Reaching the Capstone of 'Roma Sub Rosa' :: Steven Saylor on 'The Throne of Caesar'

Thursday March 1, 2018

After 27 years, fourteen novels, and a number of short stories that have been collected into two collections, Steven Saylor has reached what he calls the "capstone" of his "Roma Sub Rosa" series, the books that comprise the saga of Gordianus the Finder and posit an inventively entertaining "Secret History of Rome." The action is all about murder, political machinations, and sinister maneuverings; the setting is the pre-Christian world of Rome and Egypt; and the era is the end of the Roman Republic, a slow-motion decline from democracy into tyranny that eventually saw the most powerful civilization in the ancient world crumble. (Compare that with today's warp-speed demolition of democratic norms and institutions. One might envy the way they went about everything at such a leisurely pace in olden times.)

Gordianus is a proto-private detective, but even though his gumshoes might be sandals and his togs consist of tunics and togas rather than the suits and ties of classic hardboiled PIs, his wits are as sharp as any major player in the genre of serial crime fiction. Saylor's wits are, too; in story after story, the author has woven the exploits of his fictional detective into historical events and surrounded him with people who actually lived.

The stories themselves maintain a carefully constructed consistency in which relationships, characters, and historical details align and -- to the extent that it's possible -- reflect the genuine day to day lives, as well as extraordinary historical passages, of the ancient world.

"The Throne of Caesar" may be the capstone for the series as a whole, but it's also the thrilling climax of a trilogy of novels that Saylor initiated with 2004's "The Judgment of Caesar." One of the most famous military and political leaders in world history, Julius Caesar figured in earlier "Roma Sub Rosa" novels, but "The Judgment of Caesar," unfolding against the backdrop of Roman civil war, constitutes the start of a home stretch that leads to a bloody turning point with major consequences for the centuries -- indeed, the millennia -- to follow.

In "The Triumph of Caesar," the conquering hero, having defeated his arch-rival Pompeii and emerged victorious from the civil war, returns home to celebrations and accolades -- and a possible murder plot. But hold on: The Ides of March aren't upon us quite yet.

That's where "The Throne of Caesar" comes in, a novel that presented such a puzzle that Saylor put it off for nearly a decade, turning his attention to a trilogy of prequel novels that fill in Gordianus' years as a young man. Saylor also wrote "Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome," the second volume in "Roma," his other Rome-centric series. "Roma" is a sprawling, multi-generational saga that examines Rome's fortunes across a span of centuries while also following the fates of two of her most prominent founding families.

The problem Saylor faced: How do you write a murder mystery about the most famous assassination ever? From Plutarch to Shakespeare to the lavish HBO series "Rome," we've all heard about the day the knives came out and Caesar met his fate on the floor of the Roman senate. It's not like there's much doubt about how the story ends. But in time, the solution presented itself to Saylor, and it's simplicity itself: The murder of Julius Caesar wasn't the only criminal conspiracy that was afoot come the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C.E.

EDGE had the privilege of interviewing Steven Saylor about his latest -- and most likely last -- novel in the acclaimed series, his thoughts about the deja-vu that history buffs may be feeling in our current times of tumult, and his future plans for Roman history.

EDGE: Is "The Throne of Caesar" really meant to be the last of your Gordianus stories? Or will the solving of mysteries in Ancient Rome continue -- perhaps with daughter Diana taking the lead (though the elder Finder could certainly have many an occasion to lend his expertise)?

Steven Saylor: I've long planned to get the series to the assassination of Caesar, and here at long last I've arrived. It's pretty amazing that Gordianus has survived all the bloody battles and backstabbing intrigue of the dying Roman Republic, but not only is he still alive, but Caesar plans to make him a senator -- an almost unheard-of honor for a citizen of his humble beginnings. What could possibly go wrong?

Yes, his daughter Diana is dying to take the reins, perhaps paired with her husband Davus (brains plus brawn). But the ending of this novel manages to place a capstone on the "Roma Sub Rosa" series, even as it sends the reader back to the very beginning. And we see that Diana has been playing a role all along.

EDGE: Or perhaps you'll add a fourth book to your prequel trilogy, about Gordianus' adventures as a younger man?

Steven Saylor:That's very possible. I went to Jerusalem a few years ago, and I'm pretty sure the young Gordianus went there, too, probably right after the final scene of "Wrath of the Furies." Judea was in a tumultuous state at the time, ruled by a controversial queen, Salome Alexander. Always lots of turmoil and intrigue in Jerusalem, then and now.

EDGE: So, if this is indeed where you leave off with Gordianus... why now, both in terms of Roman history and your own writing career?

