Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Roma" and "Empire", by Steven Saylor

Several fine historical fiction writers have been working the Roman historical-detective sub-genre for the past two decades. I've enjoyed the exploits of recurring protagonists Decius Caecillius Metellus (John Maddox Roberts), Marcus Didius Falco (Lindsey Davis) and Gordianus the Finder (Steven Saylor). More recently, Steven Saylor has decided to tackle the broader sweep of ancient Roman history with two major novels: Roma (2007) and its sequel, Empire (2010).

Roma is a welcome addition to the already considerable wealth of historical fiction set in ancient Rome, because it begins at the beginning. Having never summoned up the fortitude to wade into scholarly tomes on the origins of Roman mythology, religion and tradition, I'm happy that Saylor has provided a very entertaining and well-researched fictional framework for such Roman idiocyncracies as the worship of Hercules, Vestal virgins, Lupercalia, the Stairs of Cacus and the Hut of Romulus. In the past, when those subjects came up in Colleen McCullough - or, for that matter, in Roberts, Davis or Saylor - I had to accept their strangeness without knowing the origins. For other readers who find themselves in the same predicament, read Roma and all will be explained.

Saylor uses the tried-and-true Michener structure for maintaining story continuity through hundreds of years of history: several fictional families descend through many generations, interacting with each other and with major historical events and persons along the way. The progression begins in the days when Rome was just a crossroads for the east-west travels of  coastal salt miners and the north-south route of Etruscan metal workers (c.1000 BC). From those pre-literate days, Roma continues up through the final triumph of Augustus over Antony and Cleopatra (1 BC). The sequel, Empire, picks up at that point and continues to the pinnacle of the Roman Empire under Hadrian.

The last two chapters of Roma get into some familiar history and characters: Sulla, Julius Caesar, Octavian-Augustus. Empire begins in territory made familiar to historical fiction readers by Robert Graves' I, Claudius novels. Saylor sails on (did I really just write that?) past Claudius into the reign of Nero, the chaotic "year of four emperors", the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian - the Marcus Didius Falco milieu) Trajan and Hadrian. Nero and Domitian get more space and character analysis than other emperors of this period (and more sympathetic treatment than in Suetonius). After Trajan, the excellent Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar provides another fictional perspective on the last emperor of Empire.

Since all historical novels must now be trilogies, I assume Saylor is planning a third installment in this series, to cover the "decline and fall". I look forward to his take on Marcus Aurelius, his successor Commodus (the villain in the movie Gladiator), and maybe on to the final triumph of Christianity under the Constantinians (despite the best efforts of Gore Vidal's pagan Julian). Not much historical fiction in the middle of that stretch, so I'm hoping Saylor will shed some light. For a nostalgic final look at the very end of the western Roman Empire, I recommend the outstanding The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I may even get into a few of the non-fiction works listed by Saylor in his "Author's Note" (as I've said before, I love it when hist-fict authors talk about their sources) 
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Plenty. I'm sure Saylor's main problem with such large expanses of time was deciding which stories to tell and which to leave out.

Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
As much as possible, especially for the early chapters of Roma.  The very early history of Rome is shrouded in prehistoric legend, and Saylor constructs a very plausible narrative. In the later, better documented periods, nothing Saylor wrote clashed seriously with what I've read elsewhere. As a semi-serious student of architectural history, I appreciated Saylor's descriptions of some famous Roman structures: the first aqueduct, the Appian Way, Nero's Golden House, the Temple of Venus and Roma, and the Flavian Colosseum.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
While some historical characters have fairly major roles in these two novels, their actions stick pretty close to the historical sources. Saylor did not try to get into their heads, in contrast to novelists like McCullough and Graves. 

Score = 5
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Can't wait for the next one.  
Score = 5 

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