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Romanesque December 5, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Several years ago, I hesitated for more than an hour in a bookshop, hovering over a new Steven Saylor book, reading it, picking it up, putting it down again. This is not normal behaviour for me when faced with a new Steven Saylor book; normally I’m quite happy to rush to the bookshop and hand over extortionate amounts of money for his works the instant they are released in hardback. With this particular book, I ultimately decided against buying it and left the shop wondering if I had made the right decision. Now, I can safely say that I did.

You see, the difference between this book, Roma, and all of Saylor’s other books is that Roma is what some would call ‘a sweeping family saga’, the history of Rome from its mythological foundations until the rise and fall of Caesar as seen through the eyes of one particular family. Edward Rutherfurd has done the same thing for Salisbury, London, Dublin, Russia and the New Forest. I’ve read all of Rutherfurd’s books, but they always left me a little cold. Until I read Saylor’s version of this sub-genre, I never quite understood why.

You see, Saylor is more typically a writer of historical crime novels. He’s written a whole series of them, Roma Sub Rosa, set in the time from Sulla’s dictatorship to Caesar’s rise to power. Each story focuses on both a real, historical crime (the Sextus Roscius case, for example) and the broader historical events of Rome (the so-called ‘Catiline conspiracy’) and weaves them together. Last year, I wrote a bit about the ways in which crime fiction acts as a mirror of society, and how we can work out a lot about a historical period by looking at the crimes committed in it.

The thing is, Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa books are so tightly focused, and so strong in their interweaving of story and themes (or ‘message’, if you prefer; there tends to be a strong correlation between Saylor’s characters’ levels of outrage at the erosion of democracy in the name of security and how many years of the Bush presidency had gone by) that the world they describe is utterly three-dimensional. They remain my favourite evocation of Ancient Rome (and that’s including I, Claudius). This is because each book acts as a bite-sized chunk of Roman history, a snapshot of one event that Saylor views (with the benefit of hindsight) as a step along the road away from a republic and towards an empire. (I don’t really know enough about Roman history to judge whether the events he chooses are really so solidly associated with this argument, but I do know that each book brings each of these events vividly to life.)

In Roma, Saylor tries to do the same thing. Each section of it is devoted to a different period of Roman history (say, Hannibal’s invasion). But there’s only so much you can say in a 500-page novel. In attempting to record the broad sweep of Roman history, Saylor does what my supervisor is always criticising me for: going for breadth and not depth.

Part of the reason why the Roma Sub Rosa books seem so alive and why Roma seems like dead history is that they’re long enough to give us a good understanding of their characters. The same characters recur throughout the series, of course, but in the hands of a capable writer, one book should be enough to make characters known. One could argue that this is beside the point in Roma, that the main character of the book is not the ever-changing cast of Potitii and Pinarii but the city of Rome itself. This is a perfectly valid argument, except of course that a city is nothing without people. Throughout the course of Roma, the characters remained ciphers, and I was unable to work up much interest in their stories – and consequently, in the story of Rome.

I may here be simply expressing my unfortunate and seemingly incurable dislike of short stories. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to enjoy short stories as much as I do novels (with a few exceptions, most notably the works of Jorge Luis Borges). It’s rarely the fault of the author, but rather my inability to be engaged by something unless I can connect with (or at least come to understand) its characters. A world doesn’t feel solid to me until I can imagine myself having conversations with its inhabitants. I can imagine sitting around making rueful, sarcastic comments about politics with Gordianus the Finder. But I can’t imagine even exchanging polite pleasantries about the weather with a single character from Roma, and that is its failing.

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