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Ruso and Tilla and their new baby daughter have left Roman-occupied Britain for Rome, but their excitement at arriving in the city is soon dulled when they find that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements. There are also far too many doctors – some skilled, but others positively dangerous.

Ruso takes on a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor, Doctor Kleitos, has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, "Be careful who you trust."

Distracted by the body and his efforts to help a friend win the hand of a rich young heiress, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question both his competence and his integrity. With Ruso's reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Doctor Kleitos's debt collectors and find allies in their new home while they track down the vanished doctor and find out the truth about the unfortunate man in the barrel.

371 pages, Hardcover

First published July 12, 2016

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About the author

Ruth Downie

19 books725 followers
Ruth is the author of nine mysteries* featuring Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British partner Tilla. The latest is a novella, PRIMA FACIE. She lives in Devon, England. A combination of nosiness and a childish fascination with mud means she is never happier than when wielding an archaeological trowel.

She is sometimes called R.S. Downie, but she isn't the person with the same name who writes medical textbooks, and recommends that readers should never, ever take health advice from a two thousand year old man who prescribes mouse droppings.

*The first four books have all had two titles. Ruth is still wondering how this ever seemed like a good idea. Since she is unable to wind back time, British readers may find it useful to know that:

Medicus was Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls,
Terra Incognita was Ruso and the Demented Doctor,
Persona Non Grata was Ruso and the Root of All Evils,
Caveat Emptor was Ruso and the River of Darkness -
but SEMPER FIDELIS, TABULA RASA, VITA BREVIS, MEMENTO MORI and PRIMA FACIE only have one title each - hooray!

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 144 reviews
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,388 reviews115 followers
October 21, 2018
This is Downie’s 7th offering in the Medicus Investigation series. Gaius Ruso and Tilla have recently moved from Britannia to Rome under the impression that his friend Accius is offering him a thriving medical practice and wealthy client to provide some much-needed financial security. Hah! Ruso and Tilla find that the previous doctor left his lodgings in shambles and Horatius Balbus is soon murdered. Gaius Ruso, a good doctor and honest man, finds himself in the middle of a swirling maelstrom of Romans only too willing to take advantage of his naivety. Various groups demand money, or attempt to take away the meager possessions that Russo and Tilla have left. Oh yes, and then he is asked to help solve various mysteries—like who killed Horatius Balbus. There are certainly plenty of suspects. Fortunately, he has Tilla at his side.

This is another excellent historical mystery by Downie. Recommend.
Profile Image for Camilla Monk.
Author 12 books653 followers
August 17, 2016
I have waited so long for this!

Ruso is back, and as usual, the more he tries to become the reputable, successful doctor his ex-wife once hoped he'd become... the more everything falls apart around him. :)

When we left Ruso and his wife (and former slave), Tilla, in Britain, they had just welcomed a new addition to their family: Mara, their adopted baby daughter. (I'll never forget how Ruso calls Mara's young biological mother in book #5 "The pregnant tart from Eboracum" -- before welcoming her under his roof nonetheless).

This time, Ruso is about to make it big in the heart of the Empire, Rome. Offered a position in the eternal city by Accius a young former tribune, Ruso packs his little family, crockery and all, to answer the call of destiny!
Destiny, however, is on voicemail: once in Rome, it turns out that there is no prestigious position awaiting. Accius, who, to his great dismay, is now in charge of overseeing the cleaning of Rome's streets, has nearly forgotten about Ruso. Our hero and his family are reduced to renting a cockroach-infested flat while looking for a better opportunity.

Such an opportunity presents itself when the personal physician (and tenant) of a certain Horatius Balbus disappears, leaving his most important patient in immediate need of medical advice, and a practice to run. Recommended by Accius, Ruso takes on the job. Things are looking up for our bumbling medicus, if we except the fact that a barrel has been abandoned at the door of his new practice, and that there's a dead man inside.

I'll stop spoiling here. ;)

Once again, what makes reading the medicus series such a pleasure is the realistic portrayal of the society Ruso evolves in. In Vita Brevis, Rome is experienced rather than described, and a ton of historical details color the story, like paint daubs, vivid yet unobtrusive.

