Splendor and Madness :: Steven Saylor on ’Empire’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday August 25, 2010


It's a turning point for a world power founded on a dislike of kings and tyrants that has seen social and economic turmoil, war, and class division roil its societal and political fabric. It's a time of imperial ambitions, global influence, and a growing divide between the poor-who seek solace in new religions-and the wealthy, who revel in unmatched opulence. Presiding over the land are a succession of rulers who seem evil to some, and godlike to others, and whose authority sometimes embraces mad excess--or, at other times, strives for calm and moderation.

It's the ancient city-state Rome, and in Steven Saylor's richly detailed new historical epic Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome, a century and a quarter of emperors (Caligula! Nero! Hadrian!), conquests, and massive engineering projects unfold before the reader in a long scroll of splendor and madness. Along with triumphal processions, the always-tricky dynamics of court politics, and gladiatorial blood sports, there's a new faith in the Empire: a group of "atheists" who worship a single god and name their faith after a man executed fourteen years before this novel commences.

They are Christians, of course, and though they do not rise to predominance in the span of Saylor's new novel, their presence is increasingly felt. As in the previous book, Roma--which spanned Rome's first one thousand years, from its origins as an outpost along a trade route to the collapse of the Republic--Empire traces the long life of the ancient world's most powerful nation across succeeding generations of one of the city's oldest families, the Pinarii.

As in Roma, the Pinarii pass a sacred family heirloom from father to son, a "fascinum," or likeness of a pagan god whose form is conceived as a phallus with wings. In Saylor's telling, the fascinum--an actual deity for ancient Romans--serves as a way to allow the novel's various parts and stages to tie together. As centuries pass and the family heirloom is worn by one scion of the Pinarius lineage after the next, its shape slowly distorts. The fascinum's wings begin to resemble the arms of a cross: it's a terrific bit of symbolism, and it fits into the work as a whole quite nicely.

Steven Saylor has thrilled fans of historical fiction and mysteries alike with his "Roma Sub Rosa" series, which features an ancient world private detective named Gordianus. (Far from taking a break now that he's finished his second sprawling tome about Roman history, Saylor is charging right back to work and planning to finish a collection of linked short stories featuring Gordianus as a young man, as he travels around the ancient world seeing the seven wonders--and solving crimes.)

But Saylor also titillated readers early in his writing career as Aaron Travis, the pen name he assumed when composing erotic stories of such imagination and power that they still appear, with surprising frequency, as reprints in new anthologies.

Steven Saylor chatted with EDGE recently about his newest epic, what the furure holds for Gordianus, and the prospects for any return by Aaron Travis to write new erotically charged stories.

EDGE: The first thing I notice about Empire is that, unlike Roma--which spanned a thousand years--the new novel covers just over a century. What were your reasons for spending more time, as it were, with the five generations of the Pinarius family that Empire traces?

Steven Saylor: I originally thought Empire might span a thousand years, like Roma, but once Rome has its empire there are just too many amazing stories to tell and fascinating people to meet. As I scaled the time span back, I began to see a coherent story-arc from the beginning of empire with Augustus to the very height of empire under Hadrian. That passage of history finally makes sense to me, because I've lived those decades through the Pinarius family.

EDGE: I'm clearly no expert, because I somehow had the notion that Rome fell under Emperor Hadrian, who is the last emperor in your novel. And yet, Rome has not catastrophically ended by the book's final page... is a third volume on the way?

Steven Saylor: It's interesting that you should have picked up that idea about Hadrian, because in fact Hadrian presides over the physical and cultural height of the empire; it's after Hadrian that the shit hits the fan. A couple of emperors later comes Commodus (famous from the movies Gladiator and Fall of the Roman Empire), and that's where the beginning of the end is usually placed.

I can imagine a third volume spanning from Commodus to the advent of Christianity as the state religion under Constantine the Great. Volume three would also feature some amazing historical episodes, like the reign of the drag-emperor Elagabalus.

EDGE: I'm also intrigued by the specific roles you give the five generations of Pinarii here: an augur, a pair of twins, a "seeker," a sculptor... How do the professions and avocations of these men correspond to the story of Rome's imperial chapter?

Steven Saylor: In a panoramic novel like Empire, one challenge is stage-management--simply getting the right characters into place to witness and take part in the most interesting events. Fortunately, the Pinarii were very obliging, thanks to their aristocratic privileges, contrarian natures, and mixed motives. They witness everything important, even when they don't quite understand what's going on.

