Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Steven Saylor: Roma (2007)

Published: Constable, 2007

Steven Saylor is best known for his series of ancient Roman detective novels featuring Gordianus the Finder, and his other works have also been crime fiction until now. Roma takes him out of the genre confort zone, being an ambitious attempt to contain the history of Rome from its earliest origins to the end of the Republic, a period of about a thousand years, within a single novel. Saylor makes his task more manageable by structuring the history as a series of episodes around the best known stories, and linking them by a simple device. The central character in each story, who is never the focus from the historical point of view, is the current owner of an amulet passed from generation to generation.

Writing a novel about the development of a great city is not a new idea. Peter Ackroyd's London comes to mind, though it's not a useful comparison for me as I haven't read it, but it shows that Saylor was not the only writer with this idea. But for there's one really important precedent for Roma: the histories of Livy. While not a novel in the modern sense, it is a highly dramatic version of the events covered in Saylor's book (and what went on in between). Livy added pro-Augustan spin to the disregard for evidence and acceptance of the supernatural common to most ancient historians, but makes up for this by the quality of his writing and the interest of his tales. In his acknowledgment of his debt to Livy in the afterword, Saylor describes his histories as "one of the great reading experiences of a lifetime", which is perhaps overdoing it a bit, but suggests just how difficult it would be for Saylor to live up to his source material. And that isn't even mentioning the other writers who have taken stories from Livy over the last two millennia, including Shakespeare, whose play Coriolanus and poem The Rape of Lucrece describe two of the same stories used by Saylor. (Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra take place off stage from two of the last tales).

The first stories are set before the city existed, and tell of the origin of the amulet. They juxtapose modern ideas of the reasons for the foundation of the settlement (on salt trading routes) with myths associated with the area of the seven hills (a fight between Hercules and the monster Cacus). As with other supernatural events throughout Roma, the latter is rationalised by Saylor, in line with modern sensibilities outside the fantasy genre about magic, monsters and demigods. Then each tale skips a couple of generations to end a millennium later in the reign of Augustus.

There's plenty of action, and the stories are good. Accuracy is another issue, but obviously problems in this area are more due to the sources than to distortion by Saylor, and he actually uses the form of Roma to show how oral history becomes altered within only a few generations, as people in later stories discuss the events that have already been covered more directly, and the timespan between the stories about Romulus and the lifetime of Livy is a lot greater than a century.

While the inspirational quality of Livy's materlel cannot be doubted, Saylor's versions do suffer from the episodic structure he has adopted. He doesn't really succeed in making the reader feel that this is one story, that of the city, rather than a collection of short stories about individual moments which happen to be arranged by their internal chronology, though he does his best with numerous back references and through the device of the inherited amulet. Perhaps reading Roma is best followed by finding a good translation of Livy, who didn't need to fit his work into a pre-existing form; for the restrictions of the novel - particularly those imposed by the length requirements made to fit in a single volume - have led Saylor to produce a gallant failure. So my rating for Roma is 5/10, though I'd rate most of the individual tales at about 7/10.

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