Julia Prima by Alison Morton
This is an origin story that succeeds brilliantly in its own right as a historical thriller. The Roma Nova series from Alison Morton is a reimagining of the Roman way of life surviving into the contemporary age – in the form of a society led by a hereditary line of strong women rulers. This book is different, however, as it actually takes place in AD 370 in the late Roman Empire. The political situation in the Empire generally is changing, with some of the provinces being Romanised in lifestyle and law but ruled by local community leaders such as Julia’s father. Her life is the foundation for a female – ruled society with all that implies.
Julia is born into a life of privilege, with slaves and freedwomen as servants, ample clothes, jewellery and a generally wealthy lifestyle. As her mother has died when Julia was younger, she has overseen her father’s household for several years. Courageous and seen as headstrong, she joined her father in token recognition of the official Christian faith which has taken root over the entire empire. She has been briefly married to Deodatus, nephew of the local bishop, but despite Julia gaining a legal divorce under the law, he and his ambitious uncle want her to return to the marital home and a life of subservience. Typically, Julia refuses and is supported by her father, who is aware that while he may owe his position technically to the Roman hierarchy, he is really the Prince and thus the actual ruler of the area.
When we first see Julia, she has just had an intimate encounter with a stranger from the market. He is the new Roman officer, and their encounter only happened because Julia was not in her finery, and he took her for another servant in the marketplace. As soon as they touch there is an attraction which overwhelms them both. Their first encounter may have been the result of a mistake on his part, but Lucius Apulius is an outstanding young man, and their mutual attraction quickly becomes strong and seemingly life changing. It transpires that Julia, like her mother, took a very different view of women’s behaviour, as she is proficient in the use of weaponry and hand to hand fighting. As her uncertain marital status becomes an obvious issue and Lucius’ own recent history of trouble as a Roman officer threatens to drag them apart, Julia must make a decision that will risk not only her life but others as well.
This book is excellent on the lives lived in Roman society by influential women. Even though the actual Emperor has forsaken Rome itself, there is still a magic about the city which Morton effortlessly conveys. Her knowledge of the clothes, weaponry, buildings as so much more of the late Empire is immense, yet it is seamlessly blended into the narrative. Julia’s story recounted in her own vivid and authentic voice is remarkable, reflecting her unusual personality in a time of even the wealthiest women often adopting a subservient role to their fathers and husbands. Morton achieves a knowledge of the intricacies of Roman law, transport, travel, weaponry and life generally that I am in awe of her confident handling of the background to her narrative. Julia is a well-established, consistent character who achieves a convincing level of impulsiveness, ambition and bravery. Two of her companions, Asella her body servant and Aegius, a painter and much more, are very well drawn. I really enjoyed this book, and found it exciting and enthralling, and yes, impossible to put down. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and as always look forward to other Roma Nova episodes.