The Ides of June | Rosemary Rowe | 2016 (eBook 1 May) | Severn House | 224p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Ides of March might have been unlucky for Julius Caesar but every good Roman knows that no day is more unlucky than the Ides of June. Best to shut up shop, lock the doors and stay inside. Unfortunately for Libertus – pavement-maker, freedman, Roman citizen and Celtic noble – unlucky day or not, he still has to drop everything and call on his patron Marcus Septimus when he wiggles his finger. Marcus is one of Roman Britain’s leading figures but all that could change in AD 193. The emperor Commodus has been assassinated and replaced by Pertinax, Marcus’s good friend. Unluckily, Pertinax’s own rapid assassination and replacement by his enemy Didius Julianus means that Marcus is in serious danger of elimination. Roman Britain might be a long way away from Rome but when it comes to Roman politics it can never be far enough. When Marcus receives anonymous letters threatening himself and his young wife and two small children he refuses to run but he tasks Libertus, a man who has served him faultlessly over the years, with saving his wife Julia and their children. No pressure at all, then.
But it’s not just Marcus who is receiving hate mail. When Libertus heads into Glevum (Gloucester) where his mosaic workshop is based, he encounters another magistrate who looks ready to flee for his life. It is possible that yet another leading figure in the town, Varus, has also received letters and the fact that Varus and most of his household is in bed with suspected poisoning does little to lighten the worries of Libertus and his patron. Time is of the essence and so, while Roman Britain, like the rest of the empire, waits to hear news from Rome, Libertus and his wife smuggle Julia and her children out of Glevum towards hopeful safety in Aquae Sulis (Bath). If only it would prove to be that simple.
I’ve been a fan of Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus series for many years and The Ides of June, the sixteenth, does not disappoint. They can all be read on their own or as part of a series. They are meticulously researched mysteries, focused on a small area of Roman Britain that is vividly brought to life through the author’s eye for detail and a strong sense of what life would have been like in Britain for non-Romans such as Libertus who knew how to adapt. Libertus has finally achieved the status of Citizen. He has married a freed slave and they have an adopted son who has now given them adored grandchildren. But Libertus lives in a roundhouse, he still worships Celtic gods, he reveres his culture’s past, whereas his patron Marcus lives in a grand villa, treats Libertus as a servant and expects reverence. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the expectation of imminent disgrace and catastrophe to level things out, and Marcus’s wife Julia has much to learn when she flees for her life in the care of Libertus and his wife.
These are elegant, refined (no swearing, little violence) mysteries and The Ides of June is no different. The mystery itself is secondary to the fascinating depiction of Roman Britain that contains it but this novel is of particular interest because it looks at the impact of politics, far far away in Rome on its most northern outpost. We see alarmed Romans, legions prepared to evacuate major centres such as Glevum, and Britons who continue to plod on as freedmen or women or as slaves. The wealth of the Roman overlords contrasts strongly with the poverty of the local people – slavery is commonplace (and not a Roman invention) but in these days it isn’t uncommon for a free family to sell its children into slavery, just for the meagre price of a chance at survival.
The Ides of June is an entertaining, informative read. It’s always good to spend time with Libertus and his wife Gwellia and their little slaves who are their children in all but name. In this novel Libertus has less time to spend on his characteristic investigating. His journey leading his own and Marcus’s family into hiding comprises much of the book and it’s a good read. But mysteries have a way of finding Libertus and, as they continue on their journey, pursued by events thousands of miles away, there is another one, with its roots in the past, lying in wait. These are short novels. I always wish they were longer and I always enjoy them.