53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on 11 September 2003
Roman Blood, the first of Steven Saylor's Sub Rosa series of novels, introduces Gordianus the Finder and his family, fictional characters who become increasingly memorable and claim a hold on our affections and sympathetic concern as they interact throughout the series with many famous historical characters, Julius Caesar, Pompey The Great, Cicero, and Spartacus being the best known. The lawlessness of a great city - Rome - without a police force; the brutal treatment of slaves as chattel; the political intrigues and assassinations - all are faithfully portrayed in historically accurate and authentic detail. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these novels is their overlay of modern liberal values represented by the fictional narrator, who manumits (frees) and marries his Egyptian concubine, Bethesda, adopts two slaves as his sons, understands and accepts the independence and sovereignty of women, reveres and serves the truth as much as Diogenes, and evinces a genuine religious piety. The characters are memorably drawn and individuated, and the finder's daughter, whose patronymic name Gordiana is shortened to Diana, is perhaps the most appealing daughter in literature since Cordelia. Like all works of a master spirit, these books provide an edifying education, with recognizable allusions to ancient as well as Elizabethan literature, and they contain flashes of sardonic humor appropriate to the anatomy of the human condition that they reveal. They are among the very best of modern recreations of that peculiar combination of greatness and squalor that was ancient Rome.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 1 January 2006
I stumbled across this book quite by hazard but was hooked from the very first page. Gordianus, 'the last honest man in Rome', is thoroughly believable because - how rare this has become in historical thrillers and novels - he is depicted as a real human being with real emotions (happiness, joy, sadness, jealousy, you name it) instead of a one-dimensional puppet.
The setting is very well drawn and the plot engrossing, the hours you'll spend reading this book will afterwards feel as if you've stepped back in time. What more can one ask for? I for one immediately went after all the other books in the series.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 July 2015
Roman Blood (1997) by Steven Saylor
Reviewed by Richard Blake
Without sneering at it, I have no taste for military historical fiction. I will do battles in my own novels, but much prefer civilian intrigue. What I like above all, however, in historical fiction is a sense of moving in a different moral environment from our own. In all times and places, people have the same basic motivations. But the way these are manifested makes any competent recreation of the past a study in oddness. Fellini described his masterpiece Satyricon as “science fiction of the past.” That’s what I try to achieve when I write, and that’s what I like to read.
Roman Blood, the first in Steven Saylor’s epic cycle of novels, ticks all the above boxes. Told in the first person by Gordianus, a private detective from the less exalted classes in Roman society, it is a thriller. Sextus Roscio, a decided aristocrat, has been accused of murdering his father. He has retained Cicero as his lawyer, and Cicero needs someone who can attend to all the grubbing through the murkier recesses of Roman society in search of whatever evidence can get his client acquitted.
The novel begins almost in the style of Raymond Chandler:
“The slave who came to fetch me on that unseasonably warm spring morning was a young man, hardly more than twenty.”
So we meet Tiro, secretary to Cicero. In due course, we meet all the big men in Roman society, plus a cast of fictional characters who are distinguishable from the real ones only if you know that they didn’t actually exist.
I could, at this point, move to an examination of the plot. I’d rather not, however. As said, the novel begins like Raymond Chandler, and it proceeds in much the same way. The plot works well, but is better appreciated as it flows than summarised. Instead, I’ll try very briefly to say what I like about the book.
First, it is a civilian novel. There’s no marching up and down, no inspiring speeches, no set-piece battles. These have a steady market, and they can be done very well. What I like, though, is to see life as it was lived in the cities. You get this in Roman Blood. You are in the City. You can smell the emptied chamber pots, and taste the mouldy olives. You are in a country that has suffered a civil war, and that may not yet be folly over the reign of terror that followed this.
Second, I return to the use of real characters. The temptation here is to rely too much on what they are known to have said. Saylor avoids this. The narrator sees the first big speech Cicero gave from afar, and doesn’t quote from it. Cicero, instead, is shown as a shifty lawyer, nervous for his own head. The old Dictator, Sulla, is shown more as villain than saint – hardly surprising when you consider what he did to Rome. At the same time, he has redeeming features. And he is used sparingly – so sparingly, you almost want more of him.
