Steven Saylor Returns to Ancient Rome
Our general understanding of ancient Roman culture is generally quite superficial, at least for the majority of us who mostly remember it from the textbooks we used to read in high-school. It seems recently though, our collective fascination with the old culture has been revived in a certain sense, as is apparent by the increased amount of television shows, movies and literature produced on the subject in the last decade or so.
Though our many findings have allowed us to paint a relatively complete picture of life back in those days, there are still more than enough questions remaining to rouse our curiosity and stimulate the imagination of inventive writers such as Steven Saylor. Having practically made a career out of historical fiction novels set in Ancient Rome, Saylor does what he does best once again in one of his latest novels titled The Throne of Caesar.
The plot begins in a most prosperous time for Julius Caesar, with his enemies defeated, his empire growing, and another conquest looming on the horizon, this time against the Parthian Empire. As the shrewd dictator knows however, a man in his position is never free of danger, and something tells him a big conspiracy is looming. Thus, he decides to hire Gordanius the Finder, an admirable investigator who was just about to decide on his retirement. The mission: to keep an ear on the ground and attempt to expose any plans or conspiracies against Caesar. Awaiting to be bestowed a promised honour by the leader himself on the Ides of March, Gordanius takes up his mantle once again and dives back into the Roman underworld where everyone is always plotting against someone else.
An Excursion into the Past
Whenever it comes to any historical novel, the question always stands as to the amount of research the author put into it. Considering Saylor’s writings have majorly revolved around this time period, I don’t think anyone should be surprised at his extensive and evocative descriptions of Ancient Rome. No matter what locale he takes us to, the author always ensures to bring out the small details capable of turning a mere description into a veritable experience. He aptly makes use of all our senses and shows us (rather than telling us) this world as he perceives it. While these passages are indeed numerous, I completely appreciated them for the amount of tangible information it offered, and I believe all those of you interested in Ancient Rome will share my opinion (and let’s be honest, one probably wouldn’t read this book without having the mentioned interest).
Along the way on our journey through the past we also get to make the acquaintance of numerous historical characters, including Cicero and the poet Cinna, as well as various smaller political personalities who I am undoubtedly unaware of. Saylor does have a knack for making his people come to life, and while I will admit my knowledge on their true natures and behaviours is fairly limited, I had no trouble believing in his version of events… especially considering how painstakingly he worked to recreate an accurate world.
I should mention, for the first three quarters of the book or so, it does feel as if we are treated more to a normal historical narrative rather than an actual mystery, but Saylor lets none of it go to waste. I really was impressed in how he set everything up for the unravelling in the latter part of the book, and ultimately almost all we learn on our journey plays a role in one way or another.
The Most Famous Murder
With the above being said, while it is true most of the earlier parts of the book don’t have much mystery to them, the plot does advance slowly and surely as Gordanius calmly progresses towards his goal. I found he made for a very curious protagonist, set in his ways and decades of wisdom in his eyes. The fact alone we get to witness the work of an investigator in a time so far removed from ours was enough to draw me to his character and pay attention to anything he did. While I wouldn’t exactly say he undergoes a whole lot of development, I found he was the perfect vehicle for us to ride on this particular journey.
Moving towards the last quarter of the book, the pace notably picks up and historical aspect of the writing is pushed into the back rows. The conspiracy against Caesar takes up greater and greater prominence as we go along and the tensions keep on rising as we observe Gordanius fumbling around in an attempt to prevent it from happening. I highly doubt I would spoil the story for anyone by revealing the murder does happen (the author himself said it was a topic he couldn’t avoid forever), and in large part thanks to all the build-up which happened before it felt like one of the most moving scenes I’ve read in recent memory. I wholeheartedly believe Saylor deserves all the credit in the world for his powerful depiction of human cruelty and cowardice, coupled with the inescapable course of history which will eventually swallow us all.
The Final Verdict
Steven Saylor’s The Throne of Caesar is, in my mind, likely one of the best historical novels taking place in Ancient Rome and detailing the conspiracy against the infamous dictator. It has both history and mystery in spades at their appropriate moments and succeeded in drawing me into the story with both. I highly recommend this book to anyone who even remotely enjoys historical mysteries.
Steven Saylor is an American author specializing in historical novels who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin after studying history and classics.
His most notable works include the Roma Sub Rosa mystery series set in Ancient Rome, and the two novels set in Texas titled A Twist at the End and Have You Seen Dawn?.
Saylor is also the recipient of numerous prestigious accolades, including the 1993 Robert L. Fish Memorial and Lambda Literary Awards, as well as the 2000 Writers’ League of Texas Violet Crown Award.