Book Review by JGolomb
Empire is Steven Saylor's highly anticipated follow up to his centuries-spanning historical fiction saga, "Roma". Both books trace the ancestral evolution of the Pinarii family as they bear witness to the foundation and growth of Rome and its Empire. Roma covered the earliest foundations of Rome through the civil wars, while "Empire" picks up at the end of the reign of Augustus in 14 A.D. through the reign of Hadrian in 141.
Roman history is made up of fact, rumor, and myth, and Saylor hits on all of those elements in Empire. Each of four chapters tells a discrete and self-contained story set during key moments in the real or mythological history of Rome involving both fictional and non-fictional characters and events. Saylor uses the Pinarii like stepping stones across a stream of time; each stone provides just enough footing to propel the reader onto the next rock of time. The chapters place a different Pinarii generation under the spotlight and provide enough drama to fill an entire book in itself.
The chapters are highlight reels of their respective periods. In the early years, Saylor gives glimpses of Livia's evil which is very reminiscent of the Livia from I, Claudius. He opens a window on Tiberius's sadistic hideaway on an island off the coast of Italy where he purportedly kept young boys for his own pleasure. The second chapter runs the gamut of Caligula's psychoses and Claudiusí dramatically failed marriages. Readers also get a surprisingly poignant portrayal of Nero "fiddling" while Rome burns. In the third chapter, Saylor provides a historical discourse that includes the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius, the history of the development of the Flavian Amphitheater (known now as The Colosseum), and the rise and fall of the Flavian Emperors. In the final chapter, Saylor takes readers to the building of Trajanís column and the Pantheon and gives an all too brief glimpse of the philosopher-emperor Hadrian.
The biggest frustration with Empire is the vastly inconsistent development of Saylorís primary characters. The Pinarii are like castles made with wet sand. Just as they gain a bit of definition, substance and depth, they either fall apart or are washed away. It's almost as if in trying to hit all events in a given era, none are enough of a focus to allow time for the solid development of members of the Pinarii clan. I felt very little emotional pull towards the members of the family, neither particularly liking nor disliking any of them. This void of raw human drama significantly reduces the cohesion of each generational chapter and no amount of historical activity is able to overcome that vacuum.
The strongest character in the book is Emperor Nero whom Saylor paints as a subdued version of any Nathan Lane character. Nero ranges from sadistic to dramatic to regal to shockingly out-of-touch-with-reality. Though his end is predictably tragic, Nero and his era are the most interestingly interpreted. I have a bit of a bias towards Hadrian, but Saylor also did a fine job representing the erudite, introspective, and insecure monument-building Emperor.
Saylorís dialogue often feels stilted, unnatural, and boring when used to provide historical background, whereas his integration of history and fiction works well while events are actually taking place. The most awkward moments come during a series of dialogues providing background on Rome during the reign of the Flavian Emperors. In some cases, Saylor uses this approach to set up future scenes; in others, itís as if heís trying to shoehorn in as much history as possible.
Saylor doesn't go for the Hollywood endings when it comes to the Pinarii, and I enjoy his sense of tragedy. Without giving too much away, the Pinarii clan is admirably (yet naively) staunch in their loyalty to their Emperors and friends, and it's enjoyable to be spectator to the historical train-wreck of such an amazingly varied group of personalities and events.
Each story is connected as one generation of Pinarii gives way to the next. An interesting device that Saylor uses is having one or more characters transition a new Pinarii generation from the old. Claudius carries over from the first chapter to the second. Several of Neroís inner clan are close with Titus Pinarius in Chapter 2 and remain close to Titusí son Lucius is Chapter 3. Emperor Trajan is the transitional character between Chapters 3 and 4.
Saylor touches on a number of themes throughout his stories including freedom of speech and religion, human rights, philosophy, and other high- and low-lights of Roman culture. And while thereís already a lot going on in this 600-page novel, cameo appearances of Romeísí historical luminaries like Suetonius, Apollodorus, Dio, Sejanus and many others make for nice surprises.
Empire is a fun, light-weight introduction to Ancient Roman history. The writing style is smooth and simple, and Saylor hits on most of the major themes and incidents in each of the respective time periods. For those looking for a consumable introduction to and exploration of Roman history, Empire is a good starting point.
Comment and order this book online at Amazon