It is 70 BC and Hortensia, the daughter of celebrated Roman orator Hortensius, is preparing to marry. Hortensius wants her settled as soon as possible. He is about to enter a legal case that will see him opposed to one of Rome’s rising stars – Cicero. Hortensius fears a fall. His daughter’s mind, though, is somewhere else. Well trained in oratory herself, Hortensia, controversially, has just won her own case in a Roman court, judged by none less than Pompey soon to be the Great. Her newly won notoriety has attracted the attention of the Vestal Virgins, not to mention the ire of her father. One of the Vestal priestesses has just been found dumped in the Tiber and the clues suggest that she was murdered over something secret kept in their keeping. They need a woman’s help. The young matron Hortensia is keen to provide that help, thankful that she has her clever and imposing steward, the ex-gladiator Lucrio, by her side. It’s a shame, then, that Lucrio has an agenda all of his own.
There is so much going on in Blood in the Tiber and I loved it all. I was captivated by Hortensia from the moment that we meet her as a young child watching the games in the amphitheatre in Capua. Her bravery and curiosity lead her into all kinds of trouble but, most significantly, they bring her to the attention of gladiator Lucrio. From this moment on they form one of the most interesting and sympathetic relationships of the novel, balancing the one she has with her father Hortensius whose pride in his daughter is offset by his disappointment in his son. We are also introduced to Hortensia’s future husband early in the novel and, although he’s always secondary in the events that take place, he is never less than Hortensia’s personal hero. It’s a strong beginning and the promise delivers.
Hortensia doesn’t fit the model of a Roman matron in these Republican days. She is no weaver, needing the help of slaves to finish her traditionally home-woven wedding dress, and she cannot compete with the meekness and mildness of her mother. Rome’s leading figures disapprove of Hortensia – her intelligence, independence and her voice – except for Pompey. Pompey is utterly charmed. Through the attractive figure of Hortensia, a woman who can never be modern, Annelise Freisenbruch throws into the light this masculine period of history that produced men such as Pompey, Caesar, Crassus and Cicero, as well as Hortensia’s own father. It also presents a fascinating insight into Republican Roman law, not by taking the easy option of focusing on Hortensius’s most famous legal case (this takes place very much in the background), but by looking at how Hortensia tries to move within it and how she is drawn to it. There is much here about the Roman establishment – its laws, its religion, its politics and its military leaders, the events of the recent civil war between Sulla and Marius colours the events that take place here, as does the Spartacus revolt. The impact of the greed of Romans such as Crassus on the ordinary men and women of Rome is also laid bare.
Aside from all the background insight into Roman society and politics, Blood in the Tiber is a most excellent mystery story, with satisfying villains, crimes, victims and repercussions. It is full of surprises and twists, some of which I would never have expected, and I loved how it developed and concluded. It is also extremely exciting. The thrill of the chase, the challenge of the puzzle, the threat of danger and harm are conveyed so well. And in this novel we don’t just have one mystery to chase, we have two. Lucrio might be a slave but we are never allowed to forget how important he is to Hortensia and neither of them allows the other to pursue their own quest alone.
Annelise Freisenbruch writes so well, bringing all levels of Roman society to life within their vividly painted sectors and suburbs of Rome. I was absorbed into the story from the beginning and it didn’t release me until the end. I am assured that Hortensia will be back and that is very good news indeed. A marvellous debut novel and a great new voice in Roman historical fiction.