Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

Gordianus "The Finder," with his 66th birthday approaching, now spends much of his day relaxing in his peristyle garden reading and sipping a cup of the best vintage he can afford.  But some of his old clients can't seem to let him slip away into anonymity.  First Tiro, Cicero's secretary, comes knocking with a request for Gordianus to call upon his master.  Then Meto, Gordianus' oldest adopted son and trusted officer in the service of Gaius Julius Caesar, pays his father a visit. Caesar, now ruling dictator of Rome, also wishes to consult with the old "Finder".

So, we are once more immersed in the politics of a crumbling Roman Republic as Gordianus must brush the cobwebs from his tired brain and consider a list of possible suspects who may be contemplating the assassination of the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world. To help him do this, he decides to retreat to one of his favorite hangouts, the Salacious Tavern, and banter with his old friend Helvius Cinna, the most renowned poet in Rome.

When I began reading this book, I had heard that this was to be the capstone of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series. The pace of the novel is leisurely with Gordianus reminiscing about old cases and now dimly remembered characters who once played a role in his life as he meets with famous historical personalities like Cicero, Caesar, Cleopatra, Calpurnia, Cassius, and Brutus . I must admit this was a bit jarring, at first, for me having just read eleven of Anthony Riches' action-packed novels of the Roman Army.  But, I realized that the author was using this opportunity to remind us of why this period of history and this civilization was so memorable, carefully evoking the atmosphere and lifestyles of its inhabitants.

Saylor also spends a significant portion of the book revisiting Greco-Roman mythology and its role in Roman poetry.  Some readers may consider this a bit of an indulgence by the author. But as it turns out, myth is central to the final plot twist.

Mystery has always been the centerpiece of Saylor's novels and this one would be no different. We are given the chance to experience Caesar's fate through the eyes of Gordianus but it is not his death that will take center stage in the novel's climax.

It did appear to me that, sadly, Gordianus' powers of observation have lost some of their acuity and was a painful reminder of the decline I have experienced as advancing age has made its effects felt.  This is made a little more pronounced by the author's third person asides pointing out suspicious behaviors of the conspirators that seemingly went unnoticed. I am just two years older than the fictional hero and found myself cringing each time he referred to himself as an old man.

Fulvia depicted as Phrygia Eumeneia on a coin minted in 41-40 BCE

But, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the characters and motivations of such historical figures as Antony and Fulvia as the story within a story unfolded.  We find Antony is not just the bull-necked riotous playboy often depicted in Octavian's propaganda but a skilled orator and seemingly conscientious, though pragmatic, Roman politician.  In Fulvia, we find a woman not only driven by ambition but a forceful feminist who has learned how to balance Roman-prescribed pudicitia with power obtained from a carefully managed relationship with her marital partner.

So, be forewarned that this is not just a retelling of Caesar's final days, but an evaluation of relationships, missed opportunities, the power of literature, and the weight of responsibility even the "elderly" have to family, to friends and to society.

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