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.