Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome
By Steven Saylor
Published by Macmillan Audio
Read by James Langton
Empire is the continuation of the story that started in Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, following members of the Pinarius family. The Pinarii were the owners of a strange and ancient talisman, a fascinus, that was originally shaped like a winged phallus, but through centuries of wear came to look vaguely like a cross.
In the Roman religion, a fascinus was the embodiment of one of their oldest gods who represented the regenerative power. The fascinus was a very common symbol and it was frequently used to avert envy (invidia) and the evil eye. The vestal Virgins would place a fasacinum underneath the chariot of a triumphant general I order to protect him from the envious.
The fascinus of the PInarii, however, is supposedly the original fascinus, the first one ever made, handed down to one member of each generation, and so the fascinus is used here to hold the collection of stories together into an entire novel spanning the time of the Roman Empire from the reign of Augustus to that of Hadrian.
The first section seems like a rewrite of Robert Graves’ I. Claudius and Claudius the God, or perhaps to be more accurate is seems like a collection of chapters that somehow got cut out of those two books, but I think that since we are dealing with a patrician family, related to the Imperial family, that might have been hard to avoid. Anyone who has read I, Claudius or seen the mini-series, for that matter, or studied Roman history will know where a lot of the story is going. It becomes interesting when we deal with the Pinarii themselves, however.
The Pinarii were the second of two families throughout most of Saylor’s previous book, but with the decline and extinction of the Potitii line, the Piinarii continue on as a prominent patrician family. Both the Potitii and Pinarii were actual Roman families and many of the persons depicted in Saylor’s work actually existed, including the Lucius Pinarius who was a grand-nephew and heir of Julius Caesar. However, like many families of the period the Pinarii go through a number of ups and downs through the period of the early Caesars and yet somehow they manage to survive.
The book, like Roma, is not really a novel, but more a series of vignettes and short stories involving several generations of Pinarii over the course of roughly one hundred thirty-eight years. It is every bit as episodic as Roma and just as in the first book, I found myself wanting to know more about some of the character and not being as interested in others. However, for those whose notions of Roman history end with the late Republic or, at most, the death of Claudius, this is an interesting peek at the Empire at its height. I prefer Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series, with the possible except of The Seven Wonders, but this is more due to my preference for a single long story over a collection of shorter ones. I realize that many other author4s have used this technique to tell a story that spans centuries, but I have to admit that I have not generally enjoyed most of them either. Give me a single, well-constructed story to get into and not an anthology collected on a single theme.
Still, if you have enjoyed Saylor’s other stories, you will likely enjoy this book too. I did.
James Langton delivered a polished and professional performance of this book. He is easy to listen to and delineates each character well. My only complaint is in the Americanized pronunciations of various Roman names and Latin words. Maybe I learned them wrong, or maybe not, but the differences in what I expected and what I heard were a bit jarring. However, Mister Langton’ reading kept me listening and I was able to dismiss the discrepancies between his pronunciations and my expectations easily enough.
So, the book is a collection of stories concerning members of a single family during the early Roman Empire. Except for the fascinus, the stories are not well connected, but together they paint of picture of the still rising Roman Empire in an entertaining form. Mister Langton’s reading will keep you listening even through those few part that drag a bit. Worth listening to!