Some of you might have noticed by now that I am fairly well addicted to history, whether it be in the form of fiction or fact. And I've got a very soft spot for ancient Rome. Maybe it's the sheer spectacle of it, or that I can see so much of our modern world echoed in those long ago times.
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Author Steven Saylor takes a step away from his long running series, Roma Sub Rosa, about Gordianus the Finder, and tells the story of Rome itself, or as it was known to those who live there, Roma. Saylor uses the device of an item being passed down through the many generations of a family, and their adventures, both good and bad.
Starting nearly a thousand years before the time of Augustus, there is a spot where the salt traders from the coast cross a river at a shallow ford, using a nearby island for a place to camp. One such group has the tribe's most knowledgable leader, Larth, his daughter Lara, and a young man, Po. They're bringing a load of salt to trade in the mountains for tools made of iron, a very valuable commodity. On this trip, they encounter a young ironworker, and this leads to a murder and atonement, but also a child. To this child, Lara gives an amulet, shaped like a winged phallus, derived from a vision that she saw in a fire.
Generations pass, and now the nameless ford on the river has a settlement. After all, it's easier to go partway to trade, and the tribe has figured out that providing a place to sleep and eat is good as well. But all of this is about to end when a monster, Cacus, comes to inhabit the cave in the cliffs, and brings ghastly death with him. Lara's descendant, and holder of the amulet, Potitia, has a startling encounter with what could be a god, and a legend is created...
Another hundred or so years passes, and now there are two families that hold the priesthood to honor the god Hercules, Pinarius and Potitius. The river now has a name, the Tiber, and the hillsides have more people living there. Two homeless, orphaned twins, Romulus and Remus, are half-wild youths, full of violence and a fierce devotion and rivalry between them. So too does Pinarius and Potitius, and it all comes to a terrifying day of murder...
The ford has a name, Ruma, or Roma. There have been Kings in Roma since, and the latest one, Tarquinius the Proud, is making the population a bit upset, especially when one of his sons rapes a married woman of high standing, who commits suicide in despair. Out go the kings, and now Roma has a new form of government, by a group of men instead of just one. But it isn't all easy, as we see through the eyes of Titus Potitius, and his friend, Gnaeus, who has even grander schemes in mind...
Now time is moving more quickly, with breaks becoming shorter, and the characters not quite so involved. Roma struggles with new ideas, and an evolving nature as the amount of land that they control grows ever wider. One of the more interesting stories is that of Pinaria the Vestal, and the invasion of the Gauls, and why the geese of Juno got such an unusual festival of their own.
After this story, the tales become short and not nearly as personal. The names of the important players become more recognizable as Scipio, Hannibal, Sulla the Dictator and Julius Caesar along with Antony and Cleopatra, take the stage. To be honest, I didn't find the last third of the book that interesting, but that's not to knock the book.
And oddly, it works. I usually stay away from multigenerational sagas that take place in a single book -- they're much too choppy and shallow for me in depth and content. But here, while the stories are rather episodic, there is enough there to follow and belive the stories. Yes, Saylor uses the high points of Roman legend and lore, and the players are not much more than observers at times, but it was such an enthralling read that I found myself nearly gulping down the stories whole.
Saylor's writing style is rather succinct and he doesn't give much time over to theory or rhapsodizing. People laugh, cry, plot, make love and war, and for much of the book, survive. I found this to be intriguing book, and enjoyed how the author managed to form some of the myths and legends that still linger to this day. The Lupercalia, a fertility festival that occurs in February, was one that made me laugh, especially when you start thinking about another festival in February.
Saylor has included maps at the start of each chapter that show the evolution of Rome, and an afterword that talks about how he came about to write this, and his sources, especially Livy. Those who are interested in learning more will have a new list to try, and some new authors to seek out.
Fans of Saylor's previous work, the Gordianus novels, will enjoy with one, along with those who have read Colleen McCullough's work, The Masters of Rome series. If your only knowledge of Rome comes from the HBO series or I, Claudius go on ahead and give this one a read, you won't be disappointed. It's also a good introduction to the heady, complex world of ancient Rome, and I can happily recommend this one.
Four and a half stars, rounded up to five.
Roma: A novel of Ancient Rome
2007; St. Martin's Press
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