Mary Anne: Congratulations on the release of The Governor's Man: A Quintus Valerius Mystery. Could you tell us a little about your new book and what inspired you to write it?
Jacquie Rogers: Thank you, Mary Anne. It’s a joy to be here, and to share a little of the world of my hero Quintus Valerius.
Quintus is a Frumentarius, a Roman officer detached from his legion and sent on missions around the Empire. His job is to investigate major crimes and unrest affecting the Emperor’s interests. A sort of Special Branch/military policeman, at a time when there was no police force as such. He has unhappy memories of Britannia, where he served in the Caledonian campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus in 210 AD. He was left with physical and emotional scars from that war, not to mention a broken heart. And now he’s back, and to make matters worse, is forced to make do with a disgraced British former NCO as his assistant. That’s just the beginning of his troubles. As the mismatched pair travel west on a trail of fraud and murder, it becomes apparent some people will stop at nothing to prevent their mission. Increasingly the pair uncover clues casting a terrible light on Quintus’s own past.
I stumbled across the inspiration for this story in Taunton Museum, when I was living in the Somerset Levels a few years ago. It’s a superb museum, with a wonderful display about the wealth of Roman history in Somerset. In pride of place was the Shapwick Hoard, the largest trove of Roman denarii ever found in Britain. Over 9,000 silver coins had been neatly wrapped and buried in the estate office of a large Roman villa, completely unknown until metal detectorists found the silver in a farmer’s field n 1998. Subsequent excavation and carbon dating revealed that this courtyard villa was destroyed in AD224, at the same time the money was hidden there.
It’s well known that silver was at times purloined from the galena ore produced at the Charterhouse mines near Cheddar (see the wonderful Lindsey Davies’s first century Falco mystery, The Silver Pigs). A cottage industry of coining, sometimes legal but often counterfeit, continued in Somerset through the Roman period, despite the severe penalties.
So I had all the ingredients: hidden silver, counterfeiters, and a nearby silver mine subject to fraud. And I had the man to uncover it all. I just had to decide why the silver was being pilfered, and then make life very difficult and dangerous for my frumentarius.
Mary Anne: Your book is set in Roman Britain. How difficult was this era to research and did you come upon any unexpected surprises?
Jacquie Rogers: I’ve already mentioned some surprises: the buried villa at Shapwick, and the treasure hidden in it. Perhaps my biggest surprise was how little else there is known of this period.
I visited the archives of the Somerset Heritage Centre, where the superb staff alerted me to a report of the dig at Shapwick in 1998. I quickly realised as they guided me through the artefacts and written sources stored in the archives that although we have some primary records, of more or less reliability, relating to the more turbulent times: the conquest of Britain, Boudica’s revolt, the visit of Hadrian in 121AD, and the Severan Wars of 208/211AD, we have very few sources referring to the settled and prosperous Britannia of the third century.
In a sense this was a bonus, as I could use my imagination to fill the gaps. I joined the excellent Hellenic and Roman Library at Senate House in London, who lent me loads of books by post even during lockdown. I visited the British Library several times before the pandemic to research Hadrian’s detached military investigators.
I dragged my supportive husband Peter along Roman roads all over the south and west, in search of obscure mansiones, mosaic floors under gardens (Ilchester), trips to the Roman Baths (Bath, of course), even to peer under the old Severn motorway bridge to find the original Roman army landing site at Aust. I took every chance to visit re-enactments and displays such as Roman textile-dyeing and weaving, and the growing of herbal plants and poisons. I went to the Ashmolean’s 2019 summer exhibition, Last Supper in Pompeii, where I discovered that many Romans existed on take-away meals from fast food stalls. Just like us on a Friday night.
During lockdown the Internet was a saviour: everything from how to wield a gladius on Youtube, to ORBIS, the fabulous interactive map of the Roman world set up by Stanford University.
Above all, I read widely. I wanted to know how it felt to be a dual-identity Briton in 224AD. As a Roman in a remote province, you might still live a lifestyle very much grounded in traditional pre-Roman ways, perhaps speak Brythonic languages as well as or even instead of Latin, and definitely you would worship the old gods alongside the Roman imports. But at the same time you would understand yourself to be Roman, with no living memory of life before the invaders.
What was that like? What were the conflicts and sparking points when the old culture clashed with the hegemony of Rome?
