As a person who’s somewhat of an antiquarian with an occasional desire to escape from the modern world, I’m always looking for books that will provide that outlet for me. When I first came across Steven Saylor’s first book in the Roma Sub Rosa series of historical fiction, I was swept off my feet and wished that I could magically step into the pages and observe the events taking place first hand.
“Roman Blood” the first book in the series, introduces the reader to Gordianus the Finder. A detective in a modern sense and living in the city of Rome with his Egyptian wife Bethesda, Gordianus finds himself caught up in scandal and intrigue, which takes him deep into the dirty dealings of the mean streets of Rome, with its dead end alleys and riffraff, and all the way out into the country side along the Appian Way, with its bandits and sleazy roadside inn’s.
The historical accuracy of the book is well researched and thought out, occurring around the time of the trial of Sextus Roscius in 81BC. Inevitably the reader is introduced to, at the time, a 27 year old Marcus Tullius Cicero. A famous orator and statesman, Cicero could give a modern day prosecutor a run for his money. Well versed in Greek philosophy, he was known among the Roman political elite as a "Novus Homo" or the first in his family to rise to the top of the aristocracy. Cicero was also a master rhetorician, with the talent to use dramatic hand movements and postures to accompany his persuasive arguments.
This period is considered a critical time in Roman history. The Roman Republic lasted from approximately 509 BC and ended in 27 BC, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Empire and Caesars adopted son Augustus taking the throne as Emperor. The Colosseum wasn’t built until 72 AD and therefore plays no part in the novel. The city of Rome's geography is such that it has seven hills; the Palatine Hill, Capitoline Hill, Quirinal Hill, Viminal Hill, Esquiline Hill, Caelian Hill and the Aventine Hill. The Palatine Hill was the abode of the Roman elite and Gordianus sometimes finds himself being summoned by a wealthy benefactor to investigate something. Gordianus himself lives in his home on the Esquiline Hill, a fashionable district but not nearly as prestigious as the Palatine.
Roman trials were held outdoors during the daytime in order to diminish any idea of secrecy and corruption, but in spite of that, corruption flourished throughout the city. However any Roman citizen was allowed to attend trials. Those among the upper class often had talented Greek slaves who were skilled in philosophy, writing and language. Cicero, accordingly, had a slave and personal secretary by the name of Tiro who stayed with him the entirety of his life. One interesting fact to note is that Tiro invented what’s called Tironian shorthand, an early form of shorthand, in order to document the cases that Cicero tackled. It’s quite amazing to find out that a Roman slave invented an early form of shorthand and moreover he was Cicero’s slave. Saylor seems to have the ability to dissect the characters of these real-life historical figures and present them in a believable way.
Another historical figure that plays a part in the novel is Lucius Cornelius Sulla. A talented general, Sulla fought in the Social War and subsequent battles thereafter, was proclaimed dictator of Rome and lived during the time the events in the book takes place. His cronies and bad guys try to impede and foil Gordianus's attempt to discover the truth throughout the novel.
In spite of all the problems and corruption that Rome had, the majesty and mystery of the city is hard to ignore and very captivating. Maybe it’s because we all desire to go to a different place and time to experience new things. Saylor provides that opportunity to let our imaginations take flight. For me it’s almost like a spiritual journey going back in time. The writing is such that, in your mind, you can see the early morning mists and dew along the Via Appia while riding on horseback. Is a bandit hiding somewhere in the bush getting ready to come out and rob you? Or is some shady character going to come out and attack while you’re investigating some alley? Ancient Rome literally pops out of the pages in a vivid and colorful way. You almost wish you could literally be there.
Below is a list of the books currently in the Roma Sub Rosa series. It’s best to start with the first book in the series. I started out reading "Roman Blood" and worked my way through the main series until I started to read the prequels.
The Young Gordianus
01 The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
02 Raiders of the Nile: A Novel of the Ancient World
03 Wrath of the Furies: A Novel of the Ancient World
Roma Sub Rosa - The Investigations of Gordianus the Finder
01 Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome
02 The House of the Vestals: The Investigations of Gordianus the Finder
03 A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder
04 Arms of Nemesis: A Novel of Ancient Rome
05 Catilina's Riddle: A Novel of Ancient Rome
06 The Venus Throw: A Mystery of Ancient Rome
07 A Murder on the Appian Way: A Novel of Ancient Rome
08 Rubicon: A Novel of Ancient Rome
09 Last Seen in Massilia: A Novel of Ancient Rome
10 A Mist of Prophecies: A Novel of Ancient Rome
11 The Judgment of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome
12 The Triumph of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome
13 The Throne of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome
After “Roman Blood” comes “The House of the Vestals” and “A Gladiator Dies Only Once.” Both books are the only two compiled of short stories detailing the adventures of Gordianus. Don’t skip them! They provide for excellent reading and they reveal other aspects of the detectives’ life that you don’t want to pass up. The fourth book in the series “Arm of Nemesis” finds Gordianus south of Rome along the coast in Neapolis , (modern day Naples) investigating new mysteries and adventure’s.
Gordianus is the ancient version of Sherlock Holmes. Each subsequent book in the series finds him a little older and a little wiser. The events and people in the stories are all real people and events that actually existed and took place. Only Gordianus and his family are fictional. Saylor finds a way to fit them into these historical events and mysteries in an uncanny way which makes me wonder if he’s some sort of genius in the historical fiction genre. I’m almost done reading the series and could read them over and over again. If you have the same tastes as I do then these books are highly recommended.
The banner image depicts the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. The twin brothers fought in a legendary battle with Romulus being the victor and founding the city of Rome which was named after him. Image courtesy of Pixabay.