Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 2
An Outsider’s Perspective of Republican Roman Politics
THE MYSTERY NOVELS that got me started on this topic are those by Steven Saylor, a series called Roma Sub Rosa (a Latin term for something done secretly). Paradoxically, one of the things I like about Saylor’s series is also the thing that most sets my teeth on edge: it covers the same period and the same historical events as those dealt with in Roberts’ SPQR series, but from a distinct outsider’s point of view, which contrasts rather strongly with that of John Maddox Roberts’ aristocratic insider, Decius Caecilius Metellus. The titles chosen for the two series indicates the essential differences between them: SPQR (the motto of Republic: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome) seeks to acquaint the reader with the values that made the Roman republic great and whose collapse led to the Republic’s demise and the rise of the military dictatorship we call the Roman Empire, while Roma Sub Rosa presents the post-Machiavellian view that Rome’s government was always the private club of a powerful elite who arranged things to their own satisfaction and mutual benefit through secret and often unsavory insider deals.
So it might be best for anyone interested in gaining insight into the last generation of the Roman Republic, how and why it collapsed, to read both series, taking into account the different assessments of the state of Rome at that time which are implicit in each author’s treatment of the historical events. One might read, say, Roberts’ The Catiline Conspiracy and Saylor’s Catilina’s Riddle and see one of the most notorious and significant political intrigues of the late Roman Republic from two very distinct points of view, one sympathetic to the republican point of view (which saw Catilina and his co-conspirators as dangerous monsters) and the other from a more “modern” view that sympathizes with the young Roman patricians who were willing to pitch in with Catilina and conspire to murder their own fathers in their beds.
I have to admit that I find Saylor’s mysteries less congenial than Roberts’, mostly because he goes out of his way to present a “minority viewpoint” which, presumably, is intended to seem more “realistic” to modern readers (whom the author seems to expect to be cynical about political figures). However, Saylor’s novels are well-crafted and engaging as mysteries, regardless of what one may think about their political perspective, so I recommend them. Here is an overview of the series, using the same general categories as those I used to describe the SPQR series:
- Period: This series covers roughly the same span as that of the SPQR series, with the first novel, Roman Blood, finding the detective protagonist assisting Cicero on one of his early career-enhancing legal successes, defending Sextus Roscius against a charge that he murdered his own father; the latest novel, The Triumph of Caesar, takes place during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship and the events leading up to Caesar’s assasination.
- Detective/Protagonist: Unlike Roberts’ Decius Metellus, Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder is definitely not a representative of the political elite; a plebeian by birth, he takes on investigations that political bigwigs find necessary but beneath their dignity. This lead character seems to have little in with the common virtues, viewpoints, or values typical of Romans of that time, and thus strikes me as un-Roman and rather anachronistic: for example, he has a tendency to make slaves not only members of his household, but also of his family — he marries his half-Jewish/half-Egyptian concubine, adopts two boys he had previously purchased as slaves, and manumits a handsome household slave who has impregnated his daughter so that the two can be married. Annoyingly, Gordianus the Finder is presented as the kind of anti-establishment egalitarian multi-culturalist that politically-correct modern Americans are supposed to admire but, fortunately, he is also a cracking good investigator with a knack for getting involved in fascinating political subterfuge while somehow managing to remain morally detached from it.
- What I Like: Gordianus, despite his attitude of moral detachment, manages to get himself and his family of apolitical commoners entangled in some of the most fascinating and complicated high-flown historical intrigues of the late Roman republic. And even Gordianus doesn’t get to keep his position on the moral high ground — in the eighth of the series, Rubicon, it is revealed that even Gordianus is not above a dastardly deed or two to preserve his own interests.
- What I Don’t Like: The thing that always grates on me when I read these novels (and sometimes others with historical settings) is the anachronistic projection of modern attitudes onto characters intended to be sympathetic to modern readers, attitudes which would not have been typical of Romans of the period. For instance, even plebeians like Gordianus could be as class-conscious and snobbish as any patrician; most were contemptuous and suspicious of former slaves, who sometimes became quite rich and influential. Saylor seems to be bent on historical revisionism of a rather tendentious kind — Gordianus always seems to find sympathy for figures whom history has shown to be socially destructive, self-aggrandizing archvillains. For instance, his beloved elder adopted son, Meto, becomes an ardent follower of Catilina and later becomes the right-hand man of Julius Caesar, but Gordianus finds no fault with either choice, other than to rue the fact that his boy has embraced military life. In fact, while sharing a hot bath with Catilina, Gordianus himself is almost seduced (sexually and philosophically) by Catilina, a spoiled aristocrat who plotted to attack the city of Rome from within and without, using an army of escaped slaves to attack the city while within Rome’s walls young aristocrats won over to Catilina’s self-serving cause were to murder their own fathers in their beds and set fire to the city. Leading Romans who survived Catilina’s conspiracy (including the historian Sallust) regarded him as something like a cross between Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, but Saylor manages to portray him as a kind of 1960s American radical, a charismatic and sexually magnetic figure who may have been a sociopath, but who should be admired for trying to shake up the Privileged White Man’s Establishment. On the other hand, Saylor projects a much lower opinion of Cicero, who survived an attempt by Catilina to assasinate him as a political rival and who afterward, while consul, discovered and foiled Catilina’s plot against the Republic; Cicero is presented as a self-serving coward and an obnoxious blowhard who had the dumb luck to stumble upon Catilina’s plot, and then used it to inflate his own political ego for decades afterward. These novels would be better off without Saylor’s/Gordianus’s perverse moralizing.