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Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
by Steven Saylor
“I think you know, son, although we seldom talk about it—no need to make the Pinarii more jealous of us than they are already!—that our ancestry can be traced back directly to Hercules himself.”
“You also know that the ancestors of the Potitii include a god even more ancient than Hercules.” He reached up to touch the amulet of Fascinus which hung from a leather strap around his neck.
Potitius could count on his fingers the times he had seen the amulet. His father wore it only on very important occasions. He gazed at it, fascinated by the luster of the gold.
His father smiled. “When I was your age, I took part for the first time in the rites of the Altar of Hercules, doing just as you did today, whisking the flies away. When the feast was done, my father took me aside. He told me that I had done well. On that day, he said, I was no longer a boy, but had become a man. Do you know what he did then, son?”
Potitius gravely shook his head. “No, Father. What did he do?”
In answer, his father raised the leather strap over his head, then solemnly placed it around Potitius’s neck. He smiled and ran his hand over his son’s silky blond hair, a gesture of affection to seal the last moment of his boyhood.
“You are a man now, my son. I pass the amulet of Fascinus to you.”
From the fog of pre-history to Augustan times, the amulet is handed down from generation to generation. Two families, the Potitii and the Pinarii, consecutive possessors of the amulet, are witnesses and participants in the founding of Rome and its expansions in this new and sweeping novel by Steven Saylor. They claim to be descendents of the god Fascinus and the demigod Hercules, and Hercules himself with his oxen and his dog makes an appearance among the stunned inhabitants of what later is to become Roma.
Mr. Saylor skillfully weaves ancient tradition and history into the story of Rome through major events, in eleven chapters: A Stop on the Salt Route (1000 B.C.) / A Demigod Passes Through (850 B.C.) / The Twins (757–716 B.C.) / Coriolanus (510–491 B.C.) / The Twelve Tables (450–449 B.C.) / The Vestal (393–373 B.C.) / The Architect of His Own Fortune (317–279 B.C.) / Scipio’s Shadow (216–183 B.C.) / Friend of the Gracchi (146–121 B.C.) / Heads in the Forum (81–74 B.C.) / Caesar’s Heir (44-1 B.C.). Students of Roman history should be advised that there is quite a bit of additional dramatic license, especially early on in the novel – a prime example is the excellent chapter Coriolanus. But of necessity, I think, because without, the book would have been probably half again as long. There is a rather odd episode though that pitches the Pinarius who is Julius Caesar’s brother-in-law against Sulla. One also might quibble with some other interpretations, but of course this is fiction, with the author’s privilege of how to present history.
Almost every chapter contains flash-backs or story-telling about the time span between chapters, thus linking it to the prior one. Well known single events or legends are mixed in, such as what’s known as the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Lucretia, the abduction of Verginia (a major event in itself in the novel), and more.
The Potitii and the Pinarii, originally cousins but never comfortable with each other, have their first major conflict when two of them become the friends of the twins Romulus and Remus and find each other on opposing sides, with disastrous results. Thereafter, the amulet wearers have varied fortunes depending on whose side they are on, the winner’s or the looser’s – because, naturally, there is always conflict, and sides are to be taken. Several times, the families’ fate takes an unexpected turn. The Vestal takes place during the Sack of Rome and The Architect of His Own Fortune is a kind of sequel of family secrets – but also introduces the building of the first aqueduct and the Via Appia; to say more would spoil the suspense. Scipio’s Shadow covers the life span of Scipio Africanus beginning with the battle of Cannae, and the then amulet holder is shown not only as a friend of Scipio but also as the patron of the playwright Plautus, and an adherent to the cult of Bacchus. The Gracchi get full play in a dramatic and sad chapter, and the story from then on slates the Pinarii as survivors through the age of Augustus. The final chapter, Caesar’s Heir, is maybe the most powerful. An intelligent and introspective Pinarius, an almost exact contemporary of his cousin Octavius, witnesses the assassination of Julius Caesar. He comes to be torn between loyalties to Marcus Antonius and Octavius, but 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:
“As it was handed down to me, so I now hand it down to you, my namesake. You must vow to do the same thing yourself, in a future generation.”
The boy gazed at the pendant, then solemnly placed the necklace over his head.
(Is there a faint whiff of a sequel in the offing?)
The novel, which I think is the first one to cover such a time span in a single volume, is an excellent introduction to the early history of Rome and the republic, and it gives readers more than just politics, war and conquest. Hopefully it will lead them to further exploration. As of this writing, the book is on the waiting list at my public library, a good sign. A suggestion: don't read the book too quickly, I liked it better on the second read-through, when I took more time. The prose is uneven in places but soars in others, and the dialogues tend to get a bit stilted. All in all it’s a good read indeed.
A helpful graphic matches the family tree to the corresponding chapters, and each chapter is preceded by a map of Rome as it was at the time. In his Author’s Note, Mr. Saylor provides a useful bibliography.
The novel is dedicated “To the shade of Titus Livius, known in English as Livy, who preserved for us the earliest tales of earliest Rome.”
© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
by Steven Saylor
St. Martin's Press 2007
List Price $25.95/ U.K: available from sellers
Also by Mr. Saylor: The Beginnings of Rome
by T.J. Cornell
List Price: $39.95/£22.99
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