I came across Steven Saylor’s work when my Kindle suggested Roman Blood (I just finished Lindsey Davis’ Falco at the time). I delved right in, and loved it!
I’ve just finished the latest installment (Throne of Caesar). I’ve mentioned this series a lot in the past but never reviewed it, so I’m now rectifying this omission.
What to expect
The series starts with Roman Blood, where Gordianus is hired by a young Cicero in his first major case. Throughout the series, Gordianus is constantly on the side-lines of the tumultuous first century BCE, observing the main events.
With a unique viewpoint and highly researched material, Saylor deftly presents a version of events that could have been. All the “known facts” (which is a troublesome area, as any historian will admit) are reflected in the novels, while Saylor fills in the many blanks with what feels like real human drama.
In between The Triumph of Caesar (2008) and Caesar’s Throne (2017), Saylor has written three “Young Gordianus” novels, about his protagonist’s time in Alexandria in his youth. Saylor keeps to the same formula of well-researched events and placing Gordianus in a prime position to explore events, with a sideline mystery for him to focus on, while still conveying the feeling that this is a younger man. We see a lot more travel outside of Rome in this part of the series.
Two of the novels, The House of Vestals and A Gladiator Dies Only Once, are collections of short stories not so much about specific events as about aspects of life in ancient Rome. The rest are full-length novels occurring around the late 90’s & early 80’s of the first century BC in the case of Gordianus the younger, and starting from 80 BC till 44 BC for the main series.
What I liked
Did I mention the research enough? Reading Gordianus keeps sending me to read more reference material, and explore aspects of history I knew little about. Saylor is probably why I will never write fiction set in actual ancient Rome — his knowledge and ability to bring in original sources and interpretations is amazing. The backdrop of his novels is scholarly, without diminishing one bit from the engaging storytelling aspect.
Gordianus himself is also a very likeable character, conveying the feel of an honest man trying to uncover uncomfortable truths. The rest of the supporting cast are also well drawn, with their own lives and motivations.
My favourite novel of the series is probably Catilina’s Riddle, with Murder on the Appian Way a close second. That is both for the stories themselves, but also because Catilina and Clodius are two of my favourites personalities of the period. (My homage story, New Directions, is set right after Catilina’s riddle – it fitted perfectly with Felix too.) All the books are consistently excellent though.
What to be aware of
These aren’t thrillers or history books. Like many detective stories the pace isn’t breakneck, and Gordianus certainly stops to smell the garum. It makes for an enjoyable intellectual read.
If you love ancient Rome, if you loved works by Lindsey Davis, Colleen McCullough, et al., you have to add Saylor’s works to your TBR! Start with Roman Blood.
I’ll also mention Saylor’s other series: Roma, Empire, and a possible upcoming sequel. These recount episodes from Rome’s history in an “it could have been that way” variation, showing myth growing over time. It’s another excellent series for those who like to take fiction and follow it down the rabbit hole of further reading. A fuller review on it will be coming.