‘“According to the lex Aelia Sentia, which was instituted in the reign of Augustus, freed slaves under the age of thirty become Junian Latins.”
“What is June Latins?” asked Nubia.
“Junian Latins are essentially a type of second-class freedman, or freedwoman. They don’t have all the rights of a Roman citizen. For example …”’
Exchanges like this are frequent in the latest addition (the 13th) to Lawrence’s ‘Roman Mysteries’, a series of adventure tales set in Ostia in AD80. The adventures take the time-honoured form of embroiling a group of four young amateur detectives in the dastardly conspiracies of their elders. In the current story, the eponymous slave-girl, a survivor of the Masada massacre, is framed for a triple murder and brought to a trial in which none other than Quintillian himself opens the prosecution. So far, so formulaic, but Lawrence’s knowledge and obvious passion for the fascinating details of life in the Roman world combine with skill in plot twists, backstory, characterisation and an ear for more natural dialogue. It has to be said that the rather wooden didactic exchanges exemplified above are always embedded in richer discourse, and play an effective part in creating the intriguing historical context.
While bearing out much of what non-fiction authors like Terry Deary, and the recent adult BBC drama, have depicted about the ‘rotten and ruthless’ Romans, these books provide a parallel representation of how some individual lives at the time might well have been imbued with more humane values.