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Roman Mystery Author Steven Saylor on Wrath, Fury, and the Lure of Ancient History

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Dec 10, 2015

Steven Saylor's mysteries are also works of historical drama. Featuring a fictional character named Gordianus -- a private detective before that was a "thing" -- Saylor's novels are set in Ancient Rome and, in the most recent installments, other locales throughout the ancient world.

The newer volumes also focus on Gordianus as a young man, making them prequels, of a sort, to the first novel in the series, "Roman Blood," published in 1991. That was the book that vaulted Saylor to fame and kickstarted what Saylor has come to call the "Roma Sub Rosa" series -- the "Secret History of Rome."

But it's the genuine history of Rome that makes Saylor's work stand out in a literary field that includes other novels and even series set in Ancient Rome. We may thrill to re-runs of "Spartacus," Starz' bloody sand and swordplay epic that's visually patterned on semi-surreal big-screen adventures like "300," but it's the authenticity conjured by Saylor's scholarship -- and the details he imbues in each of his stories -- that makes the ancient world come alive on the page.

Saylor's meticulous scholarship has served him well not just in the "Roma Sub Rosa" mystery novels but also in a pair of sprawling novels, "Roma" and "Empire," which document centuries of Roman rise and domination. (A third novel is on the way.)

But it's "Roma Sub Rosa" for which Saylor is best known. The title of the new adventure, "The Wrath of the Furies," refers to a trio of much-feared supernatural beings called the Eumenides. Also known as the Furies, these were believed to be entities that visited retribution upon mortals who committed the most atrocious of sins.

In the novel, Gordianus learns that an old friend is in danger in part of the world that until recently had been under Roman rule; now, thanks to the brilliant and ferocious military skill of King Mithridates, those lands are shrugging off the Roman yoke. To cement his gains, King Mithridates has conceived of a plan so murderously audacious that his religious advisers tremble at the thought that it might actually provoke -- that's right -- the wrath of the furies.

When Gordianus travels deep into territory occupied by the forces of King Mithridates -- and succeeds in infiltrating the King's own court -- he finds himself conscripted into an unexpected secondary mission: To spy on Mithridates and report back to a "handler" who has surreptitiously accompanied him. Also along for the ride is Bethesda, the gorgeous and whip-smart Egyptian slave who serves Gordianus (and is also the love of his life).

A little research reveals that the historical context is genuine, as was Mithridates' stunningly violent plan. That's par for the course: Saylor has consistently folded his characters and stories into events that actually happened. EDGE had a chat with Saylor recently about those long-ago intrigues, the persistence of savagery in human dealings, and the question of why, and how, history repeats itself from era to era and age to age.


EDGE: This is the fifteenth book you've written in the Gordianus series. Do you regard all 15 books as belonging to the "Roma Sub Rosa" series, even though the prequel novels published over the last few years take place outside of Rome?

Steven Saylor: The books are all of a piece -- all stories of murder, crime or suspense, all set in the ancient world, all narrated by the same eye-witness to history, Gordianus. "Roman Blood" (1991), the first, began the series with Gordianus at about age thirty. But the three latest novels ("The Seven Wonders," "Raiders of the Nile," and "Wrath of the Furies") are prequels. They begin in Rome as young Gordianus sets out on a journey to see the Seven Wonders, and give us his wide-eyed view of the big world beyond his hometown, ranging as far as Babylon and Egypt.

EDGE: Each book brings Gordianus into contact with places, people, and events from real history. Is it getting harder to work out how (and when) to get the fictional Gordianus, and his plausible but equally fictional adventures, involved with genuine people and events from way back then?

Steven Saylor: Gordianus just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time -- or perhaps wrong place, wrong time in "Wrath of the Furies." He would credit the gods with giving him an interesting life. Being young and intrepid brought him into contact with Egyptian royalty and other Pooh-Bahs of the East; being older and smarter made him useful to powerful men back in Rome, like Julius Caesar.

EDGE: There are things about the books that a modern reader might suspect are there to appeal to a contemporary sensibility but wouldn't fit in the ancient world, such as Gordianus being in love with his slave Bethesda. (Even Gordianus remarks on how this would be seen as unseemly.) But human nature being what it is, is there any reason to suppose kindly masters did not ever fall in love with beautiful slaves, of either gender?

