BLOOD IN THE TIBER by Annelise Freisenbruch

London: Lucas Alexander Whitley, 2014. $14.50

BLOOD IN THE TIBER is the debut novel of Annelise Freisenbruch, a Classicist whose previous published work concentrates upon the lives, relationships, and obligations of elite Roman women from the late Republic through the Principate. Holding a Ph.D. in Classics from Cambridge University, she has been a specialist series researcher on BBC1’s series RISE AND FALL OF AN EMPIRE. She also has worked on films about Attila the Hun and Spartacus. In BLOOD ON THE TIBER, she brings to life Hortensia, a young woman of the late Republic, as she attempts to unravel a dangerous conspiracy.

The reader first meets Hortensia, the thirteen year-old daughter of Rome’s great advocate, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, at gladiatorial games put on by Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome’s wealthiest citizens. She is an exceptional child, well-educated and skilled in oratory--and were she a boy, she should be the greatest credit to her father. However warned he is about his overindulgence of his dear Horty, Hortensius accedes to her arguments to purchase a wounded gladiator named Lucrio. Four years later, this unlikely duo come together when Hortensia marries Quintus Servilius Caepio, whom she adores and who is no less indulgent than her father. For a wedding present, she receives Lucrio. Newly wedded life flows smoothly until she receives a summons from the Chief Vestal to look into the demise of a young Vestal, whose body was found in the Tiber. Her death smacks of an old scandal. Yet while the world thinks the worst of the dead Vestal, nobody pays much attention to the honorable suicide of a senator. Hortensia has earned this reward by winning a case in court in front of Pompey Magnus. Whilst with Hortensia in the Forum, Lucrio spots the man who killed his family and whom he has sworn to kill. Hortensia stops him from pursuing the man immediately; instead, she enlists his aid in her investigation. When an unimaginable blasphemy occurs in the archives of the Vestals, Hortensia realizes she has discovered a terrible conspiracy that reaches to the highest echelons of Roman society. Can she thwart it before it completely destabilizes Rome? Or will she pay the ultimate price for her interference?

Despite the conspiracy to commit murder and treason, BLOOD IN THE TIBER is less a mystery than a historical novel. The mystery set forth by Freisenbruch is straight-forward. It does present taut, thrilling integration of Hortensia’s investigation and Lucrio’s desire for revenge. The greater mystery for Freisenbruch is reconstructing a plausible Hortensia from the paltry historical sources. Hortensia was the daughter of Hortensius Hortalus, she did argue, with a style not unlike her father’s, before the Second Triumvirate, and she did win a partial remission of a tax upon women. Freisenbruch is also the author of CAESARS’S WIVES (published in the United States as THE FIRST LADIES OF ROME) wherein she wished, as stated in a web interview, to challenge the prevailing idea Roman women were either “passive automatons or scheming, murderous nymphos” ( Freisenbruch has pursued much the same agenda in BLOOD ON THE TIBER. Such attention to her agenda has caused her to miss a few opportunities for misdirection and dramatic tension, partially by avoiding consequences for the headstrong Hortensia and her male family members and partially by allowing readers access to the thoughts and actions of the villain.

Indulgent parents and spouses are a constant in both literature and history, but there are consequences for stepping outside the norm. These consequences have generally been worse for women than men. Caecilius Metellus Pius warns Hortalus repeatedly he never should have educated and trained Hortensia. She is, to Caecilius’s mind, an unnatural female. After Hortensia has won her case before Pompey Magnus, Hortalus is sufficiently angered that he remonstrates with Caepio. If he, as her husband, will not rein her in, then Hortalus, as her father, will do so. It is to save her reputation. It shows the patriarchal power structure in late Republican Rome, but neither Hortalus nor Caepio do more than talk. Instead of blocking her and forcing her to think and behave with more care, their indulgence encourages Hortensia’s reckless behavior, if not her naivety. 

Hortensia takes her elite and free status for granted. Respectable women do not drink in a tavern in the Subura with a slave. To do so would have shocked the neighborhood. And Rome, like all political capitals, is a very small town when it comes to rumor. The consequences to Hortensia? Some nasty comments from another slave. Such comments about her chastity, from a citizen, should have carried greater weight, and Hortensia could have been in serious trouble. Disgrace and divorce might have been in the offing. Worse, for an elite and free Roman woman to be caught in adultery with a slave could have been loss of free status. Hortensia's brazen behavior is a statement of arrogant immortality, typical of a precocious teenager, but it is one that raises a reader’s eyebrows.  

The consequences for slaves in legal cases are clear enough. A slave’s testimony does not count under the law except that which has been obtained by torture. Hortensia is more than cognizant of this fate for Lucrio. It factors into her decisions on how obtain evidence of the perpetrators’s actions and how to make them incriminate themselves. That she succeeds, as much by oratory as by subterfuge, provides the one bitterly ironic twist in story.

Despite a slow opening, BLOOD IN THE TIBER is a lively and engaging narrative. It attempts to combine several literary genres--straight historical fiction, mystery with elements of the thriller, even coming-of-age narrative. It leans too much on its historical agenda, sacrificing opportunities to deepen the mystery. It does, however, make the reader question her own assumptions about the role of women in Roman society.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst