Roma - A Novel of Ancient Rome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2007, 12:00am

Roma - A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Steven Saylor

St Martin's Press, HK$208

An accepted practice in writing ancient history, dating from Roman historian Titus Livius (better known as Livy), is the novelistic embellishment of character and plot pertaining to known facts, says Steven Saylor in an author's note at the end of his epic on ancient Rome.

'For sheer pleasure and escape, reading Livy straight through is an experience comparable to reading Tolkien, Tolstoy, or Gibbon; in other words, it is one of the great experiences of a lifetime,' Saylor writes.

His groundbreaking Roma Sub Rosa series, featuring his fictional detective Gordianus the Finder - from Roman Blood (1991) to The Judgement of Caesar (2004) - brought ancient history alive for many readers.

Roma - The Novel of Ancient Rome is a sweeping 555-page saga, an imaginative mixture of fact and fiction that sets the record straight on numerous scholarly questions without missing a beat. Traces of ancient Rome are everywhere - in language, technology and laws - and its shades still haunt us today.

Even its myths are finding foundation. 'Through most of the 20th century it was fashionable to dismiss the foundation accounts of the ancient sources as fabrications, but recent archaeological finds have given fresh credence to stories once dismissed as legends,' Saylor writes.

Roma is intelligent fun. It's also an oddly disturbing commentary on contemporary society and what it means to be civilised.

Saylor begins his story on the river Tiber. It's 1000BC. Life is tough for the half-dozen intermingled families of a largely nomadic tribe. They hunt and gather, but mostly endure an endless back-and-forth journey along the river from 'the great salt beds beside the sea' to the forest villages and meadows at the foothills of distant mountains. There they swap the salt for 'dried meat, animal skins, cloth spun from wool, clay pots, needles and scraping tools carved from bone, and little toys made of wood'. Then they encounter Fascinus, which Saylor contends was the first deity of the Romans, a winged phallus 'a masculine member, disembodied but nonetheless rampant and upright [that] existed in and of itself, without beginning or end'.

Roma follows the fate of an amulet, a lump of soft metal crudely shaped in the form of Fascinus, as it's passed from generation to generation, mysteriously becoming an object of worship by the vestal virgins along the way.

Saylor divides his story into 11 parts to focus on the role of Fascinus in the better known bits of Roman history. The reader learns that the Roman god Hercules was a mere mighty mortal, that the rape of the Sabine women was figurative, and that Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome on the seven hills, were named after the breasts of the woman who suckled them, a 'she-wolf', or whore.

There's the story of Coriolanus (510-491BC), which turns on the conquest of Corioli by Gnaeus Marcius. A chapter entitled The Vestal covers 393-373BC and makes clear the role and function of virgins in Roman tradition. Scipio's Shadow recounts the victories of Scipio Africanus (216-183BC) over Hannibal, and the ultimate destruction of Carthage, while offering a glimpse into the 'unspeakable' cult of Bacchus.

Saylor doesn't stint on the blood, sex and intrigue as families rise and fall, civil wars rage, tens of thousands die in battle, and the honourable title of dictator is forever sullied after the ruthless rule of Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

By the time Saylor reaches Julius Caesar, the reader will have consulted more than a few times the family tree at the start of the book that traces the wearers of Fascinus. And as the story builds, so does Rome.

Each chapter begins with a map showing the increasingly crowded seven hills, from a single landmark fig tree to temples, altars, statues, and state buildings.

Probably the best literary comparison to Roma is the two-volume I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. It's a good companion, too. Saylor ends his saga at Augustus Caesar, where Graves' begins.