Third, the convention in older novels is to mention slavery, but largely to have the slaves in the background. In Roman Blood, they are in the foreground, and there is no attempt to overlook what a disgusting institution slavery was. It corrupted everyone involved in it. Even those who weren’t sadistic fiends came to see slaves as less than human, and about as deserving of consideration as household pets.
Fourth, and generalising from this point, Saylor makes a point of showing his own political views. Now, he is an American liberal, which makes him considerably more statist than English and European liberals. Even so, he gives his narrator a broadly libertarian point of view throughout this novel and those that follow. The risk in doing this sort of thing is that a novel can descent to agitprop of higher or lower quality. I could mention the opposing views but similar failure here of Howard Fast and Ayn Rand. Saylor avoids this. His views emerge mostly by implication, or from the ghastliness of the attitudes some of the characters show in their dialogue.
Fifth, and still generalising, there is the matter of how background is shown. If you set out to write an historical novel, you will be drawn towards alternative but equally defective solutions to showing a world radically different from your own. You can clog the narrative with endless digressions, or you can explain absolutely nothing. In his Satyricon, Fellini succeeds brilliantly with explaining nothing. But this isn’t something you can do in mainstream fiction. For obvious reasons, you must also avoid the former. What Saylor does is to reveal the world of Republican Rome through dialogue and action. In a sense, he has it easier than I do with my Byzantine novels. Every potential reader knows who Cicero was, and Julius Caesar, and knows something of the political background. I have it much harder. But some background needs to be shown, and Saylor is a master of keeping his narrative bouncing along without losing sight of the wider issues.
Any mistakes of detail? Anything comparable to a passage in one of Taylor Caldwell’s novels where a Roman uncorks a bottle of wine? I don’t think so, and I have a good nose for this sort of thing. Saylor knows his subject.
And so I heartily commend Roman Blood. I think it easily the best in the series. But, if the sequel I least enjoyed is The Judgement of Caesar (2004), all the others have something that makes then an enjoyable and an instructive read.
on 10 May 2012
I really enjoyed this novel, which from the outset submerges you into the sights, sounds, smells and intrigues of ancient Rome.
The main character Gordianus is a well developed, well written and original character, who I found to be totally engaging. I suppose a 'finder' would be an early equivalent of a consulting detective and Gordianus is a worthy forerunner of the myriad of such characters who may have preceded him into print, but follow him in historical timeline.
It was refreshing to read a 'Roman' novel whose main character was not a legionary, politician, general and so on. If you, as I do, enjoy historical fiction or a murder mystery then you will certainly enjoy this book.
The writing was excellent, the plot totally captivating and the research meticulous and authentic.
OK, so enough superlatives.
In short I highly recommend this novel and will most certainly be seeking out the rest in this series.
on 15 November 2012
There are so many sword and sandal books around at the moment, many of them so similar, that it is difficult to tell them apart. Well, here is something that is definitely different.
Whilst set in Rome, and based around real events and people, the main character - Gordianus the Finder - is a really great fictional creation. The nearest equivalent today would perhaps be the fictional American private eye; he is called in to find out the sordid details when the lawyers and aristocrats can't or won't get their hands dirty.
The author has a real flair for period detail, explaining Roman society, law, customs and people without it seeming like a lecture; it all comes out in passing, which is quite a literary feat.
The factual content of the story is handled well, and the fictional elements are blended seamlessly. I loved the book, and have high hopes for future instalments.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 6 December 2002
Steven Saylor has succeeded in writing a brilliant account of what life might have been like in Ancient Rome. The characters represent a broad spectrum of Roman people, from slaves (Tiro primarily, and Bethesda) to the corrupt dictator, Sulla.
The central character is Gordianus the Finder, a private investigator. The plot concerns his somewhat dangerous journey to uncover the truth before Sextus Roscius goes on trial for the murder of his father. What he dicovers is a complex conspiracy involving, amongst others, those who walk the corridors of power. The verdict following the trial (which is brilliantly described by Saylor) is by no means the conclusion of the story which has a twist at the end.
The book is written in a style that is rich in imagery and provides a very plausible account of what life might have been like 2000 years ago in Rome. You can almost smell the food at Chrysogonus's banquet, feel the cobbled streets beneath your feet, and breath the steam from the Roman baths.
Overall Roman Blood has an interesting plot, well developed characters, and a richly descriptive style providing an insight into Ancient Rome.