Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Last Seen in Massilia

I’ve mentioned in this space before that I am not a particularly big fan of genre mysteries, but I make occasional exceptions when the mystery is actually a small part of a larger framework, whether sfnal or historical fiction. Two of my favorite novels of the early part of this decade were historical mysteries by Iain Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio) and recently I have fallen in love with Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set during the time of Julius Caesar. The Judgment of Caesar told the story of Caesar and Cleopatra from a much more politically-astute point of view than most revisionist novelists usually offer. Last Seen in Massilia is the story of the siege of Massilia by Roman forces. Massilia was an ancient Greek city which evolved into modern-day Marseilles. A former ally of Rome, the city supported Pompey in his civil war with Julius Caesar, and thus resisted Caesar’s attempt to enter it with armed forces. While Caesar himself took the main body of his troops to Spain, he left behind an army large enough to subdue the city were they able to break through their enormous gates.

As usual in this series, the main character is Gordianus the Finder, a proto-detective whose cases have involved Caesar himself as well as Pompey and Cicero. He came to Massilia seeking his adopted son Meto who was a confidante of Caesar until he supposedly turned against him in support of the Massilians. Gordianus sneaks into the city and encounters a fascinating group of characters, mostly real historical figures, although so little is known about several of them that Saylor has the leeway to create mostly fictional lives for them. They include a disgraced Roman who was exiled by the Senate under the instigation of Cicero with help from Gordianus; the ruling First Timouchous of the city whose daughter is so malformed she hides herself behind layers of veils; and Hieryonomous, an official “scapegoat” appointed by the First Timouchous to bear all the sins of the population and who is treated likely royalty until his sacrificial death by suicide at the sacred Sacrifice Rock.

Of course there is a murder which involves the First Timouchous, but it really serves as an excuse for Gordianus to explore life in the city under siege more than drive the entire plot. Saylor is a phenomenal storyteller who creates a vibrant, breathing city filled with believable characters living during exciting times. I recommend Last Seen in Massilia as strongly as I did The Judgment of Caesar, and I anxiously await more Roma Sub Rosa novels.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home