Saturday, October 16, 2010

Review - Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor

Short review: The history of Rome from pre-foundation to the end of the Republic, told via a series of loosely connected short stories.

Rome's long history
As a vibrant republic
Told by citizens

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: For all the people who are disappointed that James Michener never wrote a novel about ancient Rome can now rejoice, because Steven Saylor has provided them with a perfect substitute in the form of Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome. Roma begins before Rome has even been founded, when the site is nothing more than the crossroads of a pair of trading routes and follows the fortunes of the Pinarii and the Potitii, a pair of Patrician families, through to the ascension of Augustus Ceasar and the end of the Republic. The book is a series of interconnected short stories featuring various members of these families as they live through some of the defining events of the history of the Roman Republic, with some member of the family almost always having a pivotal role in the events, or at least a front row seat, which of course gives the reader the same close up view of history.

A reader should be warned, however, that the book has a rather generous interpretation of what history means. In the case of the book, it means that many of the foundational myths of Rome are taken to be essentially true: Hercules slaying the monster Cacus, Romulus killing Remus as they fight over the city walls, the overthrow of Tarquinius following the rape of Lutetia, and so on. Obviously the early history would be entirely speculative no matter what Saylor wrote about that era, but his versions basically hew close to the legendary versions with very little variation. Perhaps it is because I am used to Bernard Cornwell's very imaginative versions of history that Saylor's seems to be a little too close to the mythical version that has been handed down to us. Perhaps a better description of the early section of the book would be "the history of Rome as Romans told it" as opposed to "an attempt to tell actual history". That said, Saylor does make some stabs at having supposed historical events be misinterpreted or forgotten by later generations, such as the origins of the Lupercalia, or the legend that Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, but by and large, the self-made pseudo-history of the Romans is relayed to the reader intact. For anyone who comes to the book looking for a version of these stories that differs from the standard legends will be disappointed, but this is a minor point, as the stories are all well told regardless.

The primary framing element that connects the various stories is a fictional amulet of the deity Fascinus which is handed down from family member to family member from the first story to the last, which is somewhat improbable, but does serve to place a common element in each story. There are only two substantial weaknesses of the book. The first is the fact that despite its constant presence, the Fascinus amulet is nothing more than a MacGuffin, serving no purpose in any of the stories other than a strange keepsake to be handed down the generations. The second is that by presenting the story of Rome over several hundred years via a series of short stories, there is limited continuity of characters from one story to the other, so once a character is established, he or she usually disappears from the book relatively quickly. This constantly changing cast of characters is made even more confusing by the Roman practice of naming people after their ancestors, so there are several instances of two different characters in two different stories who share the same name, which can get confusing, especially as there are a few characters in the book who cross from one story to another. One lesser problem is Saylor's tendency to shift from a character driven narrative to a textbook like accounting of historical events from time to time, which serves to pull the reader out of the story.

These issues aside, the individual stories and the overall narrative are a fast flowing and enjoyable presentation of the history of the rise and disintegration of the Roman Republic. Each of the individual short stories is well-crafted, reflecting critical events in Roman history using strong characters and a writing style that makes them flow almost effortlessly. Despite being 555 pages long, the book flies by because it is so easy to pick up one of the short stories, finish it, and then say "I'll just read one more", and before you know it, you are 200 pages further in the book. The stories all work well together, adding up to a narrative in which the city of Rome takes shape, grows into maturity, and then becomes a creaking ramshackle structure constantly on the verge of collapse. In the stories, Rome's origins are violent, and grow progressively bloodier as time goes by, with a level of casual violence that will probably be shocking to readers unfamiliar with Rome's actual history. One of the best elements of the book is the way that Saylor presents those attributes that Romans considered virtues in a way that makes perfect sense, and yet highlights just how alien Roman culture was when compared to the virtues familiar to the modern Western mind. As an aside, it should be noted that all of the action in the book takes place within (or just on the border of) the city of Rome itself, so even though the events are set against the backdrop of the wars against King Pyrrus of Macedon, the Punic Wars against Carthage, and other large scale events in the outside world, these events are only related second hand and after the fact by characters going about their daily lives inside the city. People hoping to find stories about Julius Ceasar's campaigns in Gaul and Britain will not find those stories here, but rather will be regaled with the political machinations surrounding his attempt to be declared King, and the plot to assassinate him, and then the plot to avenge his death. This serves to focus the narrative somewhat, which is probably necessary in a book that attempts to encapsulate more than a half-dozen centuries in its pages, and it gives a somewhat unique perspective on Roman history to only hear of events such as the disaster of Cannae related as a confused swirl of rumors.

For anyone looking to get an in depth treatment of Roman history, this is probably not a work that will serve their purposes. On the other hand, anyone who wants to read a version of Roman history that reflects to a certain extent how its inhabitants might have experienced life in the city over the course of its life, this book probably comes as close as one can hope to find. The vast scope of the story that Saylor is attempting to tell hampers the effectiveness of the book to a certain extent, but Saylor has done an admirable job of pulling off this very difficult task and making it accessible and readable.

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