On June 23, 2016, I flew to London with my husband after a research trip in Germany. There were storms that night and the flight was delayed several hours; we arrived close to midnight.
A friend picked us up and drove us through a torrential downpour into central London.
In her car, listening to the news on the radio, we learned that Brexit had passed. This car ride stands out for me as the moment that I first realized that Donald Trump might actually win the upcoming presidential election in the United States. If xenophobia and racism could triumph in the UK, they could triumph in the US as well.
In the three years since that night, there has been a sharp rise in hateful rhetoric and violence directed against immigrants, Muslims, and people of color in both the UK and the US. A great deal of this is justified as a defense of white or “European” culture that is purportedly “under attack.” This evocation of a culture in need of protection involves a weaponization of the past, particularly the distant past. Ancient Greece and Rome loom large in white supremacist fantasies of a glorious past where masculine martial values ruled and everyone (or at least everyone important) was white. Right-wing groups and individuals have used classical history to justify a range of anti-immigrant, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic ideas and policies.
Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, tweeted that “the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration.” His implication was clear: England should learn from Rome’s example and close her borders to immigrants. Even after Cambridge classicist Mary Beard informed him that this was historically inaccurate, he continued to tweet about the “savages” and “hordes on the border” that had destroyed Rome.
In the midst of these highly publicized fights over ancient history, I have taken particular pleasure in rereading Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. Set in Roman Britain in the second century AD, the books follow the career of Gaius Petreius Ruso, an army doctor (a medicus) stationed in Britannia. The novels are mysteries, each one starting with a suspicious death that Ruso ends up investigating. In Downie’s books, Roman Britain is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. There are characters from all parts of the Roman Empire, as well as native Britons. Ruso himself comes from Gaul and served in Africa before being posted to Britain. In other words, it is historically accurate, reflecting both textual and archaeological evidence.
The series is also wonderful as history of medicine. As a doctor at an army base, Ruso treats both soldiers and members of the local native population. He bandages wounds, sets broken bones, pulls teeth and deals with coughs, infections, and assorted aches and pains. He battles with a penny-pinching hospital administrator over the costs of the treatments he prescribes and the supplies he uses. Downie’s descriptions of ancient medicine are accurate but also sympathetic. She never portrays what Ruso or other healers do as barbaric or primitive. Occasionally, Downie does bring in some of the more bizarre aspects of Roman medicine, such as the belief that toothaches are caused by tooth worms (240) or that vomiting can be cured with a mixture of “honey containing ashes of burned mouse droppings.” (180) Nonetheless, she makes clear that Ruso is a skillful and compassionate healer.
A central part of the series is the romance between Ruso and Tilla, an indigenous British midwife. Their first meeting is not auspicious. Tilla is a victim of human trafficking and has been badly beaten. Ruso, who is so deeply in debt that he can barely afford to eat, buys her on impulse. He tells himself that if he can heal her injuries he will be able to sell her for a profit. But it rapidly becomes clear that Ruso’s motives are more altruistic than he cares to admit. A good part of Ruso’s appeal as a protagonist is that, while he claims repeatedly that he wants to be left in peace and doesn’t want to hear about other people’s problems, he can never resist stepping in to help when he sees someone in trouble. Tilla is less than grateful about this change in masters. She refuses even to tell Ruso her real name: “She was not about to offer her name up to a stranger. It was almost the only thing she possessed that nobody had stolen.” (35) She starts going by “Tilla” because Ruso tells her that she will be “useful” (utilis in Latin) to him. Tilla’s Latin is imperfect, and she believes this is what he plans to call her. Over the course of the first novel they fall in love and, in subsequent novels, get married and start a family. He never does learn to pronounce her British name.
The plot of the first novel, titled simply Medicus, revolves around sex trafficking and the murder of the enslaved woman. Downie is unflinching in her depiction of the horrors of slavery in the ancient world. Her novels are notable for their sympathetic portrayal of complex women at all levels of Roman and British society. The murder victim in the first novel is an enslaved prostitute, but she is not simply a victim or an eroticized corpse. She, and all the other enslaved women in the brothel, are human beings whose life stories are worth unraveling in full.
The romance between Ruso and Tilla allows Downie to present Roman Britain both from the perspective of a member of the Roman occupying force as well as the viewpoint of a native. Unsurprisingly, they never see eye-to-eye on the relative merits of Roman and British culture. Ruso regards Britain as “dilapidated, primitive, and damp,” (119) and finds the native resistance to learning Latin and accepting Roman law to be both unreasonable and ungrateful. Tilla regards the Romans as violent, greedy, and lacking in honor and decency. Ruso hates beer and deplores British cooking. Tilla is appalled to learn that the Romans eat mice, snails, and swans. Romans, she comments disparagingly, “would eat anything that moved.” (133)
Making Tilla a midwife gives Downie the opportunity to juxtapose Ruso’s belief in the superiority of his “civilized” and “scientific” medical knowledge with Tilla’s indigenous knowledge. In one exchange, Ruso asks Tilla about the uses of some local herbs with which he is unfamiliar: “I’m interested in your medicine. Some of your plants here are new to me. Maybe I have something to learn.” (230) He wants her to tell him about British “superstitions” so he can fit them into a Roman scheme of medical knowledge. Page through the volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and you will find hundreds of accounts of plants, animals, and other natural phenomena described to British investigators by unnamed indigenous people. I fully sympathized with Tilla’s stubborn refusal to tell Ruso anything – although in subsequent novels the two establish a joint practice.
Although the novels are set in Roman Britain, one can sense a critique of the British tendency to romanticize their own imperial past. A 2016 survey showed that the majority of the British public thought the empire was something to be proud of and believed that they had left their former colonies better off than they found them. Downie’s characterization of the Romans in Britain reads like a riposte to this historically naïve (to put it very mildly) viewpoint. Throughout the novels, Romans describe the indigenous British tribes in words that echo those the 19th- and 20th-century British used to describe the people of Africa and India: primitive, lazy, superstitious, dirty, and generally a “bloody nuisance.” (55)
Medicus is set in August of 117, the month the Emperor Trajan died. The action of the seven subsequent novels and one novella takes place at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. Downie’s choice of this decade has resonated deeply with me since the election of Donald Trump. It was Hadrian who built a coast-to-coast wall separating the northern and southern parts of Britain. One of Trump’s signature campaign promises was a wall separating the United States from Mexico. Hadrian thought his wall would keep out “barbarians” from the north. Trump believes his will keep out “criminals, drug dealers [and] rapists” from the south. The Roman world, like our own, was characterized by xenophobia, misogyny, and extreme inequalities of wealth and status. I titled this essay “Amor Vincit Omnia” – love conquers all — because Tilla and Ruso’s love wins out over their own prejudices as well as social norms. But in these quietly brilliant, fiercely feminist novels, Downie never lets us forget that it takes more than romance to forge a just society.
All quotes from: Ruth Downie, Medicus: a novel of the Roman Empire (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006).