It is AD 192, Commodus is dead, assassinated, and Rome has a new emperor – Pertinax, a man in desperate need of friends, not least because he refuses to pay the Praetorian Guard. When Marcus Septimus Aurelius sets off from Glevum in Roman Britain to support his old comrade in Rome, he leaves his client Libertus, a freedman pavement-maker, in charge of watching over his extensive estate. This is an inconvenience to Libertus. Each day he has to get on his unruly mule and ride the mile or so to check on the progress of Marcus’s slaves who have been set the rather ambitious task of planting an entire vineyard. One trip is further aggravated by the impediment of a rich carriage blocking the road, its owner irate at not being allowed into Marcus’s villa, the doorkeeper absent. When Libertus returns to investigate, he discovers the doorman hanged and all the household slaves vanished. As he goes deeper into the house, there are even worse horrors to find.
The case that Libertus embarks on is brutal and it is to have devastating repercussions for Libertus. It also serves as an unwelcome reminder of how close Rome can get, even to this more remote part of the empire. Unfortunately for Libertus, he’s in danger at being as caught up in it all as his patron Marcus.
The Fateful Day is the fifteenth Libertus mystery by Rosemary Rowe, a series that I have become very fond of over the course of more years than I care to count. Libertus is a genial detective, now happily married with an adopted son, content in his comfortable roundhouse, helped by young slaves who are more like family and successful in his mosaic business based in Glevum. He is the perfect vehicle for guiding the reader through daily life, at home and at work, in Roman Britain. Libertus’s status as freedman and citizen places him in an intriguing position – he is a native of Britain and so well-used to the snobbery of those who consider themselves his betters but as a citizen entitled to wear the toga he is also entitled to respect and has his own position of authority in business. Roman society was a complicated beast and Libertus shows us the best way to tackle it. In these later books, as Libertus grows older, his homelife has added another dimension to the novels. Libertus’s life inside his roundhouse is a fascinating contrast to the world of Glevum, with its stone buildings, busy streets and the grandeur of the surrounding Roman villas.
The Fateful Day is, in my opinion, less successful than some in the series. Its first half is slow to get moving, slowed down further by long-winded dialogue. The plot suffers at the expense of historical background. Fortunately, because I am so interested in the little details of Roman life and society with which Rowe packs her novels, I was less bothered by this than I might have been in a contemporary whodunnit. The lack of pace and movement is, however, more than made up for by the final third of the novel, which packs a considerable punch and kept me gripped. It also pulls on the heartstrings, leaving me a weeping, tissue-clutching wreck at more than one point.
Each of the Libertus novels are self-contained and so it wouldn’t matter too much if you read them in the wrong order. There is character progression, though, and much has happened to change Libertus from the very different man he was at the beginning. While I wouldn’t recommend The Fateful Day as a starting point for getting to know Libertus – that should be via the first novel, The Germanicus Mosaic – this novel is key for our future understanding of Libertus, both on a local, intimate scale and in grand political terms, and I am intrigued to see how the events here will influence his future and that of his friends and family.