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in association with amazon.comEmpire: The Novel of Imperial Rome
by Steven Saylor

"With [more] sources to draw on," writes the author, "the period is much favored by modern historians, who produce more books every year about the Roman Empire than any person could ever hope to read. And yet, for the novelist, the period poses a special problem: the emperors. Or rather, emperor-centricism.

"When I wrote Roma, I faced a very different challenge. The sources of information for the first thousand years of the city are far more limited, yet the narrative offered by those sources is almost unimaginably rich: legends of demigods and heroes, stories of social upheaval and violent class struggle, history as a pageant of powerful families, factions, and personalities all striving to fulfill their particular destinies. The challenge was somehow to find room for this teeming cast of characters in a single novel.

"With the end of the Republic and the rise of autocratic rule, the story line changes. Class conflict and individual heroes (and villains) recede. It's all about the emperors: their personalities, their families, their sexual habits, their often flamboyant lives and their sometimes bloody deaths, The story of Rome becomes a sequence of biographies of the men who ruled the empire. Everything and everyone else is secondary to the autocrat… [Autocracies], where all power is concentrated in very few hands, where even the boldest generals serve at the whim of their master and even the best poets bend their talents to flatter the autocrat, do not produce the kind of larger‑than‑life heroes who populated Roma, like Coriolanus or Scipio Africanus. Instead, stripped of any hope of being able to affect the course of human events – or even their own lives – people seek diversion in spectacle and empowerment through magic or they turn inward, pursuing mental or spiritual enlightenment rather than military glory or political action. Such a milieu makes for a very different sort of story than the one told in Roma. Heroes and villains give way to survivors and seekers."
(emphasis mine)

In Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, the story ends with Lucius Pinarius, nephew of Julius Caesar, torn between loyalties to Marcus Antonius and Octavius. Like his more immediate ancestors, in the end he is a survivor too. The story ends with Pinarius handing down the amulet to his grandson.

The new novel spans the period from A.D. 14 to 141 and thus deals with far fewer Pinarii then the earlier novel. They are:

LUCIUS The Lightning Reader (A.D. 14‑19)
TITUS AND KAESO The Twins (A.D. 40‑68)
LUCIUS The Seeker (A.D. 69‑100)
MARCUS The Sculptor (A.D. 113‑141)

This makes it in some ways an easier read than "Roma."

All but Marcus, a contemporary of Hadrian, live through a turbulent era and much at the whim of the emperors, the Julio-Claudian cousins of the Pinarii, and later, Domitian. Drawing heavily on the ancient sources, the author paints a vivid picture of the era. The characters of the Pinarii themselves are not always pleasant ones: the survivor instinct is strong and may make the reader uneasy at times. An apparently unquestioning Pinarius adhering to a Nero is not easy to take.

Other than the Pinarii about whom, beyond the above-mentioned Lucius, we do not know anything, the characters surrounding them are historical figures: The emperors, their spouses, children, lovers and freedmen; and philosophers, writers, actors, and so on, such Mnester, Seneca, Petronius, Dio of Prusa, Epictetus, Apollonius of Tyana, Martial, Suetonius, and the architect Apollodorus who among other projects designed Trajan's column. And then there is the great fire of Rome, the eruption of Vesuvius, and last but not least the Colosseum: drawing on our rather limited sources, Mr. Saylor recreates the opening day of the great edifice with wonderful imagination.

And the fascinum that keeps its wearer safe? Claudius, ever the historian, enlightens his cousins about the history of the amulet, handed down in the family from age immemorial, the meaning of which had gotten lost with later Pinarii.

The novel is an excellent read indeed, Saylor fans will not be disappointed. He certainly attained the aim which he layed out above. A chart titled "Lifespans of the Principal Persons" is helpful, as are maps of Rome and the Roman world, and an explanation of Roman months and days. The novel is dedicated,

“…With gratitude for all that Michael Grant has given me, and continues to give me, I dedicate this book to his memory.”

SPOILER ALERT: Readers who like suspense should not read beyond this point.

