Empire: the Novel of Imperial Rome
© 2010 Steven Saylor
Last summer — strangely enough about a year ago last week — I had the pleasure of reading Roma: the Novel of Ancient Rome. The novel was a thousand-year epic, following one family through many generations in eleven stories. Saylor’s rendering was impressive, so much so that I preordered its sequel as soon as I had the opportunity. I rarely preorder books: I have done so on only one prior occasion.
Empire is far less ambitious in scope than Roma, covering just over one hundred years. Saylor employs the same approach as in Roma, focusing on the same family (the Pindarii) and grounding the reader with an amulet that is passed from heir to heir. In Roma, the amulet transformed through its thousand-year history from a lump of metal purported to contain the essence of a god into a winged phallus (representing said god, Fascinus), into a decayed shape roughly similar to that of a cross — appropriate, given that Roma ended in the first year “anno domini”.
Although said designation was created during the medieval era, that year did start a new era in Roman history, for after the decline of the Republic and the establishment of an increasingly autocratic Empire, the only voice in Roman politics that mattered was the voice of the Emperor, who is hailed in the books as “Dominus”. Empire is a story told in four parts: two stories lengthy enough to count as novellas, bookended by two shorter stories. The first begins in the last months of Augustus, while the novel ends with the appointment of Antonius Pius.* The intervening emperors — especially Caligula, Nero,and Domitian — drive the book. Their ambitions, whims, and favor — or disfavor — force the Pindarii to think on their feet time and again. The Pindarii are patricians, once disgraced but restored to dignity when a family friend dons the purple and gold. They remain within strangling distance of the Emperors for most of the book, which is good for the reader but somewhat unhappy for them.
Although less ambitious, Empire does not disappoint: the drama here dwarfs that of his Roma sub Rosa series: on more than one occasion I bolted to my feet surprised by a plot twist. His Pindarii are far more sympathetic in Empire than in Roma, which may force the reader to be more anxious about how they might survive the Year of Four Emperors, the madness of Caligula, the Great Fire, the eruption of Vesuvius, and the Emperors’ increasing power. Historical persons appear throughout the novel beyond the emperors: Seneca, Epictetus, and Seutonious are three that caught my attention, but as in Roma Saylor introduced me to more that I had never heard of, like Apollonius of Tyana. The city itself is a background character, continually changing with the ambitions and tastes of the men who rule it. In some ways, Empire is even superior to Roma: Saylor’s authorial voice is much less intrusive, as he allows his characters to handle exposition.
A recommendation, of course, to those interested. I’m still more impressed by Roma’s scope, but Empire was a pleasure.
- Lucius: the Lightening Reader. When the Emperor’s nephew Claudius is summoned to performed an augury for Augustus, he brings his friend and fellow augur Lucius Pindarius to assist him. The result ensnares the Pindarii family in imperial attention, linking their fates with imperial intrigue.
- Titus and Kaeso: the Twins: Lucius’ twin boys come to age in the beginnings of Nero’s reign, and the two are torn apart by their opposing loyalties to Caesar and Christ: one of the two develops a fondness for Jewish mystics while in Alexandria and is lured into a strange new cult obsessed with the Apocalypse.
- Lucius the Seeker: Lucius, unlike his father and grandfather, has no interest in either augury or family. Living off of the family fortune, he prefers to spend his days shooting the breeze with Epictetus, a Sophist philosopher, a poet, and a member of the Imperial court.
- Marcus the Sculptor: Young Marcus is the favorite architect of Emperor Hadrian, who is obsessed with leaving vast monuments and building projects to posterity.
- Roma, Steven Saylor
- The Sons of Caesar, which follows the evolution of the Roman empire from Julius Caesar’s ascent to the fall of Nero.
- Pompeii, Robert Harris. (Novel.)
* Narrowly missing Marcus Aurelius, though I was delighted to see him at all: he appears as a youth, brought to court by Hadrian, who was intent on grooming him as heir.