‘A Roman Death’ by Joan O’Hagan, reviewed by Emma Lee

Reviewed ByEmma Lee
‘A Roman Death’ by Joan O’Hagan, reviewed by Emma Lee

‘A Roman Death’ Joan O’Hagan

Black Quill Press 

ISBN: 9780648002000 

$18.95

‘A Roman Death’, originally published by Pan Macmillan and now reissued by Black Quill Press, is set in 45 BCE with Julius Caesar at the height of his power. An arranged marriage is about to take place. Fufidia (women were only given the feminine form of the family name) is about to be married. Her mother, Helvia, and maternal uncle Cinna plan for the girl to marry Ganeus Plancius, a senator’s son, prosperous and dependable. Fufidia is away from her mother’s influence, staying at the family villa in Tusculum under her father’s aunt’s watch. She meets the neighbour’s son, Lucius Scaurus, too innocent to realise he has an ulterior motive. His family have the outward trappings of wealth and status, but lack money. Fufidia sees a handsome young man. When her father, Quintus Fufiduis arrives at Tusculum to an invitation to dinner from the Scaurus family, he feels he can’t refuse. A Scaurus entertaining a Fufiduis is unheard of. So when Scaurus suggests a marriage between Fufidia and Lucius, Fufidius has little choice but agree.

Helvia is against the marriage but has little say in the matter. Initially Cinna agrees with Fufiduis, after all the Scaurus have good standing and status, but then does some detective work and finds that Scaurus has little money. If that wasn’t bad enough, Lucius has a reputation towards hedonism and there’s a hushed-up scandal of him deserting before a battle. Despite their misgivings, Helvia and Cinna are reminded that Fufidia’s marriage will be useful for her brother who has attracted the attention of Cicero so has a bright future. Quintus accuses Helvia and Cinna of giving too much attention to gossip. In desperation, Helvia seeks the services of a woman who creates a spell with the aim of getting Fufidia to lose interest in Lucius.

At the feast the night before the wedding, Lucius, despite having drunk little, is taken back to his father’s house with all the appearance of being drunk. His father thinks it best he sleeps it off. However, in the morning, Lucius is found dead.

Fufiduis thinks it odd that his wife’s reaction on hearing the news is to tell her brother Cinna rather than her daughter. So, when Fufidia is told, she had already sensed the news and retires to bed.

Helvia is accused of murder. Cicero is called on to defend her. The first question he asks is whether she is guilty. She maintains her innocence. Thirty people attending the feast also had the opportunity to poison Lucius. However, trials were not about presenting evidence and discovering the truth, but how well advocates for either side could persuade the judge of guilt or innocence. The jury are evenly split and well-bribed by both sides. Helvia’s use of spells is uncovered, she had knowledge of poisons and was opposed to the marriage. It will take a skilled orator to persuade the jury otherwise. The trial also uncovers other family secrets, which makes it look certain Helvia will be found guilty.

In the aftermath of the trial, Caesar is assassinated. The resulting power struggles are a useful diversion from the trial, but Cicero is determined to uncover the truth and dodge an attempt on his own life.

‘A Roman Death’ wears its research lightly. There are no information dumps or lengthy explanations, but historical details are woven into the fabric of the story. It would be impossible for this story to be written in a different historical or contemporary period. Refreshingly, there’s no attempt to place contemporary tropes, for example the feisty woman ahead of her time or to introduce a maverick who doesn’t accept Roman moral standards, on the historical setting. When the concept of incest is introduced, the characters’ reactions are not about the fact a brother and sister slept together but that a child resulted. That Quintus has a mistress is accepted as part of his status.

The characters are fully rounded with flaws as well as good points. Quintus is driven to maintain his status and see his children succeed. Helvia is motivated by wanting her daughter not just to make a good marriage but one with a kind husband. She is offered the chance to flee Rome and the trial but declines. Saving her own skin will be detrimental to her son’s prospects and her daughter’s chances of securing a good marriage. The elderly aunt keeps quiet to keep the peace, urging Helvia to accept her husband’s choice, but she acts through her love for her niece. Scarus is forced to push for the trial both as a means of justice for Lucius and to maintain his status, which has just taken another bashing. Lucius is a spoiled brat but Joan O’Hagan has taken care to show that this is how he was brought up to behave and marriage might civilise him. 

‘A Roman Death’ is a gripping historical courtroom drama with a story very much of its time shown through a cast of intriguing, sympathetic characters. 

The Blue Nib Reviews Editor Emma Lee

Emma Lee is the recipient of the 2019 and 2020 Best Reviewer Saboteur Award. Her publications include ‘The Significance of a Dress’ (Arachne, 2020) and ‘Ghosts in the Desert’ (IDP, 2015). She co-edited ‘Over Land, Over Sea’, (Five Leaves, 2015). As well as curating the Critical Nib, Emma reviews for a number of magazines.