Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome
© 1991 Steven Saylor
They had an awful lot of sex in ancient Rome. Not quite as much as the Cro–Magnons in Jean M. Auel’s Earth Children series, but a good part of this book is people trying to further people the Republic. The same friend who told me about Robert Harris’ Imperium and Pompeii also told me about the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, an apparent mystery series set in ancient Rome. That may seem like an unlikely setting, but it’s working so far. Roman Blood is the first in said series, and begins with Tiro — the loyal servant of Cicero who penned who told us the story of Imperium — arriving at the door of Gordianus the finder, the ancient Republic’s version of a private eye. Young Cicero — who is just beginning his career as an advocate — has been assigned a troublesome case, one involving patricide. Given Cicero’s limited experience and the short time in which he is to build a case, the soon-to-be master orator hires Gordianus to help him find evidence that Sextus Rosicus — the accused — is innocent.
What begins to unfold is a gritty detective novel that could be just as easily set in 1930s New York as in the Roman Republic. Gordianus quickly receives threats to his life as what began as a simple murder investigation takes on hints of political corruption. Together, Tiro and Gordianus will travel throughout Rome, visiting urine-soaked plebian alleys as well as luxurious palatine estates — with a brothel thrown in. As the story continues to unfold, though, it becomes more than just a detective novel, and the whole story does not become apparent until after the trial is over. I found Saylor’s prose to be enjoyable, and his descriptions sometimes waxed on poetic, especially when describing the city of Rome. The story is told through the first-person, although Gordianus seems to be aware of the reader following behind him: some of his comments seem to be made for our sakes. Because Cicero and Tiro are main characters of this novel and of Imperium, the urge to compare the two is almost irresistible. It seems somehow unjust to compare one author’s work to another as if one were authoritative, but I will say that Saylor’s depiction shows a different side of Tiro than Harris. We first see it in a brothel. The rate at which we see characters engaging in sexual intercourse seems to increase in intensity as the trial approaches, and then vanishing soon afterwards. In my experience reading fiction, I’ve found that depictions of sex are really hit and miss. Sometimes they work well and fold into the story, but more often than not it seems as if the author is writing on sex gratuitously. That became the case for me in the middle of the book, and is essentially my only negative comment.
Because my knowledge of Roman life is still fairly limited at this point, I cannot comment with any authority on its historicity. I did notice — and here I am comparing Saylor to Harris — that Saylor’s depiction of a trial was quite different from Harris’. In Harris’, the trial wore on for days while the candidates gave arguments and rebutted their opponents. In Saylor’s trial, the event takes place in one day and with only two arguments. This may be because the two proceedings took place in different courts. In the afterward, Saylor writes that the trial in the book was a real trial and that Cicero’s arguments were used in the book with some alterations to make them fit into a narrative. He makes further comments on his sources and how he used them, which I appreciate. Reading historical fiction set in such a world apart from ours can make it difficult to discern what liberties the author has taken with the truth. I found the novel to be enjoyable overall and may continue in the series.