Book Review: Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas

Posted September 23, 2013 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas


on 2006 and has 607 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

First in the Romanitas alternate history fiction series revolving around Marcus Novius Faustus Leo, an impediment to taking over the empire.

Do commit the maps in the front of the book to memory — or at least put a bookmark on that page as you’ll want to refer to it as Marcus, Una, and Sulein make through way through the countryside.

In 2005, Romanitas was nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

My Take

This was an interesting read with two separate stories that quickly merge in this Rome that never fell and rules half the world. Full of Roman hubris in what is the equivalent of our 2005, it’s enough to make me want to smack ’em around and wonder how its empire survived so long, especially with the slavery.

It was an odd reading that kept throwing me off my stride with the discordancy of the combination of Roman and modern names for cities and places, the Roman familial nomens, and Roman culture with its ancient politics, mores, justice system, and slavery — contrasting with the modernish setting.

It didn’t help that McDougall writes some incomprehensible sentences that had me going back over them again and again to try and understand what was happening.

With that whining over with, it is an engrossing read — more ancient Rome with some modern conveniences. My first thought was how clever of McDougall to create this world, but when I look back over it, it’s quite simple: ancient Rome overlaid with a few futuristic gadgets. It’s as though Rome itself never evolved in its culture or mores.

Una and Sulien’s psychic abilities and the slavery dilemma make this a more engaging story than the plotting to place someone else on the throne, and it’s the slavery issue that is the inciting event.

I do wish McDougall had explained more about why Marcus is so anti-slave. I can’t imagine that his parents were as squeamish about directing the servants.

Nor do I understand how Varius could be so unthinking. After working with Leo for so long, you’d think he’d have a good idea of how brutal politics could be. That he’d have set up an escape route and protections for himself and his family.

The escape of all three provides insight into how this Roman civilization works and provides Marcus with insight into the truth of Roman rule while Una and Sulien are forced to rediscover each other.

I don’t understand why neither Sulien nor Una ever think to use their psychic abilities to protect or defend themselves.

I’ve been over it again and again, and while I completely understand why Dama did as he did, I still am not grasping why the construction issue was such a big deal, why the builder and owner were so obsessed with pushing so hard.

Ooh, McDougall did an amazing job of throwing me off! I did have my doubts about one person, but not the linchpin to it all.

The comments about Virgil and his writing were interesting and have made me curious to read him now. Sounds like he was a typical writer…

No, the whole love attraction between the two main couples isn’t believable; it’s simply that McDougall decrees it and it is so. Dama was more believable in his passion, and so very compassionate at the end. I do want to know what’s happened to him.

Why is the emperor so powerless and such a weak ignoramus?

Wow, it’s complex, tricky, and so terrifyingly scary at how easy it is to whisk someone out of the way. Marcus is so incredibly lucky he has such friends. His family certainly isn’t of any help.

It almost appears as if McDougall is going somewhere with all the people who are absorbed in Marcus’ reappearance and disappearance, but then it just fades away. This could have been interesting and I kept reading, hoping, to no avail.

The Story

One half of the story opens with a funeral and Marcus is numb, wanting to get past the horror of his parents’ deaths but caught in a limbo of thought. The letter from Varius comes at the perfect time, until he learns the reasons behind it and must go on the run to save his own life.

The other half of the story has the potential for a funeral and it takes some tricky maneuvering to avoid it as Una and Sulien also make their escape.

The Characters

Sixteen-year-old Marcus Novius Faustus Leo finds something of his parents in himself and is disgusted.

Leo, the emperor’s Caeser, his heir, and Clodia are the perfect couple — in public. Each supports the other in their ambitions, as long as it furthers their own. Both are anti-slavery and intend to do something about it. Varius is Leo’s private secretary and his executor; Gemella is his beloved wife who serves Clodia.

Drusus is Marcus’ cousin; his father is the mad Lucius with his own very private secret. One for which I can’t blame him! I think Ulpia is his mistress?? Their uncle and Lucius and Leo’s brother, Faustus, is emperor of Rome (Titus Novius Faustus Augustus). Markaria is his daughter and Marcus and Drusus’ cousin; she prefers to live on her vineyard in Greece, far from her father. Tulliola is Faustus’ second wife and absolutely perfect.

Una is a young slave with psychic abilities in Londonium with but one goal in her life, rescuing her brother, Sulien, from death. He has a valuable psychic ability as well. Rufius was the master to whom their weak-minded mother sold them upon their father/owner’s death.

The escaped slave camp at Holzarta…
Dama was a young slave when he was crucified and then rescued by Delir, a compassionate merchant who has been collaborating with Leo and Clodia. Lal is Delir’s fourteen-year-old daughter. Ziye is Delir’s lover. Tobias, Pyrrha is freaking out while her daughter Iris slaves away to care for her idiot mother, Tiro, and Marinus are escaped slaves. Palben is a young mechanic in Wolf Step/Athabia who keeps an ear open for news and sends supplies up to the camp.

Cleomenes is the centurion on duty when the body is discovered. Tasius is a spy sent to find Marcus with later help from Ennius and Ramio. Laevinus and Renatus are vigiles, Cleomenes’ superiors, and corrupt.

Catavignus is a well-known but weak-minded physician who learns of Sulien’s abilities. Tancorix is the willful, ugly daughter who blossoms. Prisca is her conniving mother. Epimachus will be Tancorix’s husband. The ruthless, sweet-talking Gabinius is a merchant who worked his way up into wealth and a chance at power; now he’s worried about the anti-slavery movement. Helvia is his wife.

Mixigana is a treaty between Rome and Nionia (Japan) which affects the Terranovans (the Americas). Sinoans are Chinese.

The Cover and Title

Jesus, the cover is gloomy, eerie, and just plain scary and plays up the contrast within Romanitas of ancient Roman cruelty and a modern, well-lit city against its blackened cloudy sky.

I don’t know the meaning of the title — it’s the “itas” that’s throwing me off in Romanitas. My inclination is to assume that it’s an affectionate diminutive, and if I’m right, it makes sense as everyone likes young Marcus, and he does represent Roman authority.