The surgeon Getorius and his clever, unorthodox wife Arcadia find a mysterious scroll on the body of a dead religious hermit. If authentic, the papyrus document would have devastating repercussions on the Empire. Arcadia is being trained by Getorius to become a physician like himself. Their loving and complementary relationship works well as between them, at great risk to their lives and careers, they follow clues leading them through the streets and surrounding marshes of winter rain-soaked Ravenna.
Noyers story is set in a pivotal time in Western history when Ravenna was capital of the western Roman empire. Galla Placida, the strong willed mother of playboy Emperor Valentinian, in effect holds the reigns of power. The Vandals recent capture of Carthage makes them a major threat to the tenuous empire. The Roman Church is challenged by competing practices, including the powerful Arian sect (in Ravenna headed by Thecla, the female presbytera who is featured in the next book in this series), lingering rituals connected to goddess worship, and divergent views of Hiberian or Celtic worshipers. In spite of increasing Church suppression, scholars and physicians like Getorius rely on pagan Greek, Roman, Hebrew and Christian texts, many of which had escaped barbarian raids, or had been salvaged from the famous Alexandria library, burned by anti-pagan fanatics. The author also illuminates the influence of Jewish, Greek, Germanic and Slavic cultures on the late Roman imperial world.
The numerous historical references in this story call for some background information. But Noyer only give us a difficult to decipher glossary of place names, and fuzzy maps of the imperial house, the physician's house, and Ravenna. More useful would be a map of Europe showing the location of places mentioned, and a glossary which provides at the minimum some background on the period.
On your own, find out more about the adventuresome life of Galla Placidia, who in the story is accurately portrayed as the force behind the construction of the ravishing Basilica of the Holy Cross and Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Placidia also saw to the elevation of the church of Ravanna to the status of archbishopric.