Steven Saylor: Of course, many "socially unacceptable" liaisons inevitably happen in the real world of flesh and blood. As a gay man, I've always had a dual vision of how things really are as opposed to how things are "supposed" to be. And how could any (mostly) straight man like Gordianus not fall in love with a woman like Bethesda?


EDGE: Speaking of affairs of the heart, "Wrath of the Furies" includes a surprising, and quite delightful, same-sex relationship. The series is dotted with same-sex encounters, and even the relationship between the eunuchs who host Gordianus in Alexandria feels like a marriage. As a gay novelist living in the modern world, do you feel a need or desire -- dramatically or politically -- to work same-sex romantic elements into your works set in the ancient world? Or is it a natural, perhaps inevitable, development in your stories, given that people in antiquity had different views about sex than we generally do?

Steven Saylor: We see so many examples of same-sex love in ancient myth and history that we know the ancients had a much more realistic and relaxed attitude than most moderns. That's chiefly for men, although we do get a few glimmers of lesbian love from Sappho and some of the ancient novels. The thing the ancients accepted without batting an eye, even celebrated, that is totally taboo today, is sex with an adolescent partner. Zeus did it with Ganymede, Hercules did it with Hylas -- but today that's the love that truly dare not speak its name.

EDGE: The previous book, "Raiders of the Nile," was more of an action-adventure with some elements of ancient storytelling, such as mistaken identities, that today we tend to treat as farcical, even if those same elements have a venerable dramatic history. By contrast, "Wrath of the Furies" feels like an international thriller, with espionage, world-shaking events, and plenty of plots, plans, and conspiracies. Did you decide in advance to write a book with this sort of tone, or did the shape of historical happenings dictate it?

Steven Saylor: I went with the elements of the story: World war (between Rome and King Mithridates of Pontus), a need for absolute secrecy (Gordianus must even pretend to be mute), the intrigue of an opulent and utterly ruthless imperial court, and an earthshaking event hanging over the action -- history's first "ethnic cleansing" on a vast scale. The book is meant to move very quickly, with mounting suspense,

EDGE: "Wrath of the Furies" does a marvelous job of building on the events of previous books and stories -- and even winks at something you once regarded as an error in a book set decades later. How hard is it to keep all these characters, relationships, personal histories, and chains of cause and effect straightened out as you're writing? Is all this harder and harder to deal with as you write more books and the world of Gordianus gets more filled in with events and character development?


Steven Saylor: Writing these books engages all my powers of concentration. There's the historical research, and the ongoing family story, and the construction of a hopefully airtight plot. The "Roma Sub Rosa" series now amounts to thousands of pages, and along the way there have been a few little glitches and continuity errors -- but thanks to readers all over the world, I hear about any such error instantly by email, whereupon I submit a correction to the publisher, and it's fixed in the next edition, or, in the case of e-books, instantly. The quest for perfection in such a large enterprise is an ongoing process.

EDGE: "Wrath of the Furies" takes place in 88 BCE, as Egypt is in a period of political turmoil and Rome is getting something of a shellacking from King Mithridates. Tracing events from history over the next few years, is it obvious where young Gordianus might find himself next. And what he might be doing?

Steven Saylor: I have a feeling that young Gordianus took a side-trip to Jerusalem at some point. Judea is actually being ruled by the only woman who was ever sole ruler there, a fascinating queen named Salome Alexandra. A visit to Jerusalem could involve Gordianus is some pretty intense intrigue, but that book is only a glimmer of an idea at this point.

EDGE: Your novels are justly acclaimed for your attention to historical detail and accuracy, but even so I was increasingly distressed and not wanting to believe it when the book made plain what King Mithridates intended to do. By the time I put the book down, all I could think was: Why do we repeatedly fall into the rut of not wanting to believe the depraved horrors human beings all too easily visit upon one another? Even today, people don't want to believe what the Nazis did; more recently, we've been shocked at the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis, various examples of 'ethnic cleansing,' and -- more recently -- the coordinated, vicious attacks that took place in Paris, not to mention the shooting rampages that have taken place around our own nation. History is replete with the sort of violence we continue to hesitate to ascribe to garden variety homo sapiens, despite overwhelming evidence... why is this? Has your study of antiquity and history given you any insights?

