Review by Richard Blake of Steven Saylor’s “Throne of Caesar” (2018)

Steven Saylor
The Throne of Caesar
Constable, London, 2018
ISBN: 9781472123626 

Review by Richard Blake

What can you do, as a novelist, with the most famous murder in history? Read Steven Saylor, and find out.

What can you do, as a novelist, with the most famous murder in history? Every one of your likely readers knows when Caesar was murdered, how he was murdered, and who murdered him. They probably know what happened afterwards to his murderers and his avengers. You cannot play with the facts. They are set in concrete. Worse than that, they have been treated in fiction again and again, and some of the competition is at least formidable. Redo the murder scene in the Theatre of Pompey, or Mark Antony’s Eulogy in the Forum, and you set yourself up for comparison with Shakespeare – or even just with Antony and Cleopatra or the BBC/HBO series Rome.

My answer is that I would avoid the murder. Or, if I had to use it, I would place it far in the background and give my novel an entirely fictitious main theme. That Steven Saylor has taken up the challenge in full may explain why he has fair claim to be our greatest living historical novelist.

Saylor’s approach to the challenge is to apply the formula that has served him well in the previous dozen or so volumes of his series. You take a notable event from Roman history during the century before Christ – that is, from the series of interlocking crises that transformed a republican city state with colonies into a world empire ruled by a military dictator. You take a real event, and supply as counterpoint a fictitious mystery that supplies motives of action for a cast of real and fictitious characters. At the end, the mystery is solved, and an air of probability is given to events that, as recorded by Cicero or some other less than spotlessly honest source, do not in themselves make entire sense.

Now, these are detective thrillers set in Ancient Rome. That is the formula. But, without giving names, I have read some very wooden and “formulaic” detective thrillers set in Ancient Rome. What lifts Saylor into a class of his own is that the Roman world as you see it through the eyes of Gordianus is a real place, filled with breathing characters – most of them, I grant, not the sort of people you would wish to meet in your own daily life.

You see this clearly in the first of the series, Roman Blood (1991). Saylor introduces us to Gordianus, a private detective from the less-exalted classes in Roman society. Sextus Roscius, a youngish aristocrat, has been accused of murdering his father. He has retained Cicero as his lawyer, and Cicero needs someone who can attend to grubbing through the murkier recesses of Roman society in search of whatever evidence can get his client acquitted. This brings him to Gordianus – rather, it brings his secretary Tiro to Gordianus. The novel begins:

The slave who came to fetch me on that unseasonably warm spring morning was a young man, hardly more than twenty.

So, with a deliberate echo of Raymond Chandler, the novel begins. Within the first few dozen pages, you are sucked into the mystery. Who did kill Old Roscius and why? Is it more than friendship that has brought Caecelia into the case? What about her ghastly niece? What has made Cicero take on a case that no other lawyer would touch – a case that puts him at odds with the creatures of one of the bloodiest tyrants in Roman history? If Cicero himself is too slippery to touch, will Gordianus be able to find the truth and get out in one piece?

If, in terms of freshness and neat construction, I remain most impressed by Roman Blood, the next fourteen in the series have more than just their moments. I have read and enjoyed them all. Indeed, there are incidents and blocks of incidents in the others that, even after ten years since reading them, stay clear in my mind. There are the desperate politics of a city under siege in Last Seen in Massilia (2000), plus an unforgettable cameo for Gaius Verres There is the ghastly treatment of mining slaves in Catilina’s Riddle (1993). There is the grim humour that permeates much of  (1996). Or there is the steady growth of the characters from one volume to the next. In Roman Blood, for example, Cicero shows himself as vain, but also brave and in love with some idea of justice. By Catilina’s Riddle, he has become the corrupt front man for an extravagantly unpleasant ancien regime. By The Throne of Caesar (2018), he is an elderly and embittered bag of wind, ready to cheer on another civil war in the hope of restarting his failed career in politics.

And this brings me to The Throne of CaesarThe Throne of Caesar, which is the latest in the series, though I hope not the last. How does Saylor face the challenge he has set himself? My answer is that he does face it, and he makes of it one of his best novels. As said, the facts are set in concrete. Nothing anyone can do will stop the progress to that blood-soaked corpse in the Theatre of Pompey. The novel has an air of unavoidable gloom. At the same time, Saylor brings to the novel his usual cast of fictitious characters. These are as real to those of us who have read his earlier novels as the real characters. What these do, and how they turn out, are matters of pure contingency. They supply the novel’s forward drive. Will Gordianus receive the final step up in life he has been promised? Will his adopted son Meto go down with Caesar? Or will he survive to face the supreme choice all the followers of Caesar must make when the avenging coalition breaks up? Will Helvius Cinna – one of the semi-fictitious characters – live on, at least in name and for a while, as one of the giants of Roman literature?