Steven Saylor: Well, as we know from Cher, farewell never really has to mean farewell. But it feels good to be able to step back and look at the series as a whole and feel that it's nicely rounded off, like a well-constructed wall. A turret or an annex can always be added later.

EDGE: This is going to be tricky to do without spoilers! But let's look right at the novel itself, "The Throne of Caesar." The title says quite a lot; we only glimpse the throne briefly, but it's described in a way that makes it fit for a king, and that gets to the very heart of why Caesar was assassinated. Had you considered other titles?

Steven Saylor: The last two novels in the series were "The Judgment of Caesar" and "The Triumph of Caesar." Caesar is center stage for this novel as well, and the word "throne" sprang to mind, not least because the word currently has so much cache thanks to "Game of Thrones."

The golden chair that Caesar demanded certainly crossed a line for many Roman senators, yet another reminder that little by little he was making himself not just a dictator but a king. The throne is a symbol of Caesar's hubris, the ambition that sets him apart but then destroys him.

EDGE: This is, finally, the novel in which the "Roma Sub Rosa" series reaches the assassination of Julius Caesar, and you had a real dilemma to contend with in that everyone knows the ending to that particular mystery... Or do they? No spoilers here! You mention in the book's (spoiler heavy, so readers beware!) afterword that resolving that dilemma took a long time and led to the contemplation of many interesting pathways, including an idea that had been used in a novel from the 1930s in which Caesar's life is spared thanks to an unlucky body double being the one who meets the untidy end. What other possibilities occurred to you?

Steven Saylor: Yes, it was a challenge, writing a murder mystery about the Ides of March. Fortunately, a scholar at a conference reminded me of a certain other real-life murder that took place on Caesar's funeral day. That gave me the inspiration to create a novel with a double plot -- one about the impending murder we know is destined to take place, and the other about a plot happening under the surface, out of sight but with just as much intrigue and just as bloody an outcome.

EDGE: The solution you employ has several elements to it, including Gordianus being engaged to look into a vague, but worrisome, threat. It's gripping how Gordianus goes about trying to ascertain whether there might be Roman nobles out to do Caesar harm, and who they might be. His investigation is bound up with his own elevation to the Roman Senate. From the novelistic and storytelling perspective, what prompted this new twist in Gordianus' personal fortunes?

Steven Saylor: In doing the research, I was struck by how many new senators Caesar created. The body was heavily depleted after years of civil war. So he packed the Senate with his own handpicked supporters, hundreds of them, and these included some controversial choices, including Gauls and even an Etruscan soothsayer or two.

The conservative old-timers hated that. And many of them are not happy to see Gordianus nominated. He knows too many secrets. Gordianus himself is a bit ambivalent about this stroke of fortune. And of course, plotwise, it sets him up to be present in the Senate House when the first dagger descends, an eyewitness to the most famous murder in history.

EDGE: Another dilemma you must have had to face was that everyone knows the version of the story as told by Shakespeare and, as you note, Shakespeare "invented freely." Did you feel a need to correct the record to some degree? Or to take pains to avoid elements from the play?

Steven Saylor: Shakespeare is probably the greatest creator of historical fiction who ever lived, a master at mining historical material for every last bit of comedy or drama. "Julius Caesar" may have more famous lines than any other play. But Shakespeare did not have access to all the ancient sources, so there were gaps in his knowledge.

I wanted to be absolutely scrupulous in presenting a blow-by-blow portrayal of the events leading up to the day and then the very minute of Caesar's death. When the characters themselves don't see what's coming but the reader does, that creates a special kind of suspense.

It's been a couple of generations since there was a major assassination in the US, so it's hard for many of us to realize just how huge such an event can be. The death of Caesar was like a volcano erupting, or an asteroid striking the earth.

EDGE: Another intriguing aspect of "The Throne of Caesar" is the inclusion of the poet Cinna, who in his time was hugely well-regarded. Here, he's shown to be a drinking companion to Gordianus, a friendship you use as a means to talk about Cinna's poetry (and, by implication, touch on the loss of literature that the ancient world held in great esteem). How much of Cinna (and the work that's discussed in the book) did you have to invent, given that so little of Cinna's writings remain and not much seems to be known for sure about the man himself?

Steven Saylor: We know that Cinna was hugely important as a poet, but we have only a few lines of his work, and we know very little about his life. But I saw a way to elevate him to an important role in the book, so I researched every scrap of his poetry in an attempt to get inside his head. I also took inspiration from a certain 20th-century author with some peculiar parallels to Cinna, but I can't say who. That's a sort of puzzle inside a puzzle inside the book.