One of the twins becomes a Christian, to the shame and horror of his brother, who falls under the spell of Nero instead and becomes the confidant of Nero's eunuch-wife, Sporus. The paranoid reign of Domitian drives one of the Pinarii to become a follower of the wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana, one of the most influential religious leaders in the history of the world, who now is almost completely forgotten. The sculptor is in the right place at the right time to create images of Antinous, the beautiful but doomed young lover made into a god by Hadrian, whose statues we still see everywhere across the Roman world.

EDGE: Reading Roma--and now Empire--I am struck by how immediately accessible the characters are. They could be contemporary people in terms of their motives, desires, and actions. Is there anything about us now, today, that is fundamentally different from the people of 2,000 years ago? Technology has improved, but has morality, or civilization, really advanced, or is that a myth we like to tell ourselves?

Steven Saylor: I see no difference whatsoever in people then and now. As one of the characters says, "Without the discipline of philosophy to give rigor to their thinking, people can and will believe anything, no matter how absurd. Indeed, the more far-fetched the notion, the more likely they are to believe it." There is no idea so preposterous that someone will not embrace it.

Rational thought was at a low ebb when the Roman Empire was at its height, and then ebbed even lower as the empire crumbled. You and I are very fortunate to have been born after the flowering of reason and the development of modern science. But the battle between rational thought and superstition is far from over, and the outcome is unclear. I am not an optimist.

EDGE: Empire humanizes and paints a much fuller, more dimensional portrait of the Roman emperors than our commonplace stereotypes do. Some conservatives like to claim that Rome fell because the Romans embraced homosexuality, and they like to hold up some of the emperors as examples of that. But is that claim historically valid? Could sexual mores (or their forsaking) have played a part in Rome's demise?

Steven Saylor: Seeing a link between homosexuality and historical decline is one of those superstitions I was talking about; it's just a made-up idea that some people choose to believe. In fact, it's a couple of the gayest emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, who do the best job of governing, partly because they don't have biological children they want to advance to power, but instead rely on merit and (in Hadrian's case) physical beauty as criteria for choosing a successor. (In the Ancient World, beauty and virtue were the same thing, equally pleasing to the gods and therefore intrinsically good.)

"Yes, a gay emperor decided it was best to tolerate the troublesome, gods-hating Christians, and even allowed them to serve in the military, as long as they weren't too flagrant... I couldn't make up this sort of thing."

The pattern that keeps repeating with the incompetent emperors has nothing to do with their sexual habits, but with how young they were when they attained absolute power. Almost all the most infamous emperors--Caligula, Nero, Commodus--acquired godlike powers in their twenties or even their teens, and whatever character faults they had became grotesquely magnified. Trajan and Hadrian wisely named mature, experienced men as their successors.

EDGE: In Empire, there's a brilliant little satirical riff on the theme of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Was this truly a policy of Roman emperors regarding the nascent Christian religion, or were you indulging in some poetic license there?

Steven Saylor: The policy was very real; we know about it from a series of letters between the emperor Trajan and a provincial governor. Trajan was a big, brawny guy, a "man's man" and a military genius, and he also loved boys; there's an amazing story of a conquered king who sends his son to dance for Trajan (dancing boy diplomacy, I call it), and the sources also make a point of telling us that Trajan looked after his boy-toys and saw that they were educated, and that Trajan's wife was apparently very indulgent about his extramarital sex life.

What happened when this butchest and gayest of emperors faced the problem of what to do about a certain despised minority, the Christians? Because they wouldn't recognize the gods, the Christians were thought of as dangerous atheists and a security risk; no one wanted to live next to a Christian,and who would want to serve alongside one in the military? Trajan's policy is essentially "Ask Not, Tell Not." He decides to prosecute only if there's a direct complaint, and only if the offending Christian, after being given every opportunity, still refuses to burn a bit of incense to the gods.

Yes, a gay emperor decided it was best to tolerate the troublesome, gods-hating Christians, and even allowed them to serve in the military, as long as they weren't too flagrant with their perversity. I couldn't make up this sort of thing.

EDGE: Rome fell, in part, due to a lack of resources--at least, the reader can see that is something for which Rome is headed in your novel. Is America (which lately has flirted with out and out imperial tendencies) started down that same path? (I mean, look at the treasure and the blood our two ongoing wars have cost us; and look at the financial sector's misdeeds and the economic meltdown that resulted...)

