Sunday, August 5, 2012

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome

by Steven Saylor

An epic biography of the city, spanning a thousand years from the first meeting of traders across the as-yet unnamed hills to the rise of Augustus Caesar.  Legendary figures such as Romulus and Remus are made historical, and Saylor even gives one possible source for the birth of the legends of Hercules and his vanquishing of the monster Cacus.  Obviously, with a tome this vast, the narrative skips staccato-like over decades and centuries, but Saylor makes stops at all the high and low points: the rise and fall of the hero-turned traitor Coriolanus; the sack of Rome by the Gauls; the invasion of Hannibal; the attempt of the Gracchi to reform the class system and their subsequent assassination; the rise and death of Julius Caesar.

I was mostly disappointed in this book.  In many ways it reminded me of Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, also the epic biography of a city that follows the rise and fall in fortunes of very old families in the city.  This book has some of Sarum’s flaws, as well, especially its didactic, lecturing tone.  I’m a fan of Saylor’s Sub Rosa series, and sadly, I didn’t get that feel of being totally immersed in a  time and culture that I do in the Gordianus books.  For the most part, these characters don’t visit the baths or watch gladiators or visit slave markets or play ancient dice games or walk dusty streets shoulder to shoulder with slaves, soldiers, and philosophers; they sit around and explain their surroundings.  It’s understandable that Saylor wants to keep the readers abreast of the years of history he must perforce glide over, but the result is a book that is often dry and extremely exposition-heavy, particularly between eras.  I found myself wondering how it would sound if in a novel set during, say, World War II, a character were to say to another, “You know, of course, how Germany’s dictator, Hitler, has invaded Poland, and that our current leader, Churchill, advocates nothing but total war, in stark contrast to his predecessor Chamberlain, who is popularly regarded as an appeaser.”  It would sound forced and wholly artificial, just as Saylor’s quite similar explanations do.  Even worse, his exposition is not limited to historical forces.  Saylor has characters saying such things as “My son, Gaius, and my two daughters…” to people who are their close friends.  Given the length of the book and the number of personages in it, this is understandable and perhaps the most efficient way to introduce new concepts and characters, but, again, it has an artificial ring.  For these reasons, I enjoyed the book best when Saylor was sticking to history that was educated guesses (the very early days shrouded in legend), or the later, Augustian, years when everything had been established.

three stars

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