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Sunday, August 8, 2010

An Invitation to Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa (by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: My favorite non-sff author of today, Steven Saylor will soon publish Empire his second volume of the multi-generational epic following a special Roman family in charge of the sacred mystery of the "fascinus" across many centuries; the first installment Roma published in 2007 followed the Pinarius family from about 1000 BC when Rome was still a dream of the future to 1 BC and Augustus.

I plan to review both novels - probably in a joint review - but his most famous and justly acclaimed work is the Roma sub Rosa series of historical fiction disguised as mysteries and following one of the most remarkable of all fictional characters in recent memory, Gordianus "the Finder". Actually I did two recent posts with the most interesting fictional characters I've encountered and for men, Gordianus was both the top choice in the "mainstream" category and overall.

The series currently standing at 10 novels and 2 collections and spanning some 35 years from 81BC to 46BC, follows Gordianus from a relatively disreputable 30 years old "finder" of moderate means with a house slave/bodyguard and the beautiful young Jewish/Egyptian concubine slave Bethseda to his relatively prosperous though not particularly tranquil life as a pater familias - still with Betsheda though married with her for some 25 years now - with four children, a bunch of grandchildren and two more young wards at age 64.

While structured as mysteries, only Arms of Nemesis is really a more traditional such, though even there there is the context of the Spartacus slave uprising, but the rest are pure historical fiction set within the context of some of the most important events in the late Republic. The stories collected in the two books are generally less important to the novels - there are some exceptions like the House of the Vestals from the book with the same title, though this one is recounted in Catilina's Riddle anyway.

I discovered Gordianus in the early 90's and like with the Honor series, they were among the first novels I bought in hardcover on publication, while the series is still my #1 ongoing non-sff one.

NOVELS/COLLECTIONS: Using the Wikipedia descriptions and adding a short take of my own, here are the books:

  • Roman Blood (1991), in which Gordianus is hired by the great orator and advocate Cicero in 80 BC. This novel is based on Cicero's speech In Defence of Sextus Roscius of Ameria (Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino), which is published in the Penguin Classics edition of Cicero's Murder Trials.
Great series debut that made me a big time fan of Gordianus. The "Sherlockian" display of deduction when Gordianus meets Tiro for the first time is wonderfully done, while the novel establishes the strong political undercurrents of Roma sub Rosa. As typical of most series books, the mystery itself is relatively straightforward, the attraction lying in the historical fiction aspect - the world building and superb characters - Lucius Cornelius Sulla is the main powerful figure here, dictator of Rome and author of the proscriptions - ended when the novel starts, but they reverberate throughout - and Cicero and Gordianus pit themselves against his minions. (A+)

  • The House Of The Vestals (1997) (a collection of short stories which appeared later, but which take place between the first book and the second).
Good filler for the 80-72 BC period, though by and large the stories have a more day to day aspect rather than a big picture aspect; except for the highlight of the collection, the last and eponymous story that is just awesome and introduces Catilina who is one of the most fascinating character of Roma sub Rosa. (A)

  • Arms Of Nemesis (1992), featuring Crassus during the slave revolt of Spartacus in 72 BC.
The most traditional mystery in the series, featuring a villa, a murder, the guests, you get it...Though of course there is a larger context and the story turns out to be much more than a "simple" murder.

Arms Of Nemesis has both a great beginning and a great ending and for a long time it was one my big time favorites from the series, but it wore a little less well as time passed since the interesting parts that kept me coming back and re-reading over and over the Roma sub Rosa novels are the historical ones. Still a very good series installment (A).

  • A Gladiator Dies Only Once (2005) (another collection of short stories which appeared later, but which take place between the second book and the third)
This one is recounts stories of Gordianus' encounter and later friendship with the patrician Claudius that will be his benefactor. None of the stories really stuck in my memory though I enjoyed reading them at the time (A-).

  • Catilina's Riddle (1993), featuring Cicero and the title character, Catilina, during his rebellion in 63 BC.
The best novel of the series and among the best all time historical fiction I've read. Gordianus is now 47 and has Meto's coming of age birthday soon, while Diana is a rambunctious 7 year old. He calls himself "the farmer" not "the finder" anymore since his recently deceased patrician friend Claudius left him a nice estate - which Cicero the Consul-elect at the time, insured Gordianus actually got by winning fast the lawsuit Claudius' relatives brought to invalidate that part of the will.

