From Romans on the tube to Spartans at the cinema, ancient peoples are hot, and Steven Saylor knows why. "They're the jet-setters," he says, the Brads and Angelinas of their day.
What's more, they're sociopathic jet-setters who meet horrifically gory ends, adding a prurient element for history buffs and fans of human misery. When Cicero was killed, his head and hands were chopped off and displayed in the Forum: good stuff for supermarket tabloids. As a result, Saylor says, "There's a reptilian fascination about them."
No one's more fascinated than Saylor, whose own writing life is steeped in the blood of antiquity. The Goldthwaite native, University of Texas graduate and part-time Austin resident is the author of 13 previous books, 11 of them in his popular Roma Sub Rosa series of detective novels — set in the final decades before the Christian era and narrated by a shrewd Roman gumshoe named Gordianus the Finder.
In a phone interview from his home in the San Francisco Bay area, Saylor spoke of his latest book, the just-released Roma (St. Martin's Press, $25.95). It goes back almost a whole millennium further than the Gordianus novels, offering an epic portrait of a hilly stop on the salt-trade route that became a city, then a republic, then an empire.
Over 555 pages and 999 years, it tracks members of two families as they wend through a landscape crowded with war, political intrigue, sex, murder and religious practice. There are vestal virgins, slaves, plebeians, patricians, senators and soldiers. Famous figures make appearances (Cleopatra, the dictator Sulla), and famous episodes in Roman history: the rape of Lucretia, the defection of Coriolanus, the Gauls' siege of Rome.
The origin of Rome is knotty, the origin of Roma less so. Saylor's London publisher just sat him down and suggested he write "a big book" for a broader audience. "To me, a big book means [a novel by] Edward Rutherford or James Michener," he says. "The city or the country is the character and the title." Immediately, he knew he would name it Roma and cast it as a multigenerational saga.
The effort involved about two years of study and legwork. "Boy, I learned a lot, lemme tell ya. A lot of it was new research for me," says Saylor, who studied history and classics at UT. Establishing the whens and hows of Rome's construction, he then personalized the story by zeroing in on two founding families, the Potitii and Pinarii.
"Those are two actual families mentioned in Livy," he says. "They're the first people we hear about that we have names for other than mythological figures." Saylor's book follows their descendants — whose fortunes diverge dramatically — along with a gold "fascinum," an amulet in the shape of a winged phallus. Through 11 sections, the author builds character and emotion on a foundation of history. At each stage fiction is used not to alter fact but to illuminate it, humanize it and bring it to life.
"I like writing in the novelette form, and it's something you're rarely allowed to do these days," he says. And he enjoys the time spent in another era. "I do take some comfort from living in the past, because I am sensitive to the world we live in, and I'm often brought down by it. It is a form of escapism to go back into the past, although it's not really a better place. Maybe it's worse."
Saylor sees parallels between the ancient Romans and the behavior of modern rulers, particularly in the manipulation of religion to justify power and control the populace ("Jupiter told me to"). He is not entirely convinced that humanity has made much progress, though he concedes that he's better off in this age than he might have been under the Nazis; he and his life partner, Rick Solomon, have been together 30 years now. The vengeful Sulla, whose opponents were decapitated and their property seized by the state, became an early standard-bearer for tyranny, but he was hardly the last.
Saylor's book includes Sulla's self-penned epitaph: "No friend ever did him a kindness, and no enemy ever did him a wrong, without being fully repaid." Asked to write his own inscription for a monument on the Field of Mars, Saylor doesn't hesitate a beat: " 'He wrote about his own times by writing about ancient times."
"Because that's really what I'm doing," he says. "I am processing my own psyche and the times I live in, but it's being done with mirrors. And why that is my device and my tool I do not know. But it's a gift I've been given."
Other writers, he says, might channel this reflective urge through another genre — science fiction or fantasy, perhaps. Readers often assume that Saylor bears the mantle of Robert Graves (I, Claudius) or other Roman chroniclers, but the author says his greatest inspiration has always been J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet he's too much a fan of The Lord of the Rings to venture close to Middle Earth.
"I could never write fantasy, because the perfect thing — it's been done already, and anything else is going to be pastiche," he says. "I couldn't really do what Tolkien did: It's too intimidating, it's too magnificent. And yet I've ended up emulating him, because that Rome is my Middle Earth."
If the Gordianus books are his Lord of the Rings, Roma is his Silmarillion: "This is the back story." Not to besmirch the name of Tolkien, but isn't Roma a better read? "Well, I hope so, for better or for worse," he says with a laugh. "I'm not dead, for one reason. I actually got to finish this book. No one finished it for me."
And having finished it, he's on to the next one — a new entry in the Roma Sub Rosa series tentatively titled The Triumph of Caesar, in which Gordianus tries to ferret out a conspiracy to kill a certain balding, charismatic dictator.
Julius Caesar appears in Roma just long enough to plot world domination before expiring, on the Ides of March, at the foot of Pompey's statue. Of all the figures in history, he intrigues Saylor the most because he can be heroized as a visionary or demonized as a genocidal despot. The same leader who expanded the vote and put Gauls in the senate also laid waste to entire populations. "Bad man. Not a good man," Saylor says. "On the other hand, he really did have a vision of changing society ... so he's a figure who is still very much fascinating to me."
Someday, he says, he'd like to fictionalize another empire: Mirabeau B. Lamar's dream to expand the Republic of Texas. It would be his third book set in Texas, after Have You Seen Dawn? and A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry. Neither "was so successful that [it] knocked me out of my niche," but he's content in his niche, in any case. He's happy to have one.
"I found something that I love to write about, and there are readers for it," he says. "I'm really lucky that way." Or as the Romans would call him, Felix.