A taster of INCEPTIO: A revelation for our heroine

[Conradus Mitelus, Roma Nova ‘government employee’  speaks to Karen/Carina]

‘There’s something I must ask you,’ Conrad said, his expression serious now. ‘It’s why I was in Washington. What do you know about your family? I mean, your mother’s family.’

‘What’s that to you? Do you know them?’

‘Bear with me. It’s important.’

‘No, you explain first.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but I need to know.’

I looked at him, searching for clues in his face, but his expression was bland and, despite the eye colours seeming to shift, his gaze was steady but not cold. I shrugged. ‘Mom came from Roma Nova, like you. My father told me they met when he was in Europe, in Roma Nova, on business. She came here to the EUS, they married, she had me and then drove herself off a cliff when I was three.’ I heard the bitterness in my voice. ‘I never knew what made her leave like that, and Dad never discussed it.’

He pressed my hand as if to comfort me. After a few moments, he said, ‘I can’t answer that, but I can fill in some other gaps for you. Do you have any family documents or old photos?’


‘Do you always challenge everything?’

‘Yes, especially when I’m not told the reason.’

‘I will tell you, but can you get the papers first?’

Why would I? He was a stranger. An exciting, beautiful one that I found deeply attractive. But he was a foreigner who looked like he was under surveillance. Maybe I needed to check with the cops or the FBI first. I hesitated. I could imagine how stupid it would sound to them – I’d file a complaint and he’d turn out to be an old family friend. Would they take any notice of me anyway? I was already on their security watch list.

The hell with it.

I decided to show him the photographs to start with. In my bedroom, I pulled out the box stashed on the top shelf of my closet: my parents’ wedding; them with me as a toddler; my father alone; my foster parents, the Browns; high school friends. In the end, it was easier to hand him the whole box. He picked out the ones of my mother looking like any other American housewife and mom and discarded the rest. I had to dig around in my file box for the certificates and passports. I kept them bundled on my lap, but showed him her old Roma Nova passport, the corner clipped off.

‘Have you ever been in contact with any of your mother’s relations?’

‘I had a letter now and again from my mother’s mother, but nothing since I came to New York. When he was alive, my father insisted that I wrote back. I remember going to see her once when I was a kid. After my father died, I went to live in Nebraska with his cousins. This grandmother kept inviting me for a visit, but they wouldn’t let me go. It was too expensive, they said, and Uncle Brown didn’t like foreigners.’

‘What? There was plenty of money for that sort of expense. Were they that narrow-minded?’

‘Hey! They gave me a home when my father passed on.’ I defended them, instinctively, out of duty. I always had sufficient to eat and was adequately clothed. I hadn’t been Cinderella, but I was firmly outside the core family circle. Maybe, despite all his efforts, they’d never forgiven my father his Englishness. Although the withdrawal by the British in the 1860s had been amicable on the surface, resentment endured, especially in the rural areas where they’d been big landowners, and still were.

I came back to the present with a jolt.

‘What do you mean – “plenty of money”?’

‘Your mother left you her personal portfolio, and your father’s electronics business will be yours when you’re twenty-five. You’ve got income from both held in trust.’

‘You have to be kidding.’

‘Haven’t you had any of it?’ His eyes widened in surprise. ‘At all?’

‘Since I’ve been in New York, Brown Industries has sent me three thousand dollars every quarter from New Hampshire. I try to save most of it, but I have to use some of it for my rent.’

‘Your grandmother, Aurelia Mitela, set up a portfolio for her daughter when she went to live in America. Naturally, it came to you on her death. Your father and your grandmother formed a trust for you so you could be comfortable, go to college, do whatever you wanted.’

I heard the words. I saw his lips forming them. I ran them through my head again. I sat completely still, numbed. The only sound in the apartment was the refrigerator humming in the kitchen.

Uncle and Aunt Brown must have known about the money. I’d wept angry tears of frustration when Uncle Brown forbade to me have any thoughts of going to college. I knew Ivy League had been way out of my reach, but the state university should have been possible. How could they have done that to me?