As Ruso and Tilla attempts to track the missing doctor and find our who's the dead man in the barrel and how he ended there, new threads are added to the plot, dealing with medical ethics, real estate and housing politics in 130 AC, stars-crossed lovers, secret Christian communities (I LOVE Downie's treatment of this particular topic. her christians are realistic, and only she could make a persecuted sect funny), ...
Each element bring a piece of the complex puzzle the heroes must figure. Again, like in previous books, the stakes quickly become personal for Ruso, who finds himself accountable for the dead man in the barrel, and who's being pressed by Accius and Horatius Balbus to solve the case of the disappearance of Balbus's doctor.

The cement to the plot is of course the wonderful relationship between Ruso and his wife, made of mistakes, misunderstandings, exasperation, but ultimately a deep mutual love. There are new challenge to Ruso's domestic life in this book, in the face of baby Mara, who changes his and Tilla's lives, and the acqusition of two slaves. (Well three, but one ran away). This also adds an interesting angle, as the slaves are briton, like Tilla, who used to be Ruso's slave herself. This conflict is handled skillfully, and manages to make the practice understandable to our modern eye.

I kept thinking as I read, that this is one of the complexities of writing about the Roman empire: slavery was an integral part of their culture, and it's a tight rope to walk than to have your main character own slaves -- something inconceivable to our modern sensibilities -- and yet makes the character relatable and likeable, all without giving into the temptation to portray him as a social justice warrior whose fight might seem wildly out of place under Hadrian's reign...

Now, before I conclude, there is one thing that left me wanting: the plot's conclusion. I won't spoil, but I felt that too much happened off-screen, giving me the impression that things came together almost too easily at a point where the situation seemed desperate.

Last word: I loved Squeaky in the last scenes...
Profile Image for Emma.
2,511 reviews856 followers
July 6, 2018
It’s been a while since I picked this series up, so was really thrilled to see the next book on a kindle deal. It was immensely enjoyable and set in Rome rather than Britain. Having recently been less than impressed with a Flavia Albia book (Lindsey Davies) and mourning the end of the Falco series, this book has restored my faith in Roman historical fiction. Poor Ruso and family get off to an unpromising start to their new life in Rome and from there it’s downhill all the way. Will the family take to life in Rome? Read it and find out!
Profile Image for Jane.
1,565 reviews178 followers
October 22, 2019
3.5/5 rounded down to 3. Another delightful mystery in the Medicus Gaius Ruso series. This time the outing finds Ruso and Tilla in Rome at the behest of ex-Tribune Accius. Two mysteries to be solved this time around: a dead body in a barrel; also the death [murder?] of Accius's patron, a wealthy real estate magnate cum slumlord. Ruso has come to Rome under false pretenses; Accius has led him to believe the practice he has temporarily taken over is perfectly ordinary, whereas it has its dodgy side. The previous doctor, a Dr. Kleitos, has fled, taking most of his possessions. Why? Debts he's being dunned for? Is the doctor taking dead bodies for illegal purposes, e.g., anatomy? Or? Ruso also finds himself as matchmaker between the lovesick Accius and the dead man's daughter.

I enjoyed the trajectory of the mysteries and how everything fit together logically at the end. Ruso and Tilla make a good team. I especially like their dialogue with each other--a typical married couple--and their coping with a new baby. The scene buying a nanny for the baby at a slave auction was priceless.

Profile Image for Assaph Mehr.
Author 5 books383 followers
January 15, 2018
Ruso is making an attempt at better life in the centre of the empire, but his stay in Rome is marred by the usual - a corpse laid at his doorstep. While Ruso is trying to navigate the complex politics of life as a doctor in Rome, his wife Tilla is trying to build a home in this new (and smelly) city, while aiding in medical practice.

What to Expect

A great description on life in Rome, in particular the patronage system. We get a ground-level look at the workings of daily life: accommodations, food, medical practice (and its associated fields), social engagements, and a touch of public life.

As usual, Downie's writing is full of charm with excellent characterisation and research. One cannot help but like and relate to the people in the story, and follow them in the twisting plots and sub-plots as they try to build a life and resolve deaths.

The POV of view alternates between Ruso and his (British) wife Tilla, and Downie does an excellent job in describing how these two very different people view the eternal city.

What I liked

This goes for the whole series.

The absolute charm of the writing. All characters are fully fleshed, believable, with their own motivations. The writing is witty, the setting is rich, the plot thought-out, and the mysteries engaging.

These are the kind of books where you care for the characters. Downie has a knack to depict the world-views of the characters realistically, switching viewpoints from a Roman medical officer to a British peasant woman. It is clear that each character - from main to support cast - is a fully realised person, with their own agendas and biases.