Surrounded by Claudian estates whose owners are less than well disposed toward the upstart plebeian of obscure origins that got the best piece of land around and not really a "country boy" , Gordianus is somewhat bored despite his pretensions of being happy to have escaped the city, where Eco now continues the family business.

Of course Gordianus may have wished to escape Rome, but Rome would not let him go since the rivalry between Cicero and Catilina is at a boiling point and by intermediaries, the Consul induces the unwilling Gordianus to host Catilina when the latter wants a countryside holiday, all under the pretense of their old acquaintance from the House of Vestals and Gordianus' sympathies for the "poor" as shown in his unusual household.

But Catilina is very charming and known as a seducer of men and women alike, so Gordianus may find himself in-between the hammer and the anvil so to speak... While I read each novel from the series 2-3 times at least, this one I've read 10+ times and it's still fresh and unforgettable. (A++)

  • The Venus Throw (1995), featuring the poet Catullus, set during the trial of Marcus Caelius in 56 BC for the reputed murder of Dio of Alexandria.
Back in Rome in the grand mansion swapped for the estate years ago and worrying about Meto's fate as soldier and secretary to Caesar in Gaul, Gordianus is visited by his former Alexandrian mentor Dio who is the head of a delegation on a mission to Rome for the people of Egypt who threw out king Ptolemy Auletes and want recognition of his elder daughter as Queen. But powerful Romans want to loot Egypt and only the rivalry between them - who gets to do it gets too rich after all - kept Egypt from the reach of the legions so far and as a compromise most of the ruling class is happy to have Auletes reinstated for a (huge) price, so on the way to Rome the delegation is attacked, scattered and its members lynched with impunity by "spontaneous mobs".

But Dio is stubborn and has some Roman friends too, so he perseveres only to be repaid with snubs by the Senate and repeated assassination attempts. Desperate he turns to Gordianus and begs his help to stay alive, but Gordianus is ready to leave to see Meto in winter camp in Northern Italy, so he turns his mentor down. On return Gordianus finds out Dio has been murdered that same night and finally the Senate decided to do something and a political fight between the supporters of Auletes like Pompey and their opponents like the gangster politician Clodius is brewing and despite his best attempts not to get involved, Dio's shade and Clodia's seductive charms bring Gordianus in. This novel is almost as good as Catilina's Riddle and another major highlight of the series that I read many times and still find fresh... (A++)

  • A Murder On The Appian Way (1996), set just before the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.
Another favorite from the series has Gordianus investigating Clodius death at the hands of Milo's men on the Appian Way. Was it murder or not and what "The Great One", Pompey who commissioned the investigation actually wants the findings to be are the questions. Of course there is much more than that and Cicero, Milo and Marcus Caelius who are allied by circumstance and fate try and shape Gordianus' ideas too.

This one is as pure historical fiction as Catilina's Riddle with the investigation a way to tell a great story of intrigue, high stakes politics and more... (A+)

  • Rubicon (1999), after Caesar crosses the Rubicon and the members of the Senate flee Rome, dragging the Roman world into civil war.
My third favorite of the series, this novel has a minor discontinuity error - while in A Murder on the Appian Way, extremely handsome and loyal, though somewhat dim, Davus is Eco's bodyguard lent to Gordianus, here Davus *needs* to have been Pompey's slave lent and then given to Gordianus for the investigation of Clodius' death above, so Pompey can reclaim his services even when Davus was freed by Gordianus and became his son-in-law due to Diana' seduction of him and the baby that followed.

The civil war is starting and despite Meto's closeness to Caesar, Pompey does not want to let go of Gordianus either especially when a murder of one of his relatives happens in Gordianus' house just before the Senate evacuation of Rome. So Pompey presses Davus in service as mentioned above and Gordianus has no choice but to investigate the murder and then go on a cross country trip to report to Pompey and try and get Davus back before the Great One flees to Greece to amass his armies and retake Italy from Caesar.

Ending with a real stunning revelation and featuring a superb Tiro/Gordianus interaction throughout, this novel is more of a thriller than anything else and starts a sequence of such in the series. (A++)

Edit: Mr. Saylor kindly let me know that "BTW, the continuity glitch about Davus was fixed in later editions, so that his origins in Rubicon conform with his origin in the earlier Murder on the Appian Way."