‘And just how do you know all this?’ I had recovered speech but couldn’t keep the steel out of my voice.

‘From your grandmother. Your father wanted you to grow up like any other American girl, but left instructions in his testament that you should be told everything at eighteen. That obviously didn’t happen.’ Conrad handed the photographs and passport back to me, his face grave. ‘He probably never imagined these cousins would keep it from you.’

Find out more… https://www.alison-morton.com/books-2/inceptio/

Buy INCEPTIO here:  Amazon     Apple    B&N Nook    Kobo    Audiobook   Paperback
10th Anniversary special edition hardback (with additional revelations)


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Slaves, damnati and freedmen in ancient Rome

In 161 BC, the Roman jurist Gaius wrote:
Slavery is a human invention and not found in nature. Indeed, it was that other human invention, war, which provided the bulk of slaves, but they were also the bounty of piracy … or the product of breeding.” (Institutiones)

A cold, yet trenchant statement. As in many early societies, slavery in ancient Rome was a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, born slavery and by far the enslavement of prisoners of war especially during the Republican period.

Trajan accepting the surrender of the Dacians – many would go into slavery

An estimated 30 to 40% of the population of Italy were slaves in the 1st century BC, an estimated two to three million people. For the Empire as a whole, slaves numbered just under five million, representing 8-10% of the total population of a 50-60 million. Roman slavery was not based on race; slaves originated from all parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, including Gaul, Hispania, Germany, Britannia, the Balkans and Greece.

Legal status
The Twelve Tables, Rome’s oldest legal code, promulgated in 449 BC, makes brief references to slavery, indicating that the institution was of long standing. Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. The testimony of a slave could not be accepted in a court of law unless the slave was tortured – a practice based on the belief that slaves in a position to be privy to their masters’ affairs would be too virtuously loyal to reveal damaging evidence unless coerced. Over time, however, slaves gained increased legal protection.

Vernae were slaves born within a household (familia) or on a family farm. There was a stronger social obligation to care for vernae; many would have been the children of free males of the household. Often, but not always, they were freed on the master’s death.

Roman slaves could hold property which, although it technically belonged to their masters, they were allowed to use as if it was their own. Skilled or educated slaves were allowed to earn their own money, possibly saving enough to buy their freedom. Otherwise, slaves could be freed in their master’s will, or for services rendered. A notable example of a high-status slave was Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, who was freed before his master’s death. Tiro was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99.

Evolution of status
Slaves were granted more rights as the empire grew; Claudius announced that if a slave was abandoned by his master, he became free. Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in a court. And under Antoninus Pius, a master who killed a slave without just cause could be tried for homicide. It became common throughout the mid to late 2nd century AD to allow slaves to make complaints to officials about cruel or unfair treatment by their owners.

Work – not all slaves were equal
Slaves worked in roughly five categories: household/domestic, imperial/public, urban crafts and services, agriculture, and mining.

Household (familia): Epitaphs record at least fifty different jobs a household slave might perform including barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), wet nurse or nursery attendant, teacher, secretary, seamstress, accountant or physician. A large elite household might be supported by a staff of hundreds.

Although inferior to those of the free persons they served, the living conditions of slaves attached to an urban household were often superior to those of many free urban poor in Rome. Indoor household slaves likely enjoyed the highest standard of living among Roman slaves, next to publicly owned slaves.

Imperial slaves were  attached to the emperor’s household, the familia Caesaris. As in any Roman household, the senior male, the pater familias, held full rights over his slaves as over his family, and women slaves were frequently used for sexual services as a matter of course.

In urban workplaces, the occupations of slaves included fullers, engravers, shoemakers, bakers, seamstresses, mule drivers, and waitresses/prostitutes. Farm slaves (familia rustica) probably lived in a healthier environment, but their work was heavy and manual. The workforce of a farm would have been mostly slave, managed by a vilicus, often a slave himself.

