My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Steven Saylor definitely took on a huge task when he chose to write a novelized history of Rome from the viewpoint of one of the oldest patrician families, but least-known in modern times — the Pinarii, and their cousins the Potitii. The novel touches on the important turning-points of Rome’s history, when members of the Pinarii or the Potitii are constantly being caught up in momentous events — the sack of Rome by Gauls, the Carthaginian wars, the campaign of Scipio, the dictatorship of Sulla, and so on — and actually living the events, with the uncertainty and awe of a person caught up in the middle of something with no idea how it will end. The Pinarius or Potitius central to each episode of the book is our main character but not history’s main character, and as the family descends through time and is influenced by past character’s actions, so are we as readers. This is half-story, half-history, in the Livian vein and a great homage to Livy’s history of Rome. The facts are mostly solid, and if two “facts” were available, well we are writing a novel here, not a textbook, and we (the writer) are allowed to pick whichever one fits the story we want to tell the best. I feel compelled now to check a few of Saylor’s facts, like was Julius Caesar’s sister Julia really married to a Pinarius, or has Saylor made that up out of whole cloth; because if all these occurrences of Pinarii and Potitii were Saylor has them occurring are documentable fact, then Saylor’s masterful filling-in-of-the-blanks is even more refined and elegant than I thought.
The source material Saylor lists in the book’s Afterword is also excellent, including his use of T.P. Wiseman’s Remus A Roman Myth as source material on the pre-foundation history of Rome and the various foundation myths. I cannot praise enough this decision on Saylor’s part. Saylor’s Remus was not a carbon copy of Wiseman’s Remus, but many of Wiseman’s observations seem to have influenced Saylor’s character creation, and his imagination of the earliest layout of the city. Whereas Wiseman deals academically with the Romulus & Remus story, Saylor says to himself “How can I make this plausible in the real world, not the world of myth?” and then he goes and does so. I can’t say enough, even in the review of a different book, about the value of Wiseman’s work on Remus to classical scholars; and if you are going to take on the task of tackling Saylor’s Roma, then Wiseman’s Remus: A Roman Myth will subsequently be no trouble at all and might help the reader flesh out the pre-historic Roman world as presented by Saylor. The one is so clearly, and well, informed by the other.
The omniscient narration of Roma does not have the same voice as the character-centric narration of Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder mystery series, for which I am truly grateful. The writing style employed for mysteries would not suit a larger work such as Roma. Different genres require different approaches, and it is not every writer who can go from one to another easily and successfully. The tone and style of Roma is suitable to a long fiction work with many characters and a complex plot full of details. The book has been broken up into historical episodes, loosely based on a single generation of characters, but of course the common thread running through all the episodes is the family being focussed on (usually the Pinarii). You only need to worry about one Lucius Pinarius at a time, which is a relief, as Romans were not very creative namers and you tended to get two or three of every name in a single generation. When one Lucius Pinarius thinks back to the actions of another Lucius Pinarius, Saylor says something like “Lucius remembered that his great-great-grandfather, also named Lucius Pinarius, did such-and-such or knew so-and-so,” and that is enough to jog the reader’s memory: “Oh yeah, I remember that,” or “Oh my gosh kid, you are so misinformed!” But as misinformation (or lies?) from a previous generation become enshrined in popular memory, they become historical fact, and it seems to me that in the book itself Saylor has found a way to comment on the veracity (or not) of the historical “facts” we’re operating with today. Did it really happen the way we think it did? Or is there a historical truth there that will never come to light? And how does knowing that is a possibility change the way we view history itself?
In short: This may be a bit overwhelming for the Roman history novice, who isn’t vaguely familiar with the people and places Saylor employs in his narrative. There’s a lot in this book to soak up. If you aren’t daunted by that, all the better for you. For the reader fairly familiar with Roman history, especially the the early books of Livy and the half-forgotten period of the Kings and the early Republic, my recommendation is “have at with abandon, you will love this.”