The plot of the stories grips you till can't put the book down. Downie is masterfully building up the investigations through sub-plots, distractions, daily lives, grand events - till you just have to know what happens next. Ruso may be a reluctant investigator, but he has that nagging voice in his head when things don't quite fit well, and it keeps him following and digging for the truth. Tilla has her own sense of fairness, and views on what makes the world tick.

Downie locates each book in a different town, mostly around Roman Britain
(with only two exceptions). She has clearly done her research for each location and they all come alive, with the latest modern archaeological understanding of life there seeping through her writing.

What to be aware of

These aren't the noir mysteries I normally read and recommend. While there are certainly some gruesome bits (he's a medic, after all), these aren't your typical first-person hard-boiled detective. Rather, the stories are told in a lighter vein, in third person perspective from either Ruso or Tilla's POV. Happily, Tilla gets a lot of page-time in this novel.

Ms Downie has experience with archaeology and Latin history, and it shows in her writing. She has elected to translate most Latin terms into modern English (e.g. calling a master 'my lord' rather then 'domine', or using 'doctor' for physician), which may sound a tad weird to those used to Latin terms from similar series.

Be aware that while it's not strictly necessary to read the books in order, it certainly helps.


I absolutely love this series. I have no idea why it took me so long to get back to it, but I am glad I did. If you've read the previous books, this is a great continuation. If not, go back to book one (Medicus) and start reading today!

Assaph Mehr, author of Murder In Absentia: A story of Togas, Daggers, and Magic - for lovers of Ancient Rome, Murder Mysteries, and Urban Fantasy.
Profile Image for S.J.A. Turney.
Author 68 books416 followers
November 22, 2016
The seventh novel in Ruth Downie’s Ruso and Tilla series takes us from Roman Britain (the setting for the majority of the books) for our first glimpse of Hadrianic Rome. Adn what a glimpse it is.

If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll be well aware by now of my opinion of this series and Ruth Downie’s awesome talent for storytelling, so you’ll be unsurprised to know that this is one of my highest rated books.

Following a former commander from Britain, Ruso brings Tilla and their new baby to Rome, seeking the good old ‘streets paved with gold’, only to find out that they are, in fact, paved with charlatans, criminals, gawpers and cockroaches. Oh, and barrels with bodies sealed inside. Yes, Ruso’s getting himself involved once again, entirely through atrocious luck, with a mystery. He receives an offer he cannot refuse: a ready made medical practice with patients, including a rich patron, and accommodation, all just waiting for him. But entirely apart from the delivery of the body in a barrel, he starts to worry that something is wrong because the former doctor has vanished without trace. Cue once again a truly complex, labyrinthine plot. As Ruso and Tilla battle debt collectors, wicked morticians, medical con-men, angry patrons, credulous neighbours, Christians and so many more, Ruso finds his life spiralling once more out of control, his reputation hanging on knife edge, Tilla trying to hold things together.

As with all Ruth’s plots, Vita Brevis is a masterpiece of subtlety and complexity intertwined. As with all her books, character, colour, detail, pace and humour are prime movers. The characters are so well constructed, and we’ve known that since book 1, but the fact is they have have 6 books to grow, and they are now old friends. Well, the main characters are. The supporting ones are new, obviously, but are instantly dislikeable. Oh, some are likeable, but the majority are unpleasant, oily, corrupt Roman city-folk. And colour? Well, you just won’t believe the colour of the Rome Ruth paints until you read it. Detail? Well there are very few writers I have read who have anything close to Downie’s knowledge of her era. She is skilled as an author but also knowledgeable as a historian and archaeologist. I always feel confident with her work that I am experiencing the closest thing to actually being there. Pace is easy. It is almost impossible to put down a Ruth Downie book. They drag you in and then pull you along until you blink in disbelief that you’re at the end. and finally, humour. Well, there is so little light-hearted or humorous material to be found in the genre, that to see the ongoing quirky humour of Ruso and Tilla is always a heartwarming thing.

