour Cantalarius has had a run of luck bad enough to make people cross the street to avoid him. And then remains of bodies are found outside the city, frozen and not all of them victims of the weather. It’s as if the whole town needs Libertus to solve the mystery and lift the curse.
I have been reading Rosemary Rowe’s novels for years. For me, the appeal is not so much the story as the lost world that Rowe evokes. I cannot think of another writer who brings the detail of Roman Britain to life in the manner that Rowe does. Longinus Flavius Libertus, our hero, was once a Celtic nobleman. He was then enslaved with his love Gwellia, from whom he was separated for twenty years. Libertus then became a freedman and finally a citizen, having found at last, and married, Gwellia. He works in a shop on a Roman street in a Roman town but he lives in a roundhouse outside its walls. He has an important patron but as a citizen he has a status of his own. Libertus has young slaves but they are more like the children he and Gwellia are no longer able to have. What all this means is that Libertus is the ideal means through which to see so many aspects of Roman Britain at work. He is observer and participant. It is hugely effective and immensely fascinating.
When I visit a villa site in the Cotswolds, I can imagine life within its walls, 1800 years ago, all the more vividly because of Rosemary Rowe’s books. I understand a little more how temples worked, patronage, Roman crafts (even how to lay a mosaic), how people arranged the rooms of a Roman house (or the space in a Celtic roundhouse). There are glimpses in Dark Omens about the hidden side of slavery but it is not dealt with sentimentally – Libertus and Gwellia were both slaves. They know what it’s like, although their care for their own slaves is clearly unusual. As a citizen who has to earn his living by trusting less than honourable types, whilst also pleasing a patron, Libertus is hardly free himself. In Dark Omens another theme is the status of young widowed women – in law they are children – and there is little appetising about the fate of such young women. On top of all this, or behind it, is the physical description of Glevum, its streets, houses and public buildings, and the roads to the villas, country estates and Celtic settlements in the frozen countryside.
Dark Omen continues the wonderful trend of Rosemary Rowe’s novels of making me feel closer to the Roman history of Britain. It is densely packed with information and fascinating insight. Where it suffers, however, is in the plot. It is very slow to evolve, partly, one suspects, because of the relish with which Rosemary Rowe describes this Roman world. But while there are moments of tension and drama, all increased by the horrendous winter storm that could leave people marooned, unable to inform their loved ones that they’re safe or not safe, they are relatively subdued and no competition for the real strengths of the novel.
I was completely absorbed by Dark Omens. The character of Libertus is such an interesting one. He is a Celt making a living in a Roman world that has abused him. But he doesn’t complain about it. He gives a good life to his wife, his adopted son and their two young slave boys. He takes his responsibilities seriously. There is little of the humour of Davis’s Falco novels, or of the Wishart Marcus Corvinus mysteries, but the Libertus novels aren’t dark or earnest. They are realistic, matter of fact and gripping and always a pleasure. I am so pleased to see the series continuing.
Several of the Libertus novels have been re-released on Kindle in 2013. Details of the first, The Germanicus Mosaic, are here.