A sweeping exposition of Rome — from the dawn of civilization to the fall of the senate — is quite a difficult and complex feat, yet it is one that Steven Saylor pulls off quite well.
In “Roma”, Saylor’s first work of pan-historic fiction on the history of Rome, the evolution of a family and a name is told through a dramatic lens and a gargantuan cast of characters and personalities.
Much like Saylor’s “Roma Sub Rosa” series of detective fictions set in Rome, which focus on Gordianus the Finder and his various adventures in the ancient city, “Roma” presents a revolving door of conflicts and events that mirror popular history. Its embellished with various mature themes that one can expect from a concrete and accurate retelling of Rome. Saylor’s past writings, under the pen name Aaron Travis, are not present in “Roma”, unless one knows where to look. Yet, their presence does not decrease the quality of “Roma” at all.
The tale begins simply enough: the tribes of pre-civilized Rome gather around a communal trading post, worship “place-spirits” and defend themselves with spears. The grand empire that Rome is to become is not evident in the early chapters, which each deal with a specific stage in Rome’s life. Over the course of of a thousand years, “Roma” follows these salt traders as they become centralized and settled people, advancing through the primordial time of Romulus and Remus, and the era of Sulla, before ending with the assassination of Julius Caesar — one of the most powerful scenes in the book.
Saylor’s writing style is smooth, succinct, and to the point. Interweaving historical fact and historical fiction, Saylor presents a simple-yet-complex history of a fictionial family that lives throughout the ages. The dialogue is life-like and never anachronistic, and the people of “Roma” converse such as we would expect Roman people to do.
“Roma” is not just a work of fiction; it also serves as a history lesson. In due time, one comes upon many important events in the shaping of the Roman Empire: the legend of Cacus, the usurping of Tarquin the Proud, the sack of Coriolanus — made famous in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”, and the sack of Rome by the Gallic chieftan Brennus. The book is rich in both history and the fictional aspects of its characters and its storylines, yet Saylor does an admirable job of tying this all together in a satisfying way.
Overall, “Roma” is one of the greatest examples of historical fiction that does not read like historical fiction. Steven Saylor’s characters are believable and can stand up on their own, including even famous and infamous personalities like Hercules and Hannibal Barca. “Roma” is a history lesson in a fictional framework, but it is a history lesson that works. As a story or as a lesson, “Roma” is good reading.