Review of “Persona Non Grata” by Ruth Downie

This is the third installment of an entertaining historical crime fiction series set in the Ancient Roman Empire.

This book begins with hapless do-gooder Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso breaking his foot while trying to save a child who had been dropped into the river by five drunk legionaries.

His friend and colleague Valens prescribed that he must go easy on it for a good six weeks, “and no wine, of course.” (Part of the fun of this series is learning about the various “cures” used by people in Ancient Rome. Since the author also highlights the food they eat, it seems inevitable, even without murder, that they would need a lot of fixing up.) Valens also delivered a letter to him marked urgent, that read “Lucius to Gaius. Come home, brother.” Since Ruso can’t do anything else for six weeks, he agreed, even though his home in the south of Gaul was over a thousand miles away from his current post in Deva. (Ancient Gaul included the area that is modern France.) He was granted a medical discharge. (It was now June, and his contract with the Legion would be up in January. He had the option to sign on again when he got back from Gaul, and Valens assured Ruso he would want to. Ruso wasn’t so sure.)

Ruso has been living with Tilla, a “Barbarian” from Britannia, for the past two years. He knew he should have found a way to mention Tilla to his family before now, but he had not, and now she was “about to become a surprise.”

When Ruso went to see Tilla’s home in the previous installment, Tilla found her memories didn’t quite live up to the new reality there. Analogously in this book, Ruso has been remembering his home through rosy glasses; a vision dispelled almost as soon as he got there. As Tilla mused in the previous book, Terra Incognita:

“As far as she had been able to work out, the medicus’s family lived in a fine house whose roof baked beneath the everlasting sunshine of southern Gaul, while its foundations stood in a deep and perilous pool of debt. . . . She knew that he sent most of his money home to his brother, and she knew that it was never enough.”

Moreover, to call Ruso’s family “dysfunctional” is an understatement.

In any event, when they arrive, they once again get involved in a murder case, and once again, Ruso, with a lot of help from Tilla, finally figures out what happened, saving his own skin by doing so.

Discussion: Ruso continues to bumble through regular and extracurricular responsibilities, trying to do the right thing and right wrongs while everyone else is trying to take advantage of him. Ruso realizes too that he hadn’t done right by Tilla by not smoothing her way with his family:

“You asked me once if I was ashamed of you.”

“Are you?”

“I’m the one who should be ashamed. I should have introduced you better.”

“And what would you have said?”

“He paused. ‘I would have said, This is Tilla. She is the bravest and most beautiful woman I know, and I don’t deserve her.”

“She smiled. ‘All these things are true.’”

Evaluation: I am greatly enjoying this series, even though many of the characters and events described are most unsavory. But I love the medical information, and the author also shows us how the class and gender disparities of the time played out, which is always interesting. The plot of this book also weaves in the growing appeal of Christianity in the Roman Empire, with the characters who adhere to its tenets explaining just what it is about the religion that attracts them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury USA, 2009

Map showing the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, via Vox

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