Ploughman with a team of oxen, bronze 1st-3rdC Piercebridge, Durham (British Museum)

Tens of thousands of slaves condemned to work in the mines or quarries (damnati in metallum), worked in notoriously brutal conditions; they were convicts who as a consequence lost their freedom as citizens (libertas), forfeited their property (bona) to the state, and became servi poenae, slaves by legal sanction. Their legal status was different from that of other slaves; they could not buy their freedom, be sold, or be set free. They were expected to live and die in the mines.

In the Late Republic, around half the gladiators who fought in Roman arenas were slaves, the remainder free volunteers. Successful slave gladiators were occasionally rewarded with freedom. However, trained gladiators with access to weapons were potentially the most dangerous slaves as demonstrated by Spartacus, who led the great slave rebellion of 73-71 BC.

A servus publicus was a slave owned not by a private individual, but by the Roman people and worked in temples and other public buildings as servants to the College of Pontiffs, magistrates, and other officials. Some well-qualified public slaves carried out skilled office work such as accounting and secretarial services and were permitted to earn money for their personal use. During the Republic, a public slave could be freed by a magistrate’s declaration, with the prior authorisation of the senate; in the Imperial era, manumission would be granted by the emperor.

Runaways and rebellion
Romans were preoccupied, if not paranoid, by the thought of slave revolt which had more than once seriously threatened the republic; in 135-132 BCE (the First Servile War), in 104-100 BCE (the Second Servile War), and in 73-71 BCE (the Third Servile War).

Rome forbade harbouring fugitive slaves; professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Owners or hired slave-catchers would post advertisements with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards. If caught, fugitives could be whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus and sometimes had a metal collar with the owner’s name riveted around the neck.

“I have run away; hold me. When you shall have returned me to my master, Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.”

Masters could manumit, or free, slaves and in many cases such freedmen went on to rise to positions of power and accumulate great wealth. Manumissio, which literally means “sending out from the hand”, could be a public ceremony, performed before a public official, usually a judge. The owner touched the slave on the head with a staff and he was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, with the owner proclaiming a slave’s freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner, a sign of possessing free citizen status.

Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons; for a particularly good deed toward the slave’s owner, or out of friendship or respect. Sometimes, a slave had earned and saved enough money could buy his freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. Slaves could also freed by a provision in an owner’s will at his death. Augustus restricted such manumissions to a maximum of a hundred slaves, and proportionately fewer in a small household. Educated and skilled slaves were regularly freed and the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed under the age of 30.

Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become Roman citizens. After manumission, a former slave enjoyed political and public freedom (libertas), including the right to vote, though he could not hold elected public office, state priesthoods, nor attain senatorial rank. A freed slave who had acquired libertas became a libertus (feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus).

Marble cinerary urn provided by Vitalis, a former slave of the Emperor and Scribe of the Bedchamber, for his wife Vernasia Cyclas,. On the last line, AUG.L denotes he was a former imperial slave (British Museum).

Children born to former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship, for example, the Latin poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and served as an officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.

Freedmen of the Imperial families often filled key positions in the Roman government bureaucracy. Some rose to positions of great influence, such as Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.

Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman is recorded with having designed the amphitheatre in Pompeii. But a freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche as shown by Trimalchio, a caricature of such a freedman in the Satyricon.

For an excellent historical fiction around household slaves in the first century AD you can do no better than Lindsey Davis’s Enemies at Home; a mystery but an impeccably researched one which is clever and poignant at the same time.

And in Roma Nova?
When Apulius led the Twelve Families out of Rome in AD 395, he asked for volunteers only. Most of his household accompanied him as freed men and women, the remainder, he manumitted before he left. In practical terms, Rome at the end of the fourth century was inherently unstable and being freed urban poor was a life-endangering status so most went with Apulius. (You can read the fully story in EXSILIUM.)

From its earliest days, slavery did not exist  in Roma Nova, although the structure of household and family units was to endure. Everybody worked, regardless of status; Roma Nova started as a subsistence society in harsh times.The aim at that time was to stay alive.


