Tag Archives: Roman Britain

Memento Mori by Ruth Downie

Bloomsbury | 2018 (1 April) | 408p | Review copy | Buy the book

Memento Mori by Ruth DownieRoman citizen and former military doctor Ruso is now living a settled life on the northern fringe of the Roman empire on what is effectively a major building site – Hadrian is building his Wall – alongside his British wife Tilla. Their customs might be different but life is good especially now that they have Mara, their adopted baby daughter to worry about. But life takes a jolt when an old friend Albanus, Ruso’s former clerk, turns up exhausted after the huge effort of rushing up all of the way from Aquae Sulis (now Bath) to bring Ruso some disturbing news. The wife of Ruso’s best friend Valens has been found drowned in the sacred springs and her father has accused Valens of her murder. The governor is due to visit Aquae Sulis in just a few days and Valens will stand trial before him. There’s nothing for it. Ruso, his wife, child, his entire entourage, must head south in a hurry to prove his innocence. Hoping, of course, that he is actually innocent.

Memento Mori is the eighth novel in Ruth Downey’s hugely entertaining and, I think, really rather sophisticated Roman mystery series featuring Ruso and his independently-minded and rather flakey wife Tilla. The author does a fantastic job of bring the Roman empire to life during the 2nd century AD, especially Britannia. After Ruso’s adventures in Rome itself during the last novel Vita Brevis, I enjoyed seeing Ruso’s return to the homeland of his wife and the ancient city of Bath or Aquae Sulis, with all of its strange customs, brought to life.

At the heart of the novel is Aquae Sulis itself, a magnet for some of the strangest people of Roman Britain, straddling as it does beliefs from both ancient Britain and from the Roman Empire. Druids and Roman soldiers live side by side, with wild priestesses even forming romantic liaisons with grouchy old Roman centurions, and any problem is believed solvable with a spell or a curse. This is a great setting for a mystery and Ruth Downie does such a fine job of filling the streets, temples and baths of this well-known archaeological and historical site with living, breathing people.

I did find that the mystery itself took second place to the superb setting and to the novel’s mood. It is clear that so much research has gone into telling this story right but it’s used lightly. This is wonderful prose, laced through with wit and warmth, and it’s a joy to read. Memento Mori is one of those novels that you pick up and before you know it you’re sucked in to it, loving the way in which it’s written. There are also so many details about Roman life in Britain – religion, death, marriage, rituals, daily life, slaves, soldiers, natives and occupiers – there’s something going on in every direction.

I’m such a fan of this series. I love Ruso and I am warming to Tilla (she does have an alarming tendency to just wander off, here with a shovel) and so these are books I always look forward to. And they look so handsome! Ruth Downie writes so brilliantly and I love the Roman world as we see it through her eyes and those of her Roman doctor, Ruso.

Other reviews
Semper Fidelis
Vita Brevis


The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Encircling Sea by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is about 100 AD, Trajan is on the throne far away in Rome, and centurion Flavius Ferox is doing his best to keep the peace along the empire’s northernmost fringe. Ferox is perfect for the job, bridging both worlds. Born a prince of the Silures tribe of southern Britannia, he is now a well-respected Roman officer, albeit one who likes to keep his head down, avoiding the attention of the rich, powerful and political. But Ferox is not going to have things his own way.

Time might have passed since the recent deadly Druid threat, but more rebels are again making their presence felt, irritating their Roman occupiers. It’s bad timing. Rome wants to impress the kings of Hibernia (Ireland), who are currently competing for the role of chief king. A meeting is about to take place on the British coast and the forces of Vindolanda and its neighbouring forts will be in attendance. Ferox will be there playing a crucial role. And he’s worried.

The Encircling Sea is the second novel by Adrian Goldsworthy to feature Ferox, looking at life on the northern fringes of empire, a couple of decades before Hadrian built his Wall across this landscape. Vindolanda is already a large and busy fort, and it’s Ferox’s job to move regularly between the forts, settling disputes, looking out for trouble, keeping it peaceful. It pays to have read the earlier novel Vindolanda first because then you’ll have more of an idea of his complicated relationship with Cerialis, the Batavi prefect in charge of Vindolanda, and, most particularly, his beautiful wife Sulpicia Lepidina. But, if this is the first novel you read of the Vindolanda seres, you’ll have no trouble picking up the story’s threads.

The Encircling Sea presents a whole new and self-contained adventure, this time featuring the strange dark men who come at night in their boats from the sea. They appear to be targeting certain individuals in their raids but it’s not easy for Ferox and his second-in-command, the Brigantian Vindex, to work out the purpose of the attacks. But what is clear is that these pirates will use deadly force to achieve their goals. A lot of people are going to die. Very nastily.

