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

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Wrath of the Furies (2016), by Steven Saylor

The third novel in Steven Saylor's trilogy A Novel of the Ancient World is titled Wrath of the Furies. The earlier two, reviewed here previously, were The Seven Wonders (2012), and Raiders of the Nile (2014).

The end of book two left the young Gordianus living a low-key twenty-something life in Alexandria, in love with his beautiful slave Bethesda. Lured by a cryptic message hinting at danger to his old tutor Antipater, Gordianus and Bethesda set out on a ship to Ephesus (on the west coast of modern Turkey).

The ship makes a stop at the island of Rhodes, where Gordianus looks up a friend of Antipater who hosted the pair during their earlier adventures in The Seven Wonders. Here the stage is set for later skull-and-dagger work, as a fellow house-guest is revealed to be Gaius Cassius Longinus (later an assassin of Julius Caesar). Cassius is on a fact-finding mission from Rome, and wants to know what Mithridates is doing. He recruits Gordianus to be eyes-and-ears while in Ephesus.

So off they sail again, arriving at Ephesus just in time to become involved in one of the most dramatic and tragic incidents of the late Roman Republic. King Mithridates VI (the Great) of Pontus had recently rebelled against Roman control of Asia Minor, sweeping west and south through the Roman-controlled cities along the coast of modern-day Turkey.  On a single day, Mithridates orchestrated the slaughter of an estimated 80,000-150,000 Romans living in a number of those cities, including Ephesus. The incident is opaquely known as the Asiatic Vespers.

Redundancy in names and events make it difficult to keep the facts straight. The massacre occurred during the first of three wars between Rome and Mithridates VI, and many Kings of Pontus took the name Mithridates. The King's wife at this time was Monime, third of six wives (long before Henry VIII). There were also a number of royal concubines and a total of well over twenty children - including three named Mithridates.

In this climactic installment, Saylor includes all the history that was missing from Raiders of the Nile. That makes it - from a history geek's perspective - a much weightier and more satisfying read. I read the Kindle version, which was attractive and well produced.

The 5 criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. First, by returning to Roman history, I was inspired to pick up a new one-volume history of ancient Rome, SPQR by Mary Beard. Second, Mithridates VI is such a fascinating character that I picked up a recent (2010) biography titled The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor.
    Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Most of it is concentrated in the city of Ephesus, but is set within the larger story of Mithridates VI.
    Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, at least in the big picture. It's a novel, so there's a lot of speculation and invention in descriptions of smaller-scale events. Saylor is always scrupulous to make sure artistic license doesn't get carried away. Also helpful (as always) is the Author's Note at the end, which lists a number of ancient sources.
    Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes, as far as is known. None of the historical character are central except the poet Antipater of Sidon, who was also a main supporting character in The Seven Wonders. King Mithridates, his queen Monime, and the captive Egyptian prince Ptolemy all have speaking roles. Others are mere cameos, necessary to complete the historical record but remaining in the background.
    Score = 4 (it's nearly impossible to get a 5 here when the subject is ancient Rome)
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Barely. Plausible characters are not Saylor's strongest suit, especially his main protagonist Gordianus. He often seems unbelievably dense and gullible, especially in these novels of his younger days, but does provide occasional comic relief. The improbable plans and motivations of Gordianus give rise to implausible plot developments, but it's all in good fun, and Saylor doesn't mess with the history.
    Score = 3