EDGE: Another character in the pages of the new book is Tiro, who was a major player in the very first novel of the series, "Roman Blood." Did you go into this project thinking, "It's the last book; wouldn't it be nice to bring some symmetry to the series' end by reintroducing that hunky Tiro?"

Steven Saylor: I deliberately wanted the opening of "The Throne of Caesar" to mirror the opening of "Roman Blood," so I knew I would begin Gordianus hungover in his garden and an early morning visit from Tiro. We are all older now -- Gordianus and Tiro and Cicero, and me, and many of my readers, as well -- but we still have our wits about us.

EDGE: All your "Rosa Sub Roma" novels have the distinction of being painstakingly, impeccably researched, but I think for this novel you conjure a rare sense of immediacy and authenticity -- your prose communicates everything from the unpredictable spring weather to the heaviness in the air following the upheavals of the Roman civil war in a manner that the reader can feel as though he's there. It's so well done that it's almost like a form of deja-vu. Was this the result of living, literarily speaking, and in your imagination, in that city and climate and societal context for so many years?

Steven Saylor: The novelist has many devices to call up when conjuring a certain time and place. I've been doing this for over twenty-five years, so hopefully, I've gotten pretty good at it.

I think I've learned some tricks of the trade, but it would be hard for me to explain how they work. The process of writing is very organic for me, a sort of trance that I put myself into. After all the research and all the planning comes the actual writing, which is something of a mysterious black box.

EDGE: Speaking of senses of deja-vu, is there really an Etruscan word for it, as your characters keep talking about here? Or are you joking about how English speakers need to resort to French to have a word for the sensation?

Steven Saylor: I assume that all people must experience deja-vu, whether they have a word for it or not. There's no Latin phrase that I know of, and the Romans of Gordianus's time are in the habit of attributing any odd custom or word to their cultural predecessors, the Etruscans. (Virtually nothing of the Etruscan language survives today.) Yes, that bit of word-play in the book is a nod to the mystique we attribute to foreign phrases and ideas.

EDGE: Did you borrow some of the social and political unease in "The Throne of Caesar" from our own nation's post-election anxieties about the political rise of aggressive, hostile, and -- to all appearances -- inherently violent factions here in the United States?

Steven Saylor: Historical fiction inevitably reflects the time in which it's written. What's similar between then and now is the razor's edge of uncertainty, the sense that a binary decision is going to set in motion one consequence after another. Clinton/Trump, Caesar alive/Caesar dead -- it's one of the other, and there can be no turning back.

Of course, everything seems inevitable in retrospect. We should have seen it coming.

EDGE: In the course of "The Throne of Caesar" there's a murder of shocking savagery that turns out to have religious overtones. In your afterword you note that others have speculated about the possible religious motivation behind the historic killing you depict in the novel, but was this plot point propelled, to some degree, by the way religion and "morality" are being used today to rationalize and justify horrifying violence -- for example, against gays in Chechnya and Russia?

Steven Saylor: Religious frenzy excuses just about any kind of violence, then and now. In the pre-Christian, pre-Islamic world, there were a seemingly limitless number of gods representing all kinds of irrational forces in the human psyche. Sometimes those forces could indeed turn violent. The difference is that the ancients were by nature religiously tolerant -- the more gods, the merrier -- whereas the monotheistic religions are by nature intolerant since they claim to have possessed the one true path that leads to paradise, while all other paths lead to hell.

EDGE: We have spoken many times over the years, and we've often discussed whether the U.S. is following in Rome's footsteps, only at a much faster clip. What's your thinking on that subject, at this point?

Steven Saylor: I'd like to think that our Republic is undergoing an extreme stress test. Do we really need the traditional "steady hand at the tiller" leadership that our political class produces? The answer is probably yes, but it will be interesting to see how close the ship of state veers toward the rocks before there's a course correction.

For now, many of us assume that Trump is an aberration and soon enough we'll get back to normal, but what if he's just the first in a string of irrational choices? When I think of anti-intuitive candidates, President RuPaul springs to mind, but I'm afraid the tendency in America is to veer right, not left.

EDGE: What post-Gordianus projects are you mulling?

Steven Saylor: My current work in progress is the third novel in my other series, to follow "Roma" and "Empire," a long family saga about the whole course of the empire. This novel will span the period from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and his playboy son Commodus (famous from the movie "Gladiator") to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor.

It's a rocky ride. Along the way we'll encounter the notorious drag queen emperor, Elagabalus, who history tells us was obsessed with cocks and frocks. Readers will definitely need to strap on their seatbelts for this one.

"The Throne of Caesar" is now available in hardcover for $27.99