Severn House | 2017 (31 October) | c.300p | Review copy | Buy the book
Marcus Aurelius Septimus is one of the most powerful men in all of Roman Britannia and when he tells Libertus – pavement-maker, freedman, Roman citizen and Celtic noble – that he wants him to stand for civic office in the town of Glevum (Gloucester), Libertus has little choice but to do what his patron tells him. But Libertus’s ascendancy is jeopardised by the untimely death of Flauccus, the official responsible for raising Gloucester’s taxes. Flauccus has been found hanging, the tax money vanished, gambled away according to Flauccus’s suicide note. But Marcus isn’t too sure that the death is as straightforward as it seems, especially as if follows hot on the heels of a calamitous fire that killed several of Flauccus’ civic colleagues. Libertus is good at solving mysteries and so he is despatched by Marcus to investigate – he can also attend a wedding on Marcus’s behalf while he’s at it.
And so Libertus sets off an adventure that will take him along the uncomfortable roads of southwestern Britannia where any step could see him fall foul of bandits, bears or wolves – to the small town of Uudum and beyond, via flea-infested inns, barracks of cross soldiers and, unfortunately, other murder scenes, one of which is guarded by unruly goats. Carefully wrapped away in his toga, though, Liberts has his pass from Marcus, instructing others to treat him as they would the emperor himself. Not everyone does…
The Price of Freedom is the seventeenth Libertus series by Rosemary Rowe. I’ve read every one of these books over the last twenty years and my admiration and love for them has only increased over the years. In fact, I have no hesitation in declaring The Price of Freedom my favourite of them all and I read most of it in one glorious sitting.
Rosemary Rowe excels in recreating the lives of (mostly) ordinary Romans and the towns, villages, roundhouses, slave quarters, villas in which they lived. Libertus is a fantastic character. He’s middle-aged, happily married (at last), with an adopted son, living in his roundhouse close to Glevum where he has a shop for his successful mosaic business. Born a Celtic chieftain, he was captured and sold into slavery when young but now he is a respected citizen and, although he has no choice but to do the bidding of his patron, the powerful Marcus, at some level and to some degree, Marcus is Libertus’s friend. Libertus bridges the Roman and Celtic worlds perfectly and he’s a canny observer of people. He’s our eyes, ears and narrator and he describes perfectly the events that befall him and the mysteries that he solves, often at some considerable personal cost. Libertus can never forget that he was once sold in a slave auction. That’s not something to which he would ever wish to return.
Slavery is a big theme of The Price of Freedom, as the title suggests, and I love the way in which it’s handled. It’s done lightly and, as a result, the horror of it strikes home. Slaves are discarded and sold on a whim, new ones are bought and ‘broken in’ and even (for some land slaves) their hair is sold as a crop each year. Rosemary Rowe also looks at the life a young woman, effectively sold into marriage by her father, and then there is a young soldier, living so far from home, at the extreme edge of an empire that is in almost every way cold to him. The fact that Libertus can care so deeply for such people (he wraps the soldier in his arms when he is distraught) is a sign of his deep empathy and sympathy. I like him immensely. That he’s not your typical hero-type makes him all the more interesting.
The story in The Price of Freedom is brilliant! The plot is very carefully put together and complements perfectly the instructive element of Rosemary Rowe’s fiction. When we enter the small enclosed town of Uudum it really tallied with my concept of small Roman towns from my years of excavating them (also in Gloucestershire, where this novel is set). It all feels so real. The little details feel right, in the towns and also in the descriptions of travel. But all the glorious details never hinder the mystery which is such a good one.
If you’ve never read a Libertus mystery then I certainly suggest you give them a go. They can be read in any order as each stands alone well but the first is The Germanicus Mosaic. They’re set towards the end of the 2nd century AD when the various crises affecting Rome still manage to reach this distant edge of empire. Libertus, though, reminds us of Britannia’s Celtic past and his commentary on Rome and its ways – while trying to emerge unscathed from one case after another – is a joy to read. If you want to immerse yourself in Roman Britain, then look no further.