Mary Anne: Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
Jacquie Rogers: Apart from Quintus there are two other main characters in The Governor’s Man, both RomanoBritish. Tiro, assigned in London as companion and groom to Quintus, is a soldier — a rough and ready young man, illiterate but bilingual in Latin and the local British dialect. Lady Julia Aureliana is upper-class, highly educated, a matron docta trained in herbalism and healing, a senior noble of the Durotriges tribe of Somerset.
I love all three, but have to confess to a real soft spot for Tiro. He’s tough, a street fighter with the badges and scars to prove it. Life has been unkind to him at times and he is suspicious of foreigners, but capable of great affection and loyalty. Above all he is a real Londoner, who is convinced the vibrant trading centre on Tamesis is the greatest city in the Empire. He has quite a surprise coming in Book 2, when I take him to Rome.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Jacquie Rogers: You won’t be surprised, Mary Anne, if I say it’s the contrast between the obligation to be as historically accurate as possible, and the freedom to invent: to wind the fiction around the facts. I think all Historical Fiction writers have a duty to honour the past. By that I don’t mean making dialogue archaic, or littering the landscape with artefacts. Fortunately, with Latin being pretty much dead as a spoken language, I feel no obligation to make my characters speak like Cicero. Neither do I think we should present the fruits of our research in bulk. The job for me is first to do the research — lots and lots of it, and as much on-site as pandemics will allow! But then I believe the history should appear in the story only as it would arise naturally through the eyes and conversations of my characters. So Tiro notices the comfortable —if dimly lit— traditional roundhouse at Bo Gwelt, because to a Londoner used to living in barracks and cramped little boxes of houses and apartments, such a spacious cosy home feels novel.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Jacquie Rogers: It’s perhaps not the easiest choice of genre. So don’t write Historical Fiction unless you have such an overwhelming desire to share your darling historical time period with others that you will burst if you don’t! If you do persevere, as I hope you will, then research like mad, keeping your notes and links and images in files you can easily find, all backed up of course. But set all that knowledge aside once you begin to write.
One more thing that I have learned the hard way —when outlining and in your first draft, resist the temptation to keep fact-checking. Just add an asterisk or whatever device will warn you to go back to the text later. Let your characters run with the story, keep up the flow of words. You can and will go back to fact-check in later drafts.
One example: in my first draft I spent ages working out which route Quintus would take to walk home in Chapter 1, from the Castra Peregrina on the Caelian Hill to his house on the Quirinal. I mentioned he passed right by the Colosseum. It wasn’t till the second draft that I discovered the Colosseum would simply have been called the amphitheatre in his day. And I never noted the building in the final draft anyway, because in those opening scenes Quintus was tired and very unhappy. Not the frame of mind to specifically notice something he passed all the time.
My final piece of advice? Remember that people are people, and always have been. Your characters may have different belief systems, technology and social class structures from us, but we all have the same challenges and moments of joy, and our experiences drive the same emotions. Stick to what makes us all human, and your characters will come alive.
[Quintus Valerius has just arrived in Londinium, having been sent to Britannia by the commandant of the Castra Peregrina in Rome.]
Quintus walked west along the revetted riverbank to the Governor’s Palace. Two guards snapped to attention at the sight of his hasta, the miniature lance badge on his shoulder sash. He was clearly expected. The guards handed him over to the Governor’s major domo, who bowed and led the way through several large chambers, all with surprisingly good mosaics. At the back of the villa he was shown into a smaller room, where a broad man stood up to greet him. He was wearing two fine white woollen tunics over each other and red leather boots, despite the warmth from the heated floor.
‘Quintus Valerius, Brother!’
‘Governor.’ Quintus bowed slightly.
‘Nonsense, Quintus,’ said Gaius Trebonius, stepping out from behind his desk. ‘Let’s greet properly as old friends should. You’ve not forgotten Caledonia, eh?’ Quintus tried to relax as Trebonius clapped him on the back.
‘Gaius Trebonius, it’s good to see you. Congratulations on your promotion.’
His comrade’s rise in less than fifteen years from legionary tribune to Governor of a province was impressive. It spoke volumes for Trebonius’s quick-thinking political ability that he had continued to prosper in these times of shifting allegiances.
Trebonius shook his head, smiling. He motioned to Quintus to join him in worn leather camp seats near a brazier. The Governor poured wine for them both.
‘Safe journey? And the leg?’
‘Both fair enough, thank you sir.’ He wasn’t in the mood for chitchat, even with an old friend.
