By Steven Saylor
Unabridged recording published by Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc.
Read by Scot Harrison
This is the first book in Steven Saylor’s series, Roma sub Rosa. Like the rest of the series it is ultimately a murder mystery, but one with some big differences. First of all, unlike most books in the murder mystery genre, Roman Blood is set during the latter period of the ancient Roman Republic. And second, while certainly a mystery, it should also be classified as historical fiction. Roman Blood is a well-researched historical novel full of the sorts of details students in a class on Roman history would despair at having to memorize, but which Mister Saylor presents in an interesting and easy to absorb manner.
The story is told to us by a most interesting character, a fellow who calls himself Gordianus the Finder. He is a Plebian Roman who has had the good fortune to inherit a house in what is essentially a middle-class neighborhood of Rome, but one which is not far from some of the lowest dives in ancient Rome.
It is his job to “find.” What he finds most frequently is facts. Before this story opens, he has a history of finding facts for some of the most prominent lawyers and advocates in Rome. It is not a prestigious job. In fact it is quite a disreputable one and Gordianus describes himself as “that explorer of dung heaps and infiltrator of hornet’s nests.”
The story begins with Gordianus being summoned by a young and virtually unknown advocate, one Marcus Tullius Cicero who needs him to investigate the parricide case of Sextus Roscius the Younger. This was the case that first made Cicero a known name in Rome and which launched his career that reached its pinnacle when he was elected Consul.
However, whether the Rome of Roman Blood is truly a republic is debatable as it takes place during the somewhat infamous dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. At this time Sulla is ruling Rome with absolute power and his friends are all reaping the benefits while his enemies are mostly ending up with their heads on spikes in the Forum. One could argue that Sulla’s dictatorship was the beginning of a chain of events that made the Empire inevitable. It might be fairer, however, to say the Civil War that culminated in Sulla’s Dictatorship began that chain. However, but for Sulla’s blatant favoritism and failure to correct certain other problems. he might have changed the course that Roman History was on, but did not.
And it is in this corrupt atmosphere that Gordianus shines as he tracks down the truth behind the murder of Sextus Roscius the Elder, threading his way through the crooked streets of the city, to slums, brothels and palaces and then out to country estates and back again. Are Saylor’s facts the truth behind the murder of the older Sextus Roscius? Maybe not, but it is a plausible explanation and a seriously entertaining story.
Gordianus is a private investigator, however, and regardless of his employer he has no force of law behind him as he investigates, nor does he have a police force he might work with. So he must learn what he needs to know by getting people to talk to him willingly. Frequently, he must be clever about getting them to open up and once in a while he needs to trick them into talking.
As the story goes on, we see life at all levels of the Roman Republican society with insights as to what the government is supposed to be like when there is no dictator. We also learn about Gordianus himself and his Alexandrian female slave, Bethesda, who in later books becomes his wife, as well as other characters, factual and fictional.
If you know nothing about the Roman Republic, you’ll have a fair handle on the culture by the second chapter and a fair snapshot of life during Sulla’s reign by the end of the book. It might even lead you to learn more about the period and that which came after.
Scot Harrison does a creditable job of reading the book. I will admit that after watching I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theatre, I keep expecting Ancient Romans to speak English with a British accent, but that is my own silliness
Mister Harrison’s main weakness as a reader is that his voices in Roman Blood are not very well differentiated. I have no trouble telling Gordianus from Cicero’s slave, Tiro, but Cicero is not easy to distinguish from Gordianus or even Sulla when he finally appears toward the end of the book. Oh there are differences but they are subtle and more delineated by Saylor’s choice of words rather than Harrison’s vocal mannerisms.
The pacing, however, is pleasant and Mister Harrison is easy to listen to even if his voices sometimes sound alike.
All told, the book is remarkably readable (or listenable) for one so filled with facts about a culture that is unlike any in the modern world. I definitely recommend it whether you like mysteries or historical fiction. Read it if you can, but listening to the audiobook is a close second best.