Updated 2024: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Heroines' journeys - Not always physical ones

Roma Nova heroineAs readers, we like to see our main character progress in some way. She or he doesn’t need to save the world, make a grand marriage with a duke or make a groundbreaking journey into space. But their story does need a resolution. It could be acceptance, it could be a move somewhere else, it could be a different career.

But we like them to develop personally and to be in a different place from the beginning of their story. After all, most of us like to think we’ve matured on our life journey.

The Roma Nova heroines tend to travel a great deal. but that’s merely trains, planes and automobiles as the film title goes. Or horse, wagon and litter in the 4th century stories. But it’s the inner journey, the self-learning that appeal the mosts. As a writer of thrillers, I enjoy giving my main characters a jolt or two personally along with plenty of conflict that naturally belongs to a thriller story.

Into the detail…

Taking Carina, who starts as Karen (before that name took on a negative aspect on social media. I’m glad now she had a name change. 🙂 ) In INCEPTIO, she’s  neither happy nor unhappy. She’s learnt to harden up after the death of her parents and being farmed out to unsympathetic cousins until she was eighteen when she left. But under that shell, she’s not very confident and has medium expectations of life.


Suddenly being parachuted into danger, a new very strange life dents her confidence and increases her need to please and be accepted. She does have flashes of toughness and decisiveness, but that part of her nature was mostly hidden until a pivotal moment in her story. At the end of the book when the story is resolved, she’s developed into a person who feel much more “comfortable in her skin”.

In CARINA, she’s much more confident of her abilities, but she has to learn a hard lesson that despite the ethics of that society, even in Roma Nova corruption and greed are present as everywhere else.

In PERFIDITAS, she faces personal, professional and political dilemmas and has to take a course of action she find immensely conflictual. Only her sense of duty gets her through it, although she has to accept a high personal cost.

In SUCCESSIO, she’s that bit older with a growing family of teenage children. Family tragedies of different kinds impact her career as well as personal life and she must decide what her priorities are at this stage of her life. She will be changed irrevocably.

Aurelia in the late 1960s to early 1980s has quite different issues. In AURELIA, she a very effective Praetorian soldier but has to face a rupture with that beloved career when a tragedy strikes. She’s not adept in social situations – she takes things too seriously. Her weakness is a fear of her nemesis, a man who has threatened her since they were children. I did give her a break from him in NEXUS, which is more of a crime thriller, but here she learns the value of friendship as a giver as well as a receiver.

Aurelia and Caius – lifelong enemies(?)

In INSURRECTIO and RETALIO, she will do anything to save her daughter but also her beloved Roma Nova, at the cost of her own freedom and life. She has to overcome suspicion and prejudice and learn to be patient as well as use her skills and courage. RETALIO starts with her physically and emotionally weakened, and ends with personal triumph but a devastating personal loss. She has to ‘gather up her grit’ as her granddaughter Carina will say in the future and do her duty. But it hurts…

Julia Bacausa in the 4th century begins her story in JULIA PRIMA outwardly as princess with every privilege, but internally a complete mess. After a legal divorce that her ex-husband refuses to recognise, she has taken it to heart as a terrible failure and has little self-respect or faith in herself as a woman. But she must make a momentous emotional decision from which there is no return. Her journey is that despite her strong will and warm heart, she has to learn how to cope with hardship and prejudice without losing her background culture if she wants to attain her goal.


Her daughter, Galla, is more measured in EXSILIUM. She changes from a compliant Roman daughter and wife into somebody with inner strength and outward decisiveness that often scares her herself. But it’s not the easiest path. Her sister Lucilla is much like their mother, Julia, but surprises her family in the end.

In brief…

As with people In Real Life, characters in stories can’t be perfect. They can be intelligent and competent, but like 98% of the human race, they have inner fears, weaknesses and doubts. The key to the Roma Nova characters is that they must learn through experience, whether heartbreaking, affirming or joyous. Duty is a strong thread woven through all the Roma Nova stories, but those carrying it out are, after all, merely human.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.