Gods, but Vita Brevis (Life is Short) is the latest in the series. This is the first time I’ve finished a Ruso book without there being another one waiting to be read. Come on Ruth. Maybe we can somehow push the calendar forward a year? In short: buy this book. Read this book.
Profile Image for MB (What she read).
2,350 reviews14 followers
August 2, 2016
8/2/16 3.5 stars

I enjoyed the reading experience--I love this series-- but found myself bothered by how craven and powerless Ruso was throughout this book. Even Tila's spark was dimmed (somewhat and to a lesser degree). I found the mystery itself confusing. (The stakes seemed way too high for what seemed to be an incredibly minor slip.) I liked the additions to the Ruso household and am glad that

I thought Metellus' character seemed very oddly subdued in comparison to his previous appearances...yes, I assume there's another plot building...but, still.

I also think the reading experience may have been dampened by the fact that most of the action and drama occurs off the page. What readers get is only the repercussions on Ruso and Tila. Other than two dramatic scenes, everything driving this story happened before, or away from, the main characters. Maybe that made the difference?

Still, I'm longing for the next installment. I do enjoy Ruso and Tila!
Profile Image for Jean.
1,729 reviews753 followers
October 19, 2016
This is book seven of the series. In this story Gaius Petreius Ruso, his wife Tila and baby daughter Mara, have arrived in Rome from Britain. Former Tribune Accius has offered Ruso the home and medical practice of a Doctor Kleitos. Kleitos has vanished. Horiatis Balbo, a patron of Kleitos’s is convinced someone is trying to poison him and only Kleitos’s mysterious medial prescription will protect him. Balbo suddenly dies. Ruso and Tila are trying to solve the mystery of Kleitos and Balbo.

The book is well written and the move to Rome adds a new excitement to the story. Downie, as always, provides a realistic view of ancient Rome and provides historical insight to the story. The characters feel real, the plot is complex and the suspense builds throughout the story. As with all Downie books there is a subtle dry humor which I enjoy. I am always amazed at the detail of Roman life that Downie works into her story. The squalid conditions and corruption that was Rome is vividly portrayed by Downie.

Simon Vance does an excellent job narrating the story. Vance is a British actor and award winning audiobook narrator.
755 reviews11 followers
May 20, 2023
Tilla in Rome trying to be a good Roman Wife. God help Ruso.

Ruso has travelled to.Rome with Accius his Tribune from the twentieth legion. It seemed a good idea when in Brittania but now he is actually here Rome is not at all what he exoected. It's crowded, dirty, everything costs too much and nobody is friendly........in fact the locals are downright nasty. Tilla hates it, she's trying not to complain of make a fuss but she's not sleeping and she's losing weight (not that she had any to lose) but worst of all after persuading him to travel with him here Accius seems to not know what to do with Ruso now. But fortune smiles on the small family for once and Ruso is offered the chance to stand in for a doctor and run his medical practice while he's been called away, the job even comes with housing. But as ever with Ruso with the good comes the bad, there was a barrel blocking the way into the premises and when Tilla takes a blade to it she finds a body inside. Everyone around denies any knowledge of where the barrel and the body inside may have come from but word quickly spreads and the locals blame Ruso and Tilla for bringing bad luck to the neighbourhood. That's not the worst of it though Ruso's patron (a wealthy landlord) and only client died in mysterious circumstances and Accius, who is in love with the man's daughter wants Ruso to do what he is so good at and investigate the death.................
Profile Image for John.
2,032 reviews197 followers
January 27, 2018
Ruso and Tilla finally get to see the great City for themselves, and couldn't wait to leave fairly early on it seemed. Terrific parallels given with modern day places such as London or New York: crowded, noisy, no one knows their neighbor, etc.

The mystery angle was well done as I had no idea of the bad guys until the revelations near the end. Here, I felt Tilla came off better as more independent than just a cardboard British figure. As usual, these stories are funny without resorting to dopey slapstick.

Simon Vance's narration really adds quite a lot to the dimension of the tales.
Profile Image for Eden.
1,868 reviews
April 30, 2020
2020 bk 151 I so enjoy Tilla and Russo's quests to work out their marriage (and now parenthood) while at the same time being involved in some of the more puzzling mysteries. When a Roman businessman is murdered (after using some of Russo's salve), he is called upon to find out 'who dunnit' and he does, but not without some damage to his own body and general disillusionment with life in Rome. Excellent read.
Profile Image for Steven Kuehn.
Author 5 books27 followers
June 15, 2016
In VITA BREVIS, Gaius Ruso and Tilla (and baby Mara, of course) have left Britannia for Rome, where Ruso has been promised a respectable and potentially lucrative medical practice. The excitement of a new life in the heart of the Roman Empire, however, is tempered soon after their arrival. The grandeur of the city fades as Ruso and Tilla encounter a mix of unfriendly neighbors, squalid living conditions, corrupt officials, debt collectors, some disreputable doctors, and additional troubles as they try to set up housekeeping. As if that were not enough, Ruso receives an ominous note from the doctor he has replaced, warning him to be careful who he trusts, which takes on even greater significance when a dead body in a barrel is left on their doorstep! Once again, Ruso and Tilla are drawn into an overlapping series of crimes that challenge them both.

