Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Steven Saylor is one of my favorite writers. His Roma Sub Rosa series of historical are superb historical fiction mainly devoted to exploring various aspects of the Roman world during the era of Julius Caesar, with the mysteries themselves little more than excuses to examine such locales as Alexandria during Caesar’s famous dalliance with Cleopatra (The Judgment of Caesar) and the Greek city of Massilia (Last Seen in Massilia), later known as Marseilles.

In Roma, Saylor has undertaken a massive task: an epic novel of the entire history of the Roman Republic without using the crutch of a mystery. The book contains 11 novelette-length chapters, the first of which is set in 1000 B.C. before Rome was even a trading village, and the last in 1B.C. after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Saylor’s intent in the early chapters seems to be threefold: showing the origins of various Roman legends; showing the development of Roman rituals and traditions; and describing life at various points in Rome’s history.

The opening portion “A Demigod Passes Through” involves a traveler who saves the traders living in the area of the Seven Hills from a monster who has been preying on their animals and children. The traveler is believed to be the famous Greek demigod Hercules, who becomes the first and greatest hero of the Roman people.

“The Twins” takes place as the trading site is slowly becoming the city of Roma. The two twin boys Romulus and Remus are foundlings discovered by a swineherd whose wife is viciously referred to as a she-wolf behind her back. They become the most powerful men in Roma after leading a group of malcontents against a neighboring village of Alba, after which Romulus takes the deposed king’s crown and names himself the first king of Roma.

In subsequent chapters, Saylor shows us the rebellion of Coriolanus, the Decemvirs writing the Twelve Tables (including the disgrace of Appius Claudius), the occupation of Roma by the Goths in the 4th century B.C., the building of the Appian Way, the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus, the rise and fall of the Brothers Gracchi, the brutal reign of the dictator Sulla, and the rise to power of Gaius Julius Caesar.

Although Rome’s history was filled with violence, very little of it is actually portrayed in the book. Rather events are filtered through the eyes and prejudices of Roman citizens in the city itself. Much emphasis is placed on the power struggle between the patricians, Senate and consul on one hand versus the plebians and tribunes on the other, with both religion and violence never far beneath the surface of Roman life.

Each chapter is an individual story with characters who reflect the attitudes of their time and class with no attempts to reflect 21st century standards. At in his mysteries, Saylor’s history remains authentic while showing creative foundations for many of Roma’s myths and legends. The individual stories are as strong as Saylor’s mysteries, and their novelette length are both a strength (allowing Saylor to concentrate on his intended events without the need for numerous sub-plots or extraneous mysteries) and a weakness (since there is so much that can be shown in each Roman era, but not sufficient room in a novelette to do so).

Roma is a very strong book which encourages me to find even more of Saylor’s historical mysteries.


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