“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” – The Triumph of Caesar, by Steven Saylor
For me, no one brings the world of ancient Rome to life the way Steven Saylor does. His Roma Sub Rosa series began in 1992 with Roman Blood; now we have the twelfth book in the series, The Triumph of Caesar.
In Roman Blood, we enter the world of ancient Rome in the year 80 BC. The great Cicero is about to embark on the legal and oratorical career that made him famous, both in his own time and down through the ages, to ours. In becoming Cicero’s eyes and ears, Gordianus discovers his vocation as The Finder, a combination of spy, secret agent, and private investigator. His discretion, integrity, and resourcefulness gain the respect not only of Cicero but of other well-placed Romans. And so a career is launched, much to the delight of Saylor fans like me.
The Triumph of Caesar takes place in the year 46 BC. Caesar has conquered Gaul, subdued the Africans, and settled the dispute over who shall rule Egypt in favor of Cleopatra, his some time lover and possibly the mother of his only son. The word “triumph” in the title of this novel has a double meaning. It refers not only to Caesar’s many victories in battle but also to the peculiarly Roman custom of parading the artifacts of those victories through the streets of Rome as part of a lavish celebration. Part show biz spectacle, part moving newsreel, the triumph is staged to demonstrate to the Roman people just how vast are the accomplishments of the returning hero. And also, how worthy he is of their respect and devotion. Gifts of food and money will help drive home that point.
In the novel, a succession of four triumphs take place, each one commemorating a specific victory. Saylor’s descriptions are detailed and fascinating. These folks really knew how to put on a show! Here’s this, for instance, from the Egyptian triumph:
“There was a towering black obelisk etched with hieroglyphics and decorated with gold bosses in the shape of lotus blossoms. There were bronze statues of various gods, including an incarnation of the Nile represented as an old man, surrounded by river nymphs, with creatures of the deep entwined in his flowing beard. there was a grand procession of magnificent sphinxes, one after another, carved from granite and marble.
Saylor drew on information in contemporary accounts in order to build marvelous word pictures like this one.
Gordianus’s client is not Caesar, however, but the dictator’s wife Calpurnia. She fears for her husband’s life, and wants Gordianus to learn the identity of the would-be assassin before it is too late. Gordianus, however, is 64 years old, a grandfather, and wants only to be left alone. But Calpurnia knows just how to draw Gordianus into this investigation: she shows him the body of his predecessor in this secret enterprise. This was one Hieronymus, who had not only been a valued friend of the Finder but had once saved his life. Now Hieronymus, murdered by an unknown hand, lies dead in the house of Calpurnia.
Gordianus is grieved and outraged. He agrees to the undertaking, but only because of his desire to find his friend’s killer.
The novels of the Roma Sub Rosa series make ancient Rome real in a way that both convinces and delights the reader. After finishing one of them several years ago, I had a dream in which a man was climbing some stone steps outside a building in Rome. He was wearing a tunic and broad brimmed straw hat. The sun shone brilliantly. I was seeing him from above, and as he looked up at me, I awoke.
This is now known in my personal history as my “Gordianus dream.” And as I’m writing this, I am recalling his face!
Gordianus has an extremely interesting family life that evolves by twists and turns over the course of the series. I recommend beginning with the first novel, Roman Blood, so you can get on the ground floor, as it were, of the narrative. And in the superb second novel, Arms of Nemesis, you will encounter a description of galley slaves toiling in the hold of a ship that is so vivid and disturbing, I have never forgotten it.
I still remember my ninth grade Latin teacher, Mrs. Gelber. She opened up a world for me that has never lost its fascination. My interest in the ancient world had gone dormant, though, until I picked up Roman Blood in 1992. Now I’m enthralled and bemused all over again. I salute Steven Saylor – and thank him!