I could answer these questions and others like them. But no one likes spoilers. I turn instead to one of the structural aspects of the novel that I think justifies Saylor’s claim to greatness. Imagine – you are an American liberal. You broadly like your country’s institutions as they have evolved since about 1990. You approve of the Clinton and Obama Presidencies. You may be ambivalent about the uses of American power in the world, but are probably glad that no other country comes close to its leading role. You are disturbed by the country’s recent polarisation. You then write a novel, during 2016 and 2017, about the murder of Julius Caesar. Would you avoid making at least an oblique comment on certain political events in that time? Could you avoid doing so? I looked hard for any little hint. If there is one, I missed it.

Granted, Caesar is not given a clean pass. Gordianus says of him before the murder:

What an appetite our dictator has for bloodshed and suffering…. What a connoisseur he is, of all manner of mayhem and death. And now he is about to head for Parthia, to unleash untold havoc in a whole other part of the world, carnage and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

In the next chapter but last, one of the female characters says of him:

Caesar… had fantasies of rape and power – the rape of whole cities, and nations; the power to rule over every other man on earth, to the end of his days, and to do so seated on a golden throne! Well, he got his wish, didn’t he? Would that such a fantasy had stayed in his imagination! Instead, he made it real, at the cost of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths – not just those in combat, but all the multitudes of women and children who died from starvation and pestilence and the cruelties of enslavement. Caesar was the progenitor of countless crimes.

But all this is only fair comment. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was bloodier in percentage terms than Hitler’s attempted conquest of Russia. It is only because the Gauls still had some fight in them that my own country was spared for another century from the delights of Roman pacification. Yet this is the limit of Saylor’s critique. His Caesar is not some ranting buffoon, spraying out promises that contradict each other and are equally meaningless, so far as he neither can nor will keep any of them. He is instead a man of taste and moderation in his personal life. He has forgiven his domestic enemies. He goes about Rome unarmed. He is trying to create a new constitution that has room for every class of men in Rome, and that will eventually have a place for the subject peoples of Rome’s empire. His main fault is of imagination. He has stabilised the world only by getting himself made its Dictator for Life. He has no conception of the settlement imposed by his heir Octavian, who made himself just as supreme – but managed to do so behind the forms of a restored Constitution.

And Saylor has always been dubious about Caesar. Meto adores him, and can see no wrong. Gordianus often sees through him – in The Judgment of Caesar (2004), for example, when Caesar forces an Egyptian eunuch to drink poison, and begins generally to behave like an oriental despot. The character is well-drawn. You see both light and darkness, and there is no attempt to force the story into some passing allegory.

More to the point, Saylor has no time for the conspirators. Brutus is a beastly snob. He only commits to the murder when he realises what common little men are being let into the Senate to sit beside him and his grand friends. Meto says of them after the murder:

They’ve saved the Republic, don’t you know? Killed a tyrant even more wicked than the old kings of Rome, a monster who ruled by fear and violence. Now everything can go back to the way it was before, back when – yes, when, I wonder? When was that Golden Age they hearken back to? Certainly no time since I was born, or in your lifetime either, Papa. It’s always been violence and disorder and the likes of Brutus and Cassius fighting among themselves and ruling over us. That’s what Caesar put an end to. Or tried to….

…Cassius made a great point of promising to restore free and open elections – no more of having one man decide who gets which magistracy and for how long. It was quite clear what he meant – free meals and gladiator shows put on for the voters by candidates from a handful of the ‘best’ families, who can get back to splitting the real wealth and power among themselves.

Then there is Saylor’s implied analysis of power. Caesar dominates the first three quarters of the novel. His enemies dream of pulling him down. His friends cannot imagine life without him. He is preparing an Eastern conquest that will outdo Alexander, and that will unify the known world into a single trading area. Now he is dead. Meto aside, the response by everyone important shows not an atom of the sentimental. Everyone is looking out for his own interest. By acclaim, the Senate ratifies all his acts, and declares him a God, and declares a general amnesty. Antony and his ambitious wife are up to something. Lepidus has his legion illegally in the City to keep order. Cicero is rubbing his hands at the thought of his comeback. Octavian is hurrying to Rome to claim his legacy. But the novel ends in a dull gleam of pretended amity and good faith. It will take several downward steps before the civil wars are restarted.

So to my conclusion. What can you do, as a novelist, with the most famous murder in history? Read Steven Saylor, and find out.

© 2018, richardblake.

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