This is the seventh novel in the Medicus series, and author Ruth Downie continues to impress. The strength of her Roman Empire crime novels lies in the complex and lively interactions between Ruso and Tilla, and between them and the surrounding characters. The interplay between Ruso and Tilla is filled with conflict, love, humor, and more than a bit of exasperation on both sides; rarely do you find such a realistic couple in the pages of a novel.

Downie’s Medicus series has three great strengths: excellent characters and character interactions, detailed historical research that is subtle yet effectively transmitted to the reader, and well-conceived mysteries that entertain and enthrall the reader to the very end. I am particularly impressed by her detailed historical research; the reader is provided with a wonderful sense of place, be it the frontier of Roman Britain or Rome itself, without the awkward narrative descriptions that bog down the plot in some historical fiction. I’ve enjoyed every book in the Medicus series, and found VITA BREVIS to be an excellent addition to this series. Very much looking forward to her next book!

In full disclosure, I received an advanced reading copy of VITA BREVIS through Goodreads, but this has in no way effected my review.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,323 reviews72 followers
July 1, 2016
I won this book in a giveaway, although it then took me a stupidly long time to get to reading it.

Downie's Medicus series is one of my favorite in historical mysteries, not just for the Roman setting, but also for the way she makes it feel so real and modern even as it remains recognizably historical. Her characters are people rather than Ancient Roman Beings, and the light, dry humor in the novels makes them easy and fun to read.

This volume in particular, which takes place in Rome itself rather than Roman Britain or Gaul, was a little clumsier in its mystery plot than previous entries in the series, but well-written enough that I found that I didn't mind - I just wanted to see what Ruso and Tilla were up to. I am glad that they're leaving the city, however, as it felt like Rome itself was a distraction for the plot and the characters.

It is the people of Downie's world who make it. Tilla is one of my favorite characters in any book, and I'm looking forward to what she and Ruso (and now Mara) get up to next.

Profile Image for Mary.
743 reviews17 followers
July 13, 2017
Apparently the series is usually set in Roman Britain. This one is a complicated story set in Rome and it doesn't hang together too well. Ruso, his British wife Tilla and their baby Mara are newly arrived in Rome, looking for employment as a doctor. His patron finds him a practice to take over while Dr Kleitos is in the provinces caring for his aged father. But left on the doorstep that morning is a large barrel for Dr Kleitos and it is soon discovered that the barrel contains a corpse. This gives you a good idea of how far fetched the plot is. Not recommended.
Profile Image for Italo Italophiles.
528 reviews31 followers
July 12, 2016
Ruso, a doctor, and Tilla, a midwife, are the protagonists of this crime series set in Ancient Rome. They are at first glance a mismatched couple, he being a Roman from Gaul (France), she being a Celt from northern Britain, a relatively recent addition to the Roman Empire at the time of the stories. But in this couple's case, appearances are very deceiving. They are perfect together.

Rough-edged military doctor Ruso barely manages to hide his weakness: a deep sense of humanity and justice. In the sadistic world of the Ancient Roman Empire, those are not considered assets. His “foreign” wife values his character and shares his burdens in a way a traditional Roman wife would not. In fact, Ruso once had a very traditional Roman wife but she, fed up with his good nature, sought a divorce. To date, this very entertaining series follows the couple's meeting through to their start of their own family.

I enjoy the books very much for their quality writing, deep humanity, realistic portrayal of couple and family life, complex protagonists, and the camaraderie of military life portrayed around Ruso. The accurate historical background to the stories is a bonus, since I enjoy historical novels. Being a fan of mystery and crime novels, the central crime plot is entertaining as well. If you have similar interests, you should enjoy the series too. Another aspect I appreciate is that the slavery of Ancient Rome is shown for what it was (and still is): evil.

