Medicus is a leisurely and entertaining novel that imagines what a doctor’s life might have been like in Roman-occupied Britain. Gaius Petreius Ruso, newly stationed with the Roman legion in Deva, is confronted with the body of a murdered girl on the same day that he takes pity on a slave girl with a broken arm. Divorced and burdened with responsibility for his brother’s shaky business enterprises back in Gaul, Ruso lurches from one crisis to another.
Though threads of a murder mystery run through the narrative, Ruso’s daily life is the primary focus as he tries to balance his duties at the hospital with his efforts to prevent the injured Tilly from killing herself. Ruth Downie contrasts the humorous aspects of his squalid living conditions with the reality of slavery, as Ruso becomes immersed in the lives of girls forced to work in a brothel catering to Roman soldiers. Ruso competes with a rakish colleague for the post of Chief Medical Officer while treating patients with such ancient remedies as poppy juice and henbane.
Downie does an excellent job of imagining life in a military town, both for the soldiers and the natives struggling to adapt to life under Roman rule. All her scenarios, from Ruso’s stormy relationship with Tilly to the officious hospital administrator Priscus, are well developed and interesting. I particularly enjoyed Ruso’s bantering with Albanus, a clerk whose disciplined loyalty is both comical and touching. Medicus is a pleasant, vulgarity-free excursion for readers who enjoy historical fiction.