The Vestal Vanishes

Written by Rosemary Rowe
Review by James Hawking

Libertus, the ex-slave mosaic designer, returns for the 12th entry of this series set in Roman Britain during the reign of Commodus, the emperor whose birthday celebrations open the story. Marcus Severus, Libertus’s patron, asks him to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a Vestal who has completed her thirty years of service and was about to be married. In the tradition of amateur Roman sleuths, the ex-slave has acquired a reputation for cleverness, so it is assumed that he will be able to discover what has happened. Reasonably provided clues give the reader a fair chance to solve the puzzle along with Libertus.

What is most striking is the novel’s careful delineation of social class. Libertus is relatively humble in status in comparison to the Vestal’s family and her prospective groom, but he is a citizen, and most of the residents of Britain defer to citizenship status. As Libertus travels, he employs the services of drivers, slaves and other representatives of the lower orders, some of whom must depend on their daily wage to buy their daily bread, an ancient version of living paycheck to paycheck. The characters are less individuals than representatives of their respective classes: wealthy patron, greedy pater familias, ex-soldier bodyguard, honest farmer, self-important slave, etc. Details of Roman religion and life are scattered over the text, particularly the attitude toward Druids and other possible sources of rebellion.