First there was Sarum, Edward Rutherfurd's mammoth 1000+ page documentary novel of 10,000 years of history surrounding the Neolithic monument known as Stonehenge and the towns that grew around it. Rutherfurd went on to repeat this epic format in several novels, all of which remain in print some twenty-odd years on. We should not be surprised, therefore, that one of America's foremost historical novelists, Steven Saylor, has decided to turn his hand to writing the epic novel of ancient Rome.
As epics go, Roma is far less epic than Sarum, dealing with a mere 1000 years of history, from roughly 1,000BC down to 1BC, but for a city that grew to rule half the known world, the first thousand years is epic enough for anyone's tastes. To write a novel of such huge proportions is an achievement in itself, but as with Rutherfurd's Sarum, Roma suffers similar drawbacks. Like Rutherfurd, Saylor tells his history through the eyes of two families, the ancient Patrician Potitii and their relations, the Pinarii, both of whom have various changes in fortune (and name) throughout the millennium. He does a decent enough job here, managing to create the odd vivid fictional character amidst a plethora of instantly forgettable people. Symbolic continuity is provided by the passing down, generation to generation, of an ancient talisman, worn around the necks of various Potitii and Pinarii until it has become unrecognisable.
The trouble with novels of this type is often in the presentation of the material. Some famous historical episodes are given greater weight than others; some are dealt with in depth, with the time for characters to develop; others are merely skimmed and are little more than resumes of happenings; or the great events of history are related as an after dinner anecdote by one guest to another. All in all, the unevenness makes for an unsatisfactory read.
The section of the novel that worked best for me was the story of the vestal Pinaria during the siege by the Gauls, traditionally placed by Saylor in 390BC. We actually got a full story here, with full character development and the desolation caused by the arrival of the Gauls into Rome was vividly told – it was Saylor at his best. But too much of this novel – especially towards the end – seems rushed. The writing is hurried, the characters poorly drawn, and it begins to read like a text book for high school students, with just a bit of colour thrown in here and there to prevent full boredom setting in.
Although the first half of the novel is fairly well constructed and enjoyable, the last three sections are the weakest, dealing with the lives of the Gracchi, the Sullan dictatorship, and the death of Caesar and the rise of Octavian. We never get to know any of these characters. Sulla appears as a caricature of himself – and we know from Saylor's Roman Blood that he is capable of portraying the dictator in a far more believable light than he does in Roma.
Tiberius Gracchus is simply a posturing firebrand and his brother Gaius fails to come to life at all. The bloodbath that resulted on the day of Tiberius' murder is blandly told within a couple of paragraphs, and even the tribune's murder itself is related in two short sentences. It is very difficult for a reader to feel the horror of this event. Julius Caesar (who does get a bit more of a vivid death!) just refers to himself in the third person and goes about with his comb-over, looking very splendid and longing to conquer Parthia. As a final insult, Octavian is relegated to 'a shrill voice' (God knows the source of this!) and preening vanity. As a postscript we do see him being carried through Rome's streets in his litter in 1BC when he has magically earned everyone's love and respect, along with the title of Augustus, which Saylor mistakenly attributes to 29BC.
The events leading to this great transformation are told as a one page anecdote by one of the Pinarii to his grandson. Even the great Scipio Africanus defies the author's pen, and is reduced to a homo-erotic icon for one of the fictional characters to fantasise over – no doubt great for Scipio, but it brings the reader no closer to this great Republican hero. We see him subdued at the news of his father and uncle's deaths in Spain, and one chapter later the whole twelve years have passed and he is the victor of Zama. Yet none of his shrewdness or charisma comes through in the story, and the reader is left to wonder what all the fuss was about – Hannibal who? Ah – some little fellow from Carthage that the Romans had a skirmish or two with. Sadly, that is the overall impression of the Punic Wars section of this novel. Cannae is recounted in a short paragraph, for instance. As for the elder Cato – he simply stands up in the senate to deliver his time-honoured epithet and that is all we see of him.
I cannot damn the book entirely. There is enough in Saylor's pleasant prose to hold a reader's interest, and the earlier parts of the book – down to the mid 3rd century BC – are well illustrated and the setting recreated beautifully. I must also compliment Saylor on his representation of Roman women. Whether totally fictitious or historical, he does manage to recreate believable females. Although the Gracchi section is among the poorest, Cornelia still shines like a jewel as a strong Republican lady who struggles with tradition and social constraints whilst being ambitious for her sons.
For someone who wants a quick overview of the history of Rome from her foundations to the end of her republic, there are worse books than this. But I would suspect that fans of Saylor's Sub Rosa series, in which we have been treated to glorious portraits of Caesar, Cicero, Crassus, Sulla, and – perhaps his greatest – Catilina, will be hugely disappointed by the unevenness of Roma. This is a shame, because Saylor is highly educated in his subject and his novels have rightly received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. If anyone has yet to discover him as an author of Roman fiction, please take my advice and do not begin with Roma.
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