Sunday, January 13, 2013

Roma by Steven Saylor

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 13, 2013

Spanning a thousand years, and following the shifting fortunes of two families though the ages, this is the epic saga of Rome, the city and its people. Weaving history, legend, and new archaeological discoveries into a spellbinding narrative, critically acclaimed novelist Steven Saylor gives new life to the drama of the city’s first thousand years — from the founding of the city by the ill-fated twins Romulus and Remus, through Rome’s astonishing ascent to become the capitol of the most powerful empire in history. Roma recounts the tragedy of the hero-traitor Coriolanus, the capture of the city by the Gauls, the invasion of Hannibal, the bitter political struggles of the patricians and plebeians, and the ultimate death of Rome’s republic with the triumph, and assassination, of Julius Caesar. Witnessing this history, and sometimes playing key roles, are the descendants of two of Rome’s first families, the Potitius and Pinarius clans: One is the confidant of Romulus. One is born a slave and tempts a Vestal virgin to break her vows. One becomes a mass murderer. And one becomes the heir of Julius Caesar. Linking the generations is a mysterious talisman as ancient as the city itself. Epic in every sense of the word, Roma is a panoramic historical saga and Saylor’s finest achievement to date.

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A Vestal Virgin,, detail of an engraving
by Sir Frederic Leighton 
I had no expectations whatsoever going into Steven Saylor's Roma. I only stumbled on it by accident, deciding to read it on a whim more than anything else. I had no comprehension of what I was getting myself into, nor any real grasp of the extensive scope of material covered within these pages. This being the case you might understand what a pleasant surprise my ultimate enjoyment of the piece was.  

Most family sagas tell the story a family against the backdrop of history, but Saylor took Roma in the opposite direction, telling the story of Rome through several generations of two ancient households. Under Saylor's pen, Rome becomes a character in and of herself, more so than any of the individuals through which her story is told. It is an approach I'd never before encountered and one I found I greatly enjoyed.

I have never studied the history of Rome so many of the historic event and mythic legends Saylor incorporates into his work were entirely new to me. Not being well-versed in the the majority of the material, I found in every chapter something new and fascinating from the rape of Lucretia to the building of the Appian Way, from the founding of the Ara Maxima to the sacking of Rome by the Gallic Chieftain Brennus. Thoroughly captivating. There is just no other way to describe it.

Despite my appreciation for Roma, I wouldn't recommend it to the casual reader. This isn't character driven historic fiction. If that is your interest, look to Kate Quinn's Empress of the Seven Hills. No, the beauty of Saylor's work in his recreation of the social and political intricacies of the ancient city as well as the life he breathes into the events that shaped it. One need not be an authority to enjoy this book, but all the same, I think it best suited to those with a deep interest in the city's history and ancient culture. 

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In politics, reality and appearance are of equal importance. You cannot attend to one and neglect the other. A man must determine both what he is, and what others believe him to be.
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