The story opens when Lucius' grandson of the same name and his friend the later emperor Claudius are inducted as augurs, and Augustus secretly tasks them to interpret a lightning damage to a statue, with potentially dire results. Lucius emerges from this richer, but eventually fells afoul of Tiberius' henchman Sejanus and is exiled to Alexandria. Set to return after Tiberius' death, he dies unexpectedly and it is his twin sons, Titus and Kaeso, who make a new life in Roma under the friendly eye of Claudius. That does not protect them from the vices and malice of Caligula, and as befits the story line, Titus is present when Claudius is proclaimed emperor after the murder of Caligula. Titus continues to enjoy the emperor's favor, but has his own encounter with Messalina. After Claudius' death, he aligns himself with Nero, and despite disturbing experiences, he stays with him to the bitter end. Earlier, Titus and Kaeso had fallen out over religion: While Titus serves the emperors and and like his father and grandfather becomes an augur, Kaeso and his wife have becomes Christians and remove themselves to join a community in the squalor of the Subura. Originally sharing the fascinum, Kaeso persuades his brother to give it to him as it reminds him of the cross. The story climaxes after the great fire of Rome, but Titus in the end regains the precious fascinum which he passes on to his son Lucius "the Seeker."

Lucius lives through the tumult and is an eyewitness of the events in Roma during the "Year of the Four Emperors." A single man with no desire to marry or having a public career, he enjoys the friendship of Epaphroditus, Nero's freedman and secretary (a true survivor), the latter's former slave and later stoic philosopher Epictetus, and the sophist Dio of Prusa. The poet Martial floats around the edges.

I was wondering how the author would deal with the eruption of Vesuvius: very elegantly. The friends sit together in Lucius' garden, and while Epictetus recounts his recent trip to Campania, strange natural phenomena, and an encounter with Pliny the Elder, the sky darkens and it rains ashes. The opening of the Colosseum which some of the friends attend, is mentioned above. During the games, Lucius makes the beginnings of a fateful and potentially dangerous friendship with a woman. Eventually, his life changes when he meets Apollonius of Tyana, "the Teacher," whose devout acolyte he becomes. Their encounters with Domitian make for a good read. And once more, we get an imaginative version of the infamous black dinner, this time with the Chief Vestal present. Soon, like so many of his contemporaries, Lucius falls afoul of the emperor and with harrowing results, making for great theater. But eventually a tear saves him. Nonetheless, he still gets involved in the conspiracy to kill the emperor.

Next we see Lucius and his friends witnessing Trajan's entry into Roma after he as become emperor. Meanwhile, Lucius discovers that a sculptor's slave boy by the name of Pygmalion is in actuality his free-born son, and with the help of his philosopher friends and Trajan's new law is reunited with him. Marcus, named so in honor of the emperor, is a gifted sculptor who begins working for Apollodorus, Trajan's architect, and we live through the creation of Trajan's column and other projects, and Hadrian's well known disputes with the architect. Marcus prospers under Hadrian, becomes a senator and a priest, marries Apollodorus' daughter and begets a son Lucius. The story ends in the year A.D. 141:  Antonius Pius is emperor, Lucius is a friend of Marcus Aurelius, and the future looks bright. Father and son take a walk around Roma, and Marcus Pinarius reflects,

… He had done his part to create the stable, contented, truly civilized world that would be inherited by his son's generation. Time would pass, and the world of Hadrian would surely give way to the world of Marcus Aurelius – and then what? Standing before the Altar of Victory with his son beside him, Senator Marcus Pinarius felt a rush of optimism. What did the future hold? Even the gods had no way of knowing.

Maybe there is another volume to come?

© 2010 Irene B. Hahn

Steven Saylor's website


in association with amazon.comEmpire: The Novel of Imperial Rome
by Steven Saylor
St. Martin's Press (August 31, 2010)
608 pages
ISBN-10: 0312381018
List Price: $25.95

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in association with amazon.com, click hereRoma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
by Steven Saylor
St. Martin's Press 2007
555 pages
ISBN: 0312328311
List Price $25.95 / U.K: available from sellers

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Also by Mr. Saylor:

Roma Subrosa
Gordianus the Finder Mystery Series


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