Dear readers, tonight with us is a combat medic, servicing in the legions assigned to one of the Roman Empire’s most notoriously dangerous provinces – Britain. He’s here to tell about his adventures, and accidental involvement in crime.
How does a Roman army medic end up solving murders?
I’m glad you asked that, because the answer is: reluctantly. I’m supposed to be in the business of making people feel better, so despite what anyone tells you, I’m not keen on stirring up trouble. I wouldn’t have gone near that business of the dead girl back in Deva if anyone else had been willing to deal with it. Oh, and if the lady who is now my wife hadn’t been quite so insistent.
(Of course as the head of the household, I’m the one in charge. Not my wife. I want to make that clear, because some of the people reading this may be Britons, who often have trouble remembering the proper order of things. I know this because my wife, Tilla, is a Briton. On the other hand, since very few of them see the point of reading and writing, this paragraph may be redundant.)
To return to the subject of murders—I certainly don’t go looking for them, but in the course of my work I stumble across suspicious injuries, and now word seems to have got round that if you’ve found an unexpected body, Ruso’s the man to deal with it. My author tells me that in the future there will be a specialist unit called the Police Force who are called in to sort out these things, while doctors can get on with seeing their patients and writing reports for the Treasury administrators. I’m sure she must have got the second half of that wrong. No-one in their right mind would pay a doctor to work as a scribe.
Most Romans view Britannia as a horrible place. What’s your view?
Contrary to popular belief, Britannia can be delightful. Unfortunately even the natives never know when it’s going to be delightful –sunshine on dappled green hills, gentle breezes – and when we will be spending days squelching through cold mud while the wind blasts the rain sideways. There are times when the only thing that distinguishes one season from another here is the temperature of the downpour.
The Legions have brought some of the improvements that make decent living possible – roads, baths, forums, proper taxation – and a few of the tribes in the south have been organized into primitive cities. But still, when left to his own devices, the average Briton remains a stranger to plumbing.
However, the natives are much more intelligent than most of my colleagues realize. As my wife likes to point out, they have a sense of honour and of humour that may escape visitors who have no grasp of the language. And as she also reminds me, whilst the tribes may ferment vicious rebellion, Britons never gather in huge crowds to watch people kill each other and call it entertainment.
What’s your favourite drink, colour, and relaxing pastime?
My favourite drink—and it would be yours, too, if you tried it—is the wine produced by my brother from our family’s vineyards in Gallia Narbonensis. Made from grapes trodden by the feet of reliable slaves, mixed with a splash of the best seawater, and left to ferment in big open jars lined with pitch and set in the floor of the winery. Marvellous.
I’ve never really thought about colours. I like to relax with a cup of wine and a good medical textbook. I’m not sure most people would describe that as a pastime.
What are the best and worst things of being in the Roman legions?
For a doctor, it’s a marvellous opportunity to get surgical experience, and the freedom from private practice does away with all the bother of competing for patients and then negotiating and collecting fees. The worst aspect is having to fight one’s way through a large and cumbersome administration. And of course the possibility of being killed, but that doesn’t happen as often as some people imagine. Especially to medics.
On a more personal level, being part of an organization that’s here to keep my wife’s people under control brings its own challenges. Most of them from my wife.
Have you met Trajan and Hadrian in person? What are they like?
I have, although I failed to recognize Trajan at first. To be fair he wasn’t looking his usual self, having just been hauled from a collapsing building during the calamitous earthquake that flattened most of Antioch. As to what he was like: he was covered in dust and a little confused. But he still remembered to say thank-you, which was impressive.
I met Hadrian briefly during the clearing-up operations after the earthquake, and again when he had risen to Emperor and was on a tour of Britannia. He’s a man full of energy and intelligence, hardworking and well liked by his troops. You may have heard that I caused a disturbance when he visited my hospital in Eboracum. As you see I’m still alive, free and not in exile, so obviously the more lurid rumours are not true.
Now that you and Tilla are married, when will you make your families happy and produce an offspring?
I’m delighted to say that we’ve recently acquired a daughter, although not by the usual method. Sadly the only way I could make my stepmother happy would be to divorce Tilla and propose to the wealthy widow next door.
Ruth Downie is the author of six mysteries featuring Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso. 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. You can find Ruso on the pages the Medicus novels. The novels are published in the UK by Bloomsbury.
Next week we will host a special guest, one whose four legs mean he was never meant to sit down on a couch, but rather to run free in open meadows. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right), via Twitter or like our Facebook page to be notified when the next interview is posted.