Steven Saylor: My personal world-view is rather grim, and my estimation of humanity has not been raised by my historical research. But each of us searches for a way to navigate through all the negativity, and so it is with Gordianus. The books are simultaneously filled with all sorts of atrocities and depravities -- things that really happened -- and yet they're also escapist, in the sense that the reader is taken on a journey to a place far away in time and space, and emerges unscathed at the end, perhaps even a bit more hopeful for having spent some time in the reassuring presence of Gordianus.


EDGE: It's been a while, but I understand that you are about to return to the older version of Gordianus in a novel that follows up on the events of the 2008 novel "The Triumph of Caesar." This is a thrilling prospect, of course, since "The Triumph of Caesar" unfolded just prior to the famous assassination, and ended before Caesar's murder took place. Is there anything you'd care to let slip here about the upcoming book?

Steven Saylor: The three prequels were to some degree stalling tactics, to avoid the next big novel I needed to write -- a thriller with the older Gordianus, set against the assassination of Julius Caesar. But how could I write that novel as a mystery, since Shakespeare already gave away the plot?

But just recently I was at an academic conference where a helpful professor gave me a suggestion that suddenly showed me the opening I needed to create a novel around these events. But of course I can't reveal what that was. No spoilers! But I'm pretty excited about getting down to writing that book.

EDGE: Do you suppose the forthcoming "older Gordianus" book will serve as a stepping-stone to still more books set later in the character's life? Or would you prefer to stick more to the now well- established "younger Gordianus" novels?

Steven Saylor: After the Ides of March, 44 BC, the second huge civil war is on the way, this one between Augustus and Marc Antony, with Cleopatra taking center stage. Lots of great material to work with.

EDGE: If you do keep on with "younger Gordianus," do you have a sense already to how and when he will return to Rome? And would this mark a third phase in the series in which an "intermediate" Gordianus (mature, established as a Finder, but younger than when we first meet him in "Roman Blood") solves mysteries and becomes enmeshed with Roman (and world) history?

Steven Saylor: It would be lovely to write a book or two that seamlessly connects the prequels to the first novel, "Roman Blood." I like taking on big projects, but also tending to very small details, making sure the books all connect to one another.


EDGE: I understand, too, that you are preparing to write the third volume in the "Roma" series, the follow up to "Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome" and "Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome." What will the new volume focus on? Will it be a novel of Christian Rome? Declining Rome?

Steven Saylor: After I write the assassination of Caesar novel, I'll get back to my big family-saga novels with a third volume to follow "Roma" and "Empire." The Pinarius family will witness an amazing arc of history, from Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-emperor, to Constantine the Great, who not only becomes a Christian, but also moves the capitol from Rome to his own new city, Constantinople. Along the way there are some remarkable episodes, including the brief but colorful reign of the teenaged drag-queen emperor, Elagabalus.

EDGE: I know I have asked you this before -- a couple of times, over the years, in fact -- but the more time goes by and the more we're faced with the increasing absurdities of American social and political life (the rise of the Tea Party and its lunatic politicians; two iterations now of the 'Republican Clown Car' full of presidential wannabes that make Rome's nutty emperors look tame), the more it seems like comparisons between Rome and America are apt -- and alarming.

And yet, Rome endured for thousands of years. Why is America's progress through the (perhaps inevitable) stages of ascendancy and decline happening at such a fast-forward rate? A generation of so ago, we were the Greatest Generation, the global good guys, the world's undisputed pre-eminent moral and economic power... or was that all a delusion to begin with?

Steven Saylor: I think the United States will endure, possibly for as long as the Roman Empire did. But will it be a nice place to live? I've been very lucky to have lived in time and place that dealt me a good hand in life. But it's like Dickens said -- it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It's all in your point of view. As Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics would say, reality is what you make it; if you don't like a thing you can't change, change the way you think about it. I try to take that advice more and more as I get older.

EDGE: Looking at the world in its current state, do you see any particular trends that you recognize from history? Do you have a sense of where we are headed, and do we have cause for hope?

Steven Saylor: I'm very worried that population pressures, climate change, and the ability of mere handfuls of terrorists to set the agenda for everyone else will all combine to bring the 21st Century to a dismal end. Hopefully I either won't live to see the worst of it, or I'll live long enough to be proven wrong.


"Wrath of Furies" is published by Minotaur Books and sells for $26.99 hardcover. http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250015983

Learn more about Steven Saylor, his novels, and "Roma Sub Rosa" at www.stevensaylor.com


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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