As before, The Encircling Sea resonates with the insight and knowledge of its author, the historian Adrian Goldsworthy. This is supported by the extraordinary archaeological discoveries that have been made at Vindolanda over the years. Many of the people in this novel were real. They walked those excavated streets and lived in those buildings, now uncovered. They are named in tablets and it’s likely that even their shoes have been found. It’s evocative for sure and Adrian Goldsworthy captures all of that.

This is a novel in which, for me, the historical setting wins first place over its story. The author undoubtedly brings the border to life, especially for its soldiers and their wives, but the plot does fall rather flat and a little laboured in my opinion. It never becomes as exciting as it could be, nor as engaging. I enjoyed the repartee between Ferox and Crispinus and I really liked Crispinus, their young and witty commander, but they are let down a little by some of the dialogue, especially when words such as ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ are used in place of the more expected curses. This isn’t done as much as in the first novel, thank heavens, but it still stands out. It all feels a little strained, and restrained. I did, though, appreciate the historical notes at the end.

Adrian Goldsworthy undoubtedly knows his stuff and I love seeing the archaeological remains of Vindolanda brought to life in his pages. And that is undoubtedly the main strength of The Encircling Sea. I must also mention that this is another beautiful hardback from Head of Zeus.

Other review

The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère

The Real Lives of Roman Britain | Guy de la Bédoyère | 2015 | Yale University Press | 264p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la BédoyèreThe Romans brought much more with them to Britain than roads, sanitation and posh tablewares – their obsession with recording the smallest of details, the most insulting of curses, as well as a habit of letter writing, means that for the first time in the island’s history we are able to learn the identities of a small number of individuals. Through their words, we can begin to build up a picture – albeit a fragmentary jigsaw – of what life was like in Britain almost two thousand years ago. And then there are also the accounts which preserve Rome’s attitude to this distant bit of empire – they didn’t think much of it.

But although Britain might have been a drafty backwater, it still contained a number of people who began to think of themselves as Roman, changing their names, their housing, their way of life, perhaps enlisting in the army, serving and dying overseas, perhaps owning slaves, then later freeing them, climbing the social ladder. It’s arguable how much or little life changed for the poor working in the fields but for those with Roman coins in their pockets it was sometimes appropriate to express their status in inscriptions, tomb monuments, villa mosaics, bling. And because of all of this we are able to learn a little about the real lives of Roman Britain.

This is the Roman Britain that Guy de la Bédoyère evokes in his excellent and very accessible history. It is a province populated by a colourful mix – native Britons as well as people pulled from across the Empire, many finding their way here through army service, or servicing the army. Following a broad chronological structure, de la Bédoyère examines the surviving evidence to examine what life – and livelihoods – were like from the conquest through to the withdrawal of the legions in the early 5th century. The emperors aren’t ignored – de la Bédoyère takes us to Rome to uncover the plans these men had for the distant province – but the emphasis is strongly on lives in Roman Britain and these cross all ranks and social scales. We have governors and administrators, centurions and ordinary soldiers, tradesmen and prosperous freedmen, potters and craftsmen. The evidence comes from all manner of sources, including graffiti on tiles and pots, mosaic symbols, to grand monument inscriptions, which, tellingly, were sometimes forgotten after a century, dismantled and reused in later Roman buildings.

Not surprisingly, most of the written evidence covers the male Roman world, indeed the free male world, but there are glimpses of female life, albeit mostly wealthy female life, thanks to letters which survive from Vindolanda as well as tomb memorials from elsewhere.

But while The Real Lives of Roman Britain gave me a great deal to think about, it also made me realise just how little surviving evidence there is and what does survive is often fragmentary and in a poor state. So few lives are represented. Very occasionally a person is known from two or more inscriptions but this is most unusual. A person pops up in the record, gives us a little detail about their lives, sometimes very mundane, and then disappears from history again. But these little fragments do tell us that there would have been a wealth of evidence that’s now gone, that these glimpses of past lives are just a taste of the generations of life that shaped Britain during these centuries. It is all hugely intriguing and frustrating at the same time.

Archaeological evidence is also used to throw light on Roman lives and some of it is striking, not least the evidence for ancient murders, or the remains of many infant burials under one roof. This is just as compelling as the remains of grand villas and palaces. But it is in these villas that there are signs of early Christian worship and there is evidence of fascinating continuity of activity at one site in particular.

Guy de la Bédoyère makes a distant period and distant lives accessible. Known from Time Team, he knows how to communicate the past and he knows how to pick those little bits of evidence that strike a chord more than any other, bringing the driest of sources to life. This book would make an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to know more about what life was like two thousand years ago along the roads and in the towns that are still such an important part of Britain today.

The book includes plates and substantial notes.