A Villa Far from Rome

Written by Sheila Finch
Review by Val Adolph

AD 66: the Romans have conquered much of Britain, and the tribes live uncomfortably beside a powerful military force. Insurrections still occur, but some Britons are assimilating. One tribal chief, Togidubnus, has taken the Roman name Tiberius and has sent his eldest son to Rome to be educated. Visiting him, Tiberius steps unwittingly into the plans of Antonia, a young girl who has borne Nero’s daughter after he raped her. She plans to have Nero acknowledge the child, but Nero, surrounded by enemies, wants rid of both of them. Instantly he marries Antonia to Tiberius and banishes them to the furthest corner of his empire: to Britain, where Tiberius’s loving wife awaits him.

Tiberius struggles to lead his people and fit in with the ruling Romans as well as with ancient tribal customs. Antonia hates her new home, the inadequate house, the climate, and the customs. Only her young daughter Lucia happily explores the countryside with Tiberius’s younger son and his dog. Then Severus, Nero’s own architect, appears with orders to build a palace as grand as those in Rome. This requires taxing the local people even more heavily. Tiberius is caught between their insurrection and the power of Rome.

What follows is an intricately woven story that imaginatively explores the difficulties of straddling two vastly different cultures as they struggle for dominance. While the author sets out to explain the remains of a Roman palace in this outpost of empire, she details the very human stories of the old wife and the new wife. The moral and practical dilemmas of Tiberius, the costs in physical pain—even death—and emotional turmoil of even the minor characters are shown in clear dramatic form. The conclusion has beauty and inevitability. I felt that I lived this book.