I will look for a later edition of both novels since I am curious to see how they changed in view of the above.
  • Last Seen In Massilia (2000), taking place in Massilia (now Marseille) during the siege of the city by Caesar's men.
This one's plot gives away too much about the previous novel, so I will just say that Gordianus and Davus find themselves at the siege of Massilia and then kind of improbably find a way inside where they are protected by Hieronymus "the scapegoat". They meet some notable Romans including former enemy Milo and Ahenobarbus, the leader of the local resistance against Caesar, who since he dined with Gordianus on Cicero's estate is compelled to offer him guest rights despite the big suspicion of Gordianus being Caesar' spy...

A murder or maybe an accident is seen and Gordianus kind of bored inside the besieged city investigates to really unexpected results. More of a thriller again, Last Seen In Massilia is pretty good but it has a number of improbabilities that reduced its impact for me. (A-)

  • Mist Of Prophecies (2002), set during the Roman civil war in the city of Rome, divided between hopes and fears.
Gordianus the 62 year old seducer of a young prophetess? Or seduced maybe? Anyway with Bestheda ailing and Rome in crisis mode with everything expensive when available, Gordianus is running out of cash and becoming somewhat desperate, while everyone is waiting for the titanic clash between Caesar and Pompey to be decided in Greece. But the battle is running underground in the City too with spies and such and when some adventurers well known to Gordianus from previous novels try to use the situation for their advantage Gordianus is again caught in the middle. And of course Cassandra literally falls into his arms when she faints due to a spell of epilepsy...

Another favorite though Gordianus and Cassandra's romance is more of wish fulfillment than anything else, but still... Another great ending and a superb cameo by Clodia add a lot to this one. (A+)

  • The Judgment Of Caesar (2004), taking place in Egypt, when Caesar met queen Cleopatra in 48 BC.
Now well off again from Cassandra's will and with another adopted son to boot and a new grandchild on the way, Gordianus is off to Egypt to find a cure for Betsheda - or as he secretly dreads, to bury her in her native land. Since Diana is expecting and Bestheda is going, Davus cannot go and I kind of missed his interactions with his father in law, but Rupa and the two mischief making slave boys Mopsus and Androcles work reasonably well as replacements.

This novel was more of a hit and miss for me with the first part and the unfortunate encounter with the fleeing Pompey that almost spelled doom for Gordianus just awesome, but the Egyptian part was somewhat less interesting with a plausible scheming Cleopatra much less glamorous than usual, though Caesar indeed was at his magnetic best.

While people were puzzled by the ending, so much so that the author felt compelled to issue a disclaimer that, no, Gordianus does not die at the end when he follows what he perceives to be the disappeared Betsheda in the Nile, I actually got it and I was pretty sure we will see the healthier Betsheda and Gordianus back in Rome soon. (A-)

  • The Triumph of Caesar (2008), set in Rome during Caesar's triumphal celebrations in 46 BC.
Back in Rome and with Caesar the seemingly uncontested winner of the civil war - after all he is preparing a bunch of triumphs in a series of shows that will eclipse anything seen before - Gordianus is in the good graces of the dictator's wife Calpurnia, reconciled with Meto and respected by the great man himself, so he should be at peace and enjoying the cured Betsheda and his large family. But Calpurnia is terrified that someone plans to murder Caesar who just laughs at all warnings as nonsense and even has dismissed his German bodyguard troop, while Calpurnia's investigator in Gordianus absence got himself killed for his efforts...

So Gordianus is back in the action especially when he discovers who the investigator was. When danger may lurk from unexpected and even seemingly friendly places, he needs all his wits to stay ahead of the game. Another thriller and a very enjoyable one that offers more superb atmosphere and outstanding character cameos of notable men and women of the time. Excellent return for Gordianus and I hope we will see more of him soon (A).


Angelo said...

Great series, no doubt. It's a pity Gordianus got too old and relatively prosperous, limiting any future adventures.
But I would certainly buy more books in this series.
For some reason, "Rome" didn't caught my attention. I'll probably wait for your review before deciding to give it a try.

Liviu said...

That's true to some extent, but I would be happy if the series has 2-3 more volumes covering say Caesar and Cicero's deaths and closes in a nice way since after all there are way too many series that repeat themselves too much churning another and another volume. The next Gordianus is about his adventures as a young man.

I rarely read multi-generation novels focused on a place either and I would have not looked at Roma were it not being written by Mr. Saylor; to my surprise after a beginning which is a bit puzzling - though it makes sense in retrospect - the "vignettes" themselves are quite good, and there are two that stuck in my memory


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