Roman Blood by Steven Saylor

Roman Blood  - Steven Saylor


Gordianus the Finder, a private investigator, is called in by Cicero for aid in his first major case, the defense of Sextus Roscius, accused of parricide.



Again, I'm drawn to Marcus Tullius Cicero, but this time to a Cicero who hasn't started his political career yet. We see a young advocate trying to find his feet on the public rostra, a story this time not narrated by faithful slave Tiro but by an outsider. Gordianus is a private investigator, he helps Roman advocates in finding evidence upon which they base their cases - but he's rather a "dirty secret", better not seen in the so-called upper circles of society. Thus, it comes as a surprise to him when one day Tiro stands on his doorstep and asks him to come to Cicero's house who's working on the case of Sextus Roscius, a man accused of murdering his own father. Parricide is a most heinous crime in Rome, deserving of a most cruel punishment, and time is short. Just 8 days are left to the public trial. Gordianus is drawn into a web of personal and political intrigue, he becomes the target of several assassination attempts and starts to wonder just what really happened that day at the Ides of September.

Usually, I'm not too fond of stories that are told from a 1st person point of view, but I guess it's the setting that makes it work. Remember, the story is set in a time where not everything was written down so I can easily imagine this story being passed on orally from generation to generation until it's finally recorded. The main story surrounding the murder of Sextus Roscius pater is quite a straight forward murder mystery that grips one's attention pretty easily, but that's not that extraordinary. It's rather the setting itself that adds a unique touch. Saylor paints a colorful, somewhat morose picture of Rome at the end of Sulla's dictatorship and ventures into the darker parts of the city where crime is common, and often not prosecuted - because who cares about poor widows, whores or beggars - or daughters raped by their fathers? Meanwhile, a few rich men amass a fortune, building on the misfortune of others. It's not the classic picture of Ancient Rome, where the honour of men like Cicero is praised and put on a pedestal. I'm rather inclined to think that people such as the widow Pollia who was raped in front of her mute son and later on abandons said son in the streets of the city are more of a symbol of the state of the republic. Probably, this won't appeal to many readers who expect the afore mentioned glorification, because as I said, ancient times are always thought to be better than the ones we live in - but this time they are both a bit too similar. And this similarity carries through most of the story, and doesn't stop even at Cicero's own sense of honour. Even though the end is a bit forseeable, I can definitely sympathize with Tiro whose hero-worship for his master gets dealt a rather harsh, but necessary blow.

"Roman Blood" is the first novel out of Saylor's "Roma Sub Rosa"-series starring Gordianus the Finder. I admit I have a soft spot for stories that revolve around historic facts. Cicero really defended a man called Sextus Roscius as his first major case - but it's the author himself who surrounds this historical core with the ever present "what could have been" that makes reflecting about ancient times so fascinating. What lies beneath the mere facts about Ancient Rome and its main protagonists? What was life really like back then? Or more basically, who are the protagonists really, what could they have been like? Perhaps that's the most interesting part in any fiction based on historical facts. We just don't know the men behind their political personae. I so appreciate the disillusioned and old Sulla, the greedy Crassus, the dyspeptic, somewhat awkward but nevertheless brilliant Cicero of whom one gets the impression that his mind is leeching off all strength of his body, and of course the young and still naive Tiro.

I for certain wouldn't mind another glimpse into the lives of Gordianus, his slave/concubine Bethesda and little mute Eco in particular, or Rome in general... and I guess I'll return to "Roma Sub Rosa" before too long.
review originally written in 2008.