Steven Saylor: Nothing lasts forever; the world and everything in it is in constant decay and needing constant repair. If you stop taking care of your body or your car or your house--or your empire--and start flagrantly abusing it, there will be a price to pay. I think the American empire was very badly abused by Bush and Cheney and we will be reeling from the effects for some time to come. America needs a long, intensive rest-cure at the empire spa.

EDGE: The winged phallus god--Fascinus--that served as a unifying device in Roma is back in Empire, but after more than a thousand years as a family heirloom for the Pinarii, the fascinum looks less like a winged phallus and more like a cross. That is a brilliant means of tying into the transformation of Roman society from pagan to Christian. Was that a flash of inspiration or had you played with that idea since writing the first novel?

Steven Saylor: The idea came to me at the very end of Roma, and served as a twist to foreshadow the vast changes to come, including the death of the old religion and the coming of the new. In Empire, we see the first persecution of the Christians under Nero, a truly horrific episode. But even by the time of Hadrian, the Christians are still a very minor sect, no more conspicuous across the empire than, say, Scientologists are in the U.S. now, and equally alien and off-putting to most mainstream religious people. In two hundred years could Christianity be in its death-throes, replaced by Scientology? All it takes is an absolute dictator, like Constantine the Great, to make such a thing happen.

EDGE: You had been telling me in an earlier chat, just as Roma was being published, that you envisioned the follow-up as tackling the next thousand years of Roman history and the onset of the Dark Ages. Is the slide into the Dark Ages still a story you would like to tell? How far into the Dark Ages would you possibly want to take us? (Surely the story of Rome's historical aftershocks is as fascinating as the story of Rome itself!)

Steven Saylor: Conceivably, the series could follow the city of Rome all the way to the present, traversing the Dark Ages, endless Papal shenanigans, Michelangelo, Mussolini, and so much more. I'd have to brush up considerably on my Medieval and Renaissance history. The story of Rome from the beginning to today would make a fascinating tale.

EDGE: In that same earlier interview about Roma, you were telling me that you were thinking about writing a Gordianus book that would feature the assassination of Julius Caesar, and you also mentioned mulling over an idea for a book of interlinked short stories that would serve as a prequel to Book One in the Roma Sub Rosa series, Roman Blood. It seems that you've decided to go ahead with the prequel, but will Gordianus fans still be looking forward to seeing how their favorite ancient world detective plays a part in the events leading up to Caesar's death?

Steven Saylor: In the Roma Sub Rosa books, the assassination of Caesar has become the elephant in the room; we all know it's coming, and what role will Gordianus play? But I'm not ready to write that story yet.

The next Gordianus novel will be a prequel that takes him as a young man to visit all Seven Wonders of the World, including the Colossus of Rhodes and the Great Pyramid, solving a mystery at each site. Gordianus gets to be nineteen again. Hearing that, a reader asked me, "Does that mean he'll get laid at all seven wonders?" We'll see.

EDGE: You have two books set in later times--a Western (A Twist at the End) and a contemporary mystery (Have You Seen Dawn?). Is the modern era a time you might revisit with a novel or two? And now that you've made such an impressive departure from the mystery format, would you write a non-mystery novel set in contemporary times?

Steven Saylor: Have You Seen Dawn? was an anomaly for me--an autobiography done with mirrors, to borrow a Gore Vidal phrase. I never think about writing fiction set in contemporary times. If I ever leave Rome, it might be for Ancient Greece; there's a particular story I'd like to tell, but that's a dream project for the future.

EDGE: Your erotic work, written under the name Aaron Travis, has been resurfacing in a number of anthologies lately. Would you possibly return to erotic writing, either as Aaron Travis or as Steven Saylor?

Steven Saylor: Aaron Travis is retired and I doubt the world will see any new Travis stories. For one thing, writing really good erotica is damned hard work--no pun intended. But I do like seeing the old stories reprinted, and one of these days, I'd like to make all the Aaron Travis erotica available again, probably in electronic format or on-demand. I still get fan mail for those stories, and I see the out-of-print Travis books selling for outrageous sums on Amazon, so I know there's a demand for the work.

Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome, published by St. Martin's Press, goes on sale Aug. 31. Pages: 608. Price: $25.99. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-381-011

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. 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.