Vita Brevis, book 7 in the series, begins in the empire's capital city, Rome, in our year counting 123 a.d. under the Emperor Hadrian. Ruso and Tilla are out of their native Gaul and Britain, and out of their depths much of the time when the provincials attempt to set up life in the big city. That adds some fun to this book, seeing the two trying to cope with new challenges. They are not city people, especially not in such a harsh city as Rome at that time, which was probably in many ways comparable to India's Mumbai today.

Crime and Ruso always find each other, and his well-developed conscience makes him feel compelled to get involved. He fights that feeling because the city of Rome is so full of vice that if he tried to fix it all, he would never have a life! But he is ordered by his patron, the man who vouched for him to come to Rome, to investigate more than one death. Doctoring in that era is always part of the story, since Ruso and Tilla are both medical practitioners, and there is plenty of that in Vita Brevis (Brief Life), too, but it never overshadows the story.

Ruso is a fascinating character. He is cursed to be a deeply human and moral man living in a deeply sadistic and amoral society. Tilla's love and presence gives him a reason to carry on. With a child now, the need to make a decent living is a feeling other parents will recognize. The joy of parenthood pared with the enormous weight of responsibility for another human life, besides the lives of their patients, weighs on both Ruso and Tilla. When they make the decision to purchase slaves to help them cope with their hectic life, it is fascinating to see how they quickly understand that in exchange for the labor, they have taken on responsibility for even more lives, the lives of people who have nothing to live for.

Reading Vita Brevis felt like catching up with old friends. I got to see how they got on in the Empire's capital. I got to see how they dealt with the stresses of new parenthood and trying to set up life in a new place. I got to see if their humanity and decency remained intact in the face of Rome's great evils. I got to step back in time to see the new, despised Christians living side by side with the Empire's respected pagans. I spent several hours being entertained by a quality novel.

The books in the Ruso Medicus Roman Crime Series:
1 - Medicus
2 - Terra Incognita
3 - Persona Non Grata
4 - Caveat Emptor
5 - Semper Fidelis
6 - Tabula Rasa
7 - Vita Brevis

The illustrated review is at Italophile Book Reviews.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,389 reviews33 followers
February 21, 2017
There is a verse from a John Gorka song, Always Going Home, that kept running through my mind as I read Vita Brevis.

It's like that old expression
All roads lead to Rome
You see he comes from trouble
And he's always going home.

Ruso, Tilla, and baby Mara are in Rome, which is nothing like home for either of them. It may be the center of the Empire, but it is large, dangerous, and frightening for people with no cash, no influential contacts, and no idea who they can trust. The naive and unwary can find themselves in all sorts of trouble.

Ruso just wants to practice medicine. Tilla just wants a home. What they find is violence and treachery.

As usual, our doctor and healer do find some allies, but in the end, they realize that while all roads may lead to Rome, those roads can be travelled in both directions.
Profile Image for Mary.
741 reviews14 followers
July 20, 2016
"What is that mysterious ticking noise" (Potter puppet pals).

"What is that mysterious barrel?" (everyone at the beginning of "Vita Brevis")

I love this series! It keeps getting better and better, and the characters are loveable, decent, and also fallible. In this one, our unfortunate army doctor, Gaius Petraeus Ruso, has to live with two mistakes. He has brought his young family to Rome, a great city with a lot of poor housing and very little in the way of secure employment. And, as the story goes on, he's also fearful that he may have poisoned a patient. Both these things contribute to a crisis in morale for our beloved doctor. His feisty young wife, Tilla, tries to snap him out of it while struggling with her own problems. The young family desperately needs money, and she would like help with childcare. Also, the contents of the barrel left on the doctor's doorstep are deeply disturbing. And no one seems to know where the previous doctor has gone, or even if he's still alive-

If you've read any of the previous volumes, you will need to read this one. It introduces some very likeable new characters and, as always, it's well-plotted and dryly funny. If you haven't read the earlier volumes, I'd advise you to start with the first, because the evolving relationships between the characters is one of the pleasures of the series. But I can imagine someone new to the series reading this as a stand-alone and enjoying it. Great fun for fans of historical mysteries, and also surprisingly touching and thought-provoking. As I said, I love this series. I hope there will be an eighth book.
Profile Image for Larry.
242 reviews4 followers
July 30, 2023
Ruth Downie seems to have adopted a comfortable pattern for her Ruso novels. First, there is an opening scene from the POV of a minor character which sets up the central object of the mystery. In this case, it is a body in a barrel. At the end there is a final chapter from the same secondary character's POV. In between the POV alternates between Ruso and Tilla. Ruso is insecure about his relationship to Tilla as husband, and Tilla seems torn between being a good Roman wife, and being herself. Marriage is hard, and they seem to both be approach it with good will to make it work out.

