Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Blood by Steven Saylor





My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.30 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.91 / 5.00





Rome is sweltering under an uncomfortably hot spring sun and trying to recover from the chaos of the proscriptions of the Dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The bloodshed seems to be over for now and the great Dictator’s reforms of the law courts seem to be working, but there is always work for Gordianus the Finder, which is good because his house on the Esquiline is expensive to maintain.

One morning he is summoned to the house of an unknown young advocate, called Marcus Tullius Cicero, to help uncover the truth behind the horrific charges brought against Sextus Roscius the Younger. This farmer from the Umbrian countryside has been accused of patricide, the most terrible crime imaginable: one so hated by the gods that the punishment required by Roman law involves being whipped bloody and then sown into a sack with an assortment of animals before being thrown into the River Tiber. Gordianus’ investigations lead him into mortal danger as he exposes the murderous plotting and family bitterness that has led to the death of a seemingly blameless old man. Unfortunately, Sulla’s favorite ex-lover is implicated in the plot and so the case becomes politically explosive, which is possibly why no other advocates would agree to be involved.


This title was my first excursion into the wonderful world of mysteries set in Ancient Rome. I had always been a little wary of the genre because of my familiarity with the subject matter and my difficulty overlooking inadequate research. I cannot quite remember what made me try this particular title, but I was immediately impressed by the little details that brought the Eternal city to life. Early in the book, Gordianus explains that one of his neighbors empties her family’s chamber pots into the alley leading up to his house every single morning, whilst the neighbor on the other side always collects the ‘offerings’ to put on his garden. This may not seem like a very attractive view to paint of the glories of Rome, but it reassured me that we would be travelling through the real city and not a glorified version of it. If you have ever seen the HBO series, Rome, you will have a better idea of the reality of living in the great city: it would have been crowded, dirty, noisy and very, very smelly!

As with many other books in this genre, Mr Saylor chooses to mix his fictional characters with some of the most renowned Romans of the era. In this case, we are introduced to the great orator, Cicero, in his preparation for the first major case of his career. At this stage, Cicero is seen as a jumped-up nobody from nowhere, who can hardly begin to compete with the well-established veterans of the Roman law courts. However, this does place him a singularly useful position when it comes to the way he handles the case: he has nothing to lose in revealing the politically dangerous truth. In this, we get to see a glimpse of why Cicero became such an influential figure in Rome and then again during the Renaissance, when the rediscovery of his works influenced many of the great thinkers of the time.

Mr Saylor portrays Cicero as a rather joyless intellectual with debilitating digestive problems and an almost permanent air of disappoint. However, he does allow the great orator to shine when he steps onto the rostra to deliver his speech in defense of his client: he transforms from a rather uninspiring, strangle-voiced wimp into a charismatic and compelling advocate of great skill and daring. I enjoyed this choice because it gave us a Cicero who was imperfect rather than over-idealized and too perfect. I am also familiar with the power of charisma that transforms some people when they step onto a stage: I have seen actors who would be dismissed as tramps on the street hold an audience captive with the smallest of gestures once they are in the spotlight. Making Cicero human actually works to make his remarkable oratorical skills seem all the more extraordinary.

The other historical figure to be included as a major character is Tiro, Cicero’s famous slave / secretary who is credited with inventing a form of shorthand to record his master’s speeches. Although there is no historical evidence to give us Tiro’s date of birth, it is assumed that he is slightly younger than his master. The author gives us a sheltered, idealized young man who worships and adores his master but is always constrained by his status as a slave. He also gets to suffer the torments of young love, but in a way that seems convincing and is eventually revealed to be crucial to both the case and the story.

Our hero, Gordianus, is not revealed in great depth in this opening title of the series. We first encounter him with a crippling hangover, which he dispels with some exercises in mental deduction, in a manner rather reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. He is of indeterminate age, although he seems to have had the chance to travel to some of the other great cities in the Empire and develop a list of clients that keeps him alive, more or less. Unlike Lindsey Davis’ Falco, he does not have a massive family to weigh him down and provide comic relief, nor does he suffer from eternal bad luck. He does, however, have a beautiful woman in his life: the enigmatic and passionate Bethesda, his Egyptian slave. Their relationship is tender and obviously has a lengthy history so that most of their communication is non-verbal. I found this depiction of a long-standing relationship to be very interesting and remarkably realistic. It is obvious that Gordianus and Bethesda love each other, but there is always the barrier of their different social positions between them.

Of the other characters that populate the story, the great stand out to me was Eco, the mute boy. I have no idea why Mr Saylor decided to take this character in this direction, but he is certainly compelling. As the witness to a horrible murder he is both eloquent and horrified as he tries to communicate what he saw. He is old beyond his eight years, with few prospects ahead of him, although he makes a surprising reappearance at the very end of the book when he takes the first step onto a better path. He triggers an instinctive response in both Gordianus and the reader, who are touched by the pathos of both his courage and the rage he displays at his own inability to communicate and protect his mother. Having read further into the series, I know that Eco grows into an impressive young man, but it was interesting to see how striking he is as a mere slip of a child.

The plotting seems somewhat simplistic at first, as the details behind the case seem remarkably obvious from the beginning. However, as Gordianus peels back layer after layer of lie and misdirection, we see that our initial idea was far too simplistic and that a complex set of influences led to the present situation. The case itself does not prove to be the end of the mystery, and the final reveals come right at the end of the book. These turn the case almost on its head, and yet I had no sense of being cheated or manipulated by the outcome. Instead, my sense of justice was appeased and I felt that we had reached a satisfying resolution.

The Rome that we visit in this title is perhaps a little more dark and depressing than in some of the other series that I have read. We are given a window into the miserable lives of prostitutes and how slaves are treated like animals. Indeed, the number and variety of slaves that Gordianus questions exposes the seedy underbelly behind all the pomp and luxury that was Roman high society. Their treatment is a very stark contrast to his own relationship with Bethesda, which is respectful and caring.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the late Roman Republic, and especially anyone who is interested in Cicero. However, I do not think that an interest in Roman history is necessary to enjoy the underlying mystery.



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