By Steven Saylor
Published by Books on Tape
Read by John Lee
I first became aware of Mister Saylor when I read A Murder on the Appian Way, one of his murder mysteries set in late Republican Rome. Not sure if I have reviewed that one yet… I may not have listened to it as an audiobook… Believe it or not, I do read too. I did review the first book of that series Roman Blood, but as I say, that was my introduction to this author. I enjoyed that series so I figured I would enjoy this one too. And, amazingly I did. Steven Saylor brings ancient Roman legendry, mythology and history to life and it was a very interesting story, although not without flaws.
The mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder are novels that tell a single story. There are one or two anthologies that feature the shorter works concerning Gordianus, but for the most part these are single-story volumes, just the way I like books. Tell me a story and, so long as you can keep it interesting, take your time doing it. This one is not like that. Instead Steven Saylor chose to tell the story of Rome from before its foundation up to the end of the Republic. This made it very episodic, and rather long as well. To tie it all together he follows a single bloodline starting with an ancient Stone(? Maybe Bronze, I admit I forget now) Age family and also the passing on as a golden amulet shaped like a winged phallus, that the wearers believe is the shape of the god Faschinus. That might sound odd to modern sensibilities, but actually it is not unreasonable.
In the later historical section, I think the author is quite comfortable in telling his story, such as the episode when Rome is sacked by invading Gauls (circa 390 BCE). Admittedly, some historians doubt it ever actually happened, but the ancient Romans counted it as a dark moment in their history and Saylor covers it as fact.
Unfortunately, he does not seem as comfortable in the even more legendary and mythological sections of Roman history. He tries to make Hercules and actual living person who, wearing a lion skin, just happens to come wandering through the area, killing the monster Cacus and then wandering off again, leaving a cult to worship him in his wake. Then, in the period of Romulus and Remus, he attempts to explain various events (such as being raised by a she-wolf) in far more mundane terms (such as she-wolf being an idiomatic way of referring to a prostitute). It was imaginative, but somehow it did not work as well.
However, once he gets beyond the age of mythology, the stories settle down and seem to be more in his usual style. All told, it is a good read, but I would recommend being prepared to toss away some preconceived notions about early Roma. However, the legendary/historical background is not entirely fiction on Mister Saylor’s part. Most of the basic facts are well-established. The differences are in some interpretations. They are not entirely wrong, but not all scholars will agree.
The deep, rich voice of John Lee was a pleasure to listen to. He never resorted to funny voices to differentiate the characters. Instead he deftly hardened and softened his in a far subtler manner and yet it was not hard to know who was talking at any moment.
So we have a well-written story of Roman history, written in a manner quite pleasing to modern audiences and it is read in this edition in an equally agreeable manner. If the story is episodic, then keep in mind that so too is history and this is fiction based on a long range of history. Read or listen to it for yourself and see if you agree.