Tilla is developing skill in medical matters, particularly as pertain to "women's" matters. Russo relies on her more and more. In the end her strength of will and perseverance turns the tide in the investigation. In a familiar pattern, Ruso comes to the end, has no more clues, and appears to give up. At the last moment, he stumbles onto one additional clue that puts the pieces together and he solves the case, just as he and his household are packing up to go out of town.

There is realistic difficulty in communication. Not just between Ruso and Tilla, but between each of them and everyone they talk to, because no one had a deep interest in speaking clearly and openly. It is on the boarder of being irritating, but Downie seems to make it work.

I liked it.
Profile Image for Jamie Collins.
1,434 reviews274 followers
August 18, 2016
These books are great fun, and I love Ruso and Tilla. For this latest adventure they have moved to Rome with their adopted baby, where they are horrified by the egregiousness of medical quacks and the apathy of slumlords. The mystery is okay, providing just enough plot to give our characters something to worry about and argue over. The historical setting is great, as usual.

They need some slaves to help run their household (Tilla still can’t cook, although she can clatter crockery while singing songs of the glorious victories of her ancestors) and of course Tilla chooses a bedraggled group of Britains, leading Russo to observe that he is living in a house full of barbarians. He’s noticeably fond of his own barbarian, though.
Profile Image for Julie.
323 reviews8 followers
July 24, 2016
Russo and Tilla have arrived in Rome only to discover that the promised physician's job doesn't exist. When he is asked to cover for a doctor who had to leave town on a family emergency, he jumps at the opportunity. But almost immediately he begins to regret his decision when a body is discovered in a barrel on his new doorstep.
496 reviews
July 22, 2016
Although I certainly did enjoy the book, this latest addition to the Medicus series - one of my favorite historical mystery series - was a weaker entry than the ones it followed. For me, the main flaw was moving the Gaius Petreius Ruso family from Britannia (123 A.D.) to the great city of Rome itself. I am hoping to see their future adventures....in Britannia!
Profile Image for Baelor.
171 reviews43 followers
September 9, 2018
Probably my favorite entry in the Ruso series. Ruso and Tilla finally make their way to Rome, and Downie's illustration of life among the lower classes in the imperial city was fantastic. I especially appreciated her depiction of the complexities and occasional absurdities of the Roman patronage system, the willingness of freedmen to have slaves of their own (which itself reduces to intellectual rubble the all-too-frequent-in-the-modern-era theory that sympathizing with the oppressed or experiencing it oneself is guaranteed to lead one to opposing it), Roman urban Christianity, the frequent thuggery and intimidation in the city, and more. It is easily the most vivid fictional portrayal of life in the city that I have encountered in any medium.

The mystery itself was pretty good, and the reappearance of familiar faces like Accius and Metellus manage to tie closely into the story. As usual, the investigation seems almost secondary and few clues are provided throughout the story, but at least most of the plot involves Ruso (and Tilla) actually trying to make progress on the case. The ending and solution, , occurred a little too quickly for my liking. I suppose I appreciate the fuller explanations in front of the cast of suspects à la Agatha Christie.

That aside, this was a great book.
877 reviews
October 30, 2016
This was a great read! Unlike many series, this one has gotten better since the first one, although "MEDICUS" was enjoyable too. It seems that author, Ruth Downie, is now more confident of both the form of these books as well as the who the characters are. I especially like that they are set in the Rome of about 150 AD. I think they are quite true to this time period, without being overly pedantic. It is doubly interesting to me as I am currently editing Rod Warren's book: "The Praetorian & the Vipers,"
a story laid just at the time of Christ, about 35 AD. It is amusing to me to realize that while Rod is writing about Romans as though they reflect American culture and speech patterns, Ruth Downie's Rome is clearly British!
The book is definitely a mystery, but it encompasses everyday Roman life as it might have been lived. She strikes just the right note of modernity laced with plenty of antique atmosphere. I happen to know from my editing trials that this is NOT an easy trick! (although, there are some words and usages in "Vita Brevis" I would run a red pencil through!)
I did finally see the murderer through the maze of red herrings, but I was unsure for quite a way through the book because the solution relied on the oldest cliche in the detective novel! Her plot, however, made the device seem fresh and logical. Bring on more of self-deprecating Gaius Ruso, doctor to the legions!
Profile Image for Marlowe.
921 reviews17 followers
October 20, 2017
Ruso and Tilla head to Rome, their new baby in tow.