The Governor nodded, and took a swallow from his beaker. He fixed Quintus with a direct look, reminiscent of the younger officer briefing his raw new subaltern.
‘I never wrote, but I was sorry to hear about your father. Your family…they prosper, I hope?’
Quintus felt his face harden. The wounds were old but still surprisingly raw. It had been too much to hope that Trebonius had not heard about his father’s disgrace and fall from the Senate. Quintus didn’t know who had engineered the accusations, but he would find out — one day.
‘My mother and sister are well enough, thank you, sir. I was able to make adequate provision for them. My sister is married now to a dear friend of mine, and my mother lives with them.’
Trebonius nodded, then returned to business.
‘What did they tell you in Rome about this mission, Quintus?’
‘I understand it involves suspected loss of income to the Imperial estate from a mine in south-west Britannia. Hence Rome sending me to be attached to your staff during whatever investigation you deem best.’
The Governor frowned and picked up his beaker again. He seemed to study the depths of his wine before continuing.
‘Well, it is my great good fortune to have your service. I need the best for this job, and Rome sent you, thank the Gods. Let me be straight with you, Quintus. The income from the Vebriacum mines has dropped to almost nothing in the past year or so. The current lessee, Claudius Bulbo, has petitioned my colleague the Provincial Procurator Rufinus for a reduction in rent, claiming the silver content is now so low the cost of extraction is not worthwhile. Bulbo has a reputation as a competent man of business. He ran some sort of large enterprise in southern Gaul before moving to Britannia a few years ago. On the face of it I have no reason not to believe him. The silver in a lead mine can give out after many years of extraction. But we need to know for sure. Other mine lessees have tried to defraud the Emperor in the past.’
Trebonius looked uncomfortable. ‘And there is another reason I asked for you in particular, old comrade. There have been one or two reports in recent months, unsubstantiated but still worrying, about a resurgence of Druidism among the Durotriges.’
Quintus cocked his head, puzzled.
‘Ah, you won’t know. One of the larger native tribes of the southwest. Their territory covers the Summer Country and south to the coast, including the hills where Vebriacum is sited. They were among the last to be subdued by Vespasian at the time of the conquest, and a difficult job he had of it.’
Quintus thought this an understatement. He remembered reading of that famed campaign, including the massacre of the defending natives at the Fort of the Maiden.
Trebonius continued, ‘We’ve had little or no trouble there for many years, but all the same I’d prefer not to have to worry about a Druid uprising so close to the mines. As Imperial business, it’s a sensitive matter. I need an experienced and incorruptible officer to get to the bottom of this. I need you, Quintus, to be my Governor’s Man, reporting directly to me.’
Quintus wondered about the politics in this province. Normally matters of local policing would be dealt with by the Governor. But anything touching on provincial income, whether loss of taxes, fraud or rebellion, became a matter for Procurator Rufinus too. All too often, in Quintus’ experience, the military and fiscal heads of a province’s government were rivals in power. Plus Trebonius knew very well that Imperial Investigators sent by the Castra in Rome remained the Emperor’s men first and foremost. He decided not to mention that.
Quintus glanced at his friend. ‘And the Procurator…?’
The Governor’s eyes flicked away. ‘Aradius Rufinus is an effective official. His background in Rome is…influential.’
Ambitious, with friends in high places, Quintus translated. He understood now why Trebonius seemed twitchy, and why an officer as experienced as Quintus had been summoned from Rome to deal with the matter.
‘Very well, sir. A tactful but top priority investigation, then.’
The Governor looked relieved. His shoulders relaxed as he stood. ‘I knew you would understand, my old friend. There’s not much more I can tell you. I’ll give you an authorising message for the garrison commander at Aquae Sulis in case you need support, but it’s up to you how you proceed. I suggest you go quickly.’
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Jacquie Rogers has had several careers, including advertising and university lecturing, before finding writing suited her best. Her short stories have been published in several countries. In 2020 she was Runner Up in the Lincoln Book Festival story competition.
The Governor’s Man is the first of her series of mystery novels set in 3rd century Roman Britain, published in May 2021 by Sharpe Books.
After a nomadic existence most of her life, Jacquie now lives in the Malvern Hills of England. She walks the hills daily with her husband Peter and their frantic Staffie-cross, Peggy. When pandemics permit, Jacquie loves to travel by motorbike, and enjoys discussing politics, travel and books with friends and family. She spends a lot of time in cafes and pubs.
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