Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Judgement of Caesar

I tend to shy away from genre mysteries because I rarely enjoy books whose entire raise d’etre is solving a puzzle about crime, usually murder. There are exceptions, such as my favorite mystery Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, which was primarily historical fiction involving lots of historical research about the true nature notorious King Richard III.

Stephen Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series has gotten strong reviews where it is treated as much as historical fiction as genre mystery. The Judgment of Caesar is probably the most acclaimed book in the series, and since I have been reading a lot of Italian history recently, it seemed a logical place for me to dip my toes into the series.

The novel is the tale of Gordianus-the-Finder who has left Rome with his ailing wife Bethesda, his adopted son Rupa and two slave boys. Bethesda is a native Egyptian who is returning to swim in the Nile, while Rupa, another native, wants to scatter the ashes of his deceased sister in the waters. Gordianus travels in high circles though, so when he encounters the fleet of Pompey, fleeing from a defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar, Gordianus’ life is threatened since Pompey is his sworn enemy. After Pompey is killed by the Egyptians–in a fashion faithful to his actual historical death–Gordianus joins the retinue of teenaged king Ptolemy who is engaged in a civil war with his sister and wife Cleopatra for control of Egypt, countering the wishes of their dead father who wished them to serve as joint rulers.

Shortly afterwards Caesar’s fleet arrives, causing great consternation through Alexandria. Does he intend to conquer Egypt as he has done so many other countries? Or will he take the side of one of the warring siblings and raise that person to the title of ruler of Egypt and sworn friend of Rome at the expense of the other? Caesar is another old ally of Gordianus, although the Finder disapproves of his conquering ways and its inevitable slaughter. But what Gordianus resents the most is that his older adopted son Meto has become Caesar’s closest companion and a partner in his conquest.

The Judgment of Caesar is pure historical novel chronicling the events in Egypt following Caesar’s arrival. Saylor has the knack of immersing the reader in the country, making Alexandria breathe and its citizens live. Throughout the book I felt that his Egypt was real, as were Caesar and Cleopatra. Although Caesar was not the viewpoint character of the novel, he was surely the most important character. This was historical fiction at its best, telling a fascinating story around real history, which is much better than fiction based on fake history, which is generally overly-concerned with the story and uncaring whether the history is true or false. Several times I was curious enough to check the real history and I always came away convinced that Saylor always told the truth whenever real historical characters were involved in The Judgment of Caesar. The civil war between Ptolemy and Cleopatra was real, as was its outcome and all its major events, as well as Caesar’s involvement in the war.

Perhaps the thorniest issue in writing a novel about Caesar and Cleopatra is dealing with their relationship as honestly as possible without being overly-influenced by the many dramas and movies made about it. Saylor did a good job, wherever possible following Caesar’s own journal and histories written at that time. Their relationship certainly involved the infatuation of the 52-year old Caesar with the 21-year old queen who, in his own words, made him feel like a boy again. But they were both too much the quintessential politicians, and too pre-occupied with their own power and places in history, to let passion override their other concerns. Saylor realized this and his novel reflected that belief, which I feel was appropriate.

I actually enjoyed the mystery itself, which began 200+ pages into the novel but never distracted from the historical events surrounding it. Instead Saylor used the mystery as a way of deepening the relationships of the people involved in it, especially that of Gordianus and his estranged son Meto. The mystery’s denouement, revealed in a conversation between Gordianus and Caesar, fit the book’s accuracy so well I was more pleased with it than I expected to be. This, for me, is how a mystery should be.

I have every intention of reading more Saylor historical novels, probably starting with his recent Roma, which treats the entire history of Rome with no attempt at genre mystery. But I am also curious about reading more novels detailing the give-and-take relationship between Julius Caesar and Gordianus-the-Finder. This series might go a long way toward improving the image of genre mysteries in my mind.


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