I like that Downie changes up the scenery every now and then. Britain is great, but it was nice to see Gaul in Persona Non Grata, and it's lovely to see Rome here. And while Downie doesn't exactly do vivid detail, the city certainly managed to come across satisfyingly noisy, dirty, and smelly.

As usual, the mystery is something of an afterthought. The main attraction is Tilla and Ruso, and now their expanded household. Adding Mara and the two slaves creates a whole new dynamic - not to mention nearly tripling the number of people Ruso has to support... somehow.

Narina has a lot of potential as a character, particularly with her tribal background. In Rome, Tilla seemed willing to ignore the traditional dislike between their tribes because Narina was, at least, from Britain. By the end of the book, the two women seem to have formed something of a friendship as they co-parent and face the dangers of Rome together. But I imagine that going back to Britain will highlight their tribal differences, and perhaps put a strain on their relationship. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

The series is still going strong, and I can already see the threads of many new interesting plotlines starting, so I don't see me losing interest any time soon.
963 reviews10 followers
May 29, 2017
I don't know about "amazing" but it was better than the usual "really liked". MS Downie allows her military doctor to drift through life with a rather slowly operating analytical sense which would be dangerous if it operated at that speed in medical matters. In this story, which appears to take only a week, it nearly does. Ruso has come to Rome with Tilla his wife and their adopted daughter and takes on a job as locum for a doctor who has vanished. Things become very confused as a patient dies going home from a dinner, Ruso fears his own compounding skills are inadequate, poison is suspected, housing projects run rampant and tenants complain about insects, slow repairs, and rent increases. It all sounds very familiar except for the presence of all those slaves. Apparently there is a book called "The Roman Guide to Slave Management (also published as How to Manage Your Slaves) by Marcus Sidonius Falx with the modern assistance of Jerry Toner. Tilla gives a Roman lady a quick background in life tragedies and she and Ruso sell their most valuable possessions: their wedding china and Ruso's military kit. What will he do if he ever decides to go back to the Legions? Very fond of this series.
Profile Image for Lisa.
Author 3 books56 followers
February 3, 2021
Another entertaining mystery featuring legionary medicus Ruso and his independent, British-born wife, Tilla. In this installment, Ruso and Tilla find themselves in the big, bewildering city of Rome, a place neither of them belongs.
Their unfamiliarity with the city gave it a unique angle, because neither of them was used to how things work there. Also, the dual POV's allowed the author to show how each character thought about the other, which added another layer of tension and interest.
The mystery was satisfying. I'm not a big fan of I-had-a-dream-and-it-was-suddenly-all-clear, but Ruso's poppy-induced dreams added a touch of humor and so they worked.
I also enjoyed Tilla's interaction with the slaves they purchase. She had been a slave herself, so being the mistress of slaves is something she has to figure out, and the author did a good job of showing that. And when all else fails, mention baby Mara and all the world rights itself again.

Ruso's self-doubt sometimes gets a tad annoying, but that is just who he is. The portrayal of the Christian neighbors felt pretty realistic, seen from the dubious and concerned POV of Ruso, who is ever aware of the hazards of associating with illegal religious groups.
Profile Image for Katherine.
650 reviews30 followers
April 24, 2018
One of my favorite series--a Doctor of the Roman legions who served in Britannica and married a former slave. This is the 7th installment. Ruso, the doctor always seems to get himself involved in some mysterious situation, missing people, unexplained deaths etc. Interspersed with his patients are his superiors, who always seem to find fault with him, the natives, who are sometimes suspicious of him and his wife, Tilla, who with her barbarian ways either embarrasses him or gets him into further trouble. In this installment, they have moved to Rome. Tilla, like most country folk relocated to a big city is a fish out of water and unhappy. Ruso, who thought his former superior in Britannica, who urged him to come to Rome, intended to find him a position, is frustrated at the seemingly uninterested man and his efforts. As usual, after much confusion and false leads all is resolved and Tilla and Ruso with their adopted toddler make plans to move on.
While the book is interesting and fun, and can certainly be read as a stand alone, it really is much more interesting if the reader starts the series at the beginning with the first book.
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