A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
It is difficult to imagine a richer cast of characters to challenge a historical novelist than the Roman emperors who ruled between A.D. 14 and 141. Steven Saylor's latest offering, Empire (St. Martin's Press, $25.99), spans the period from the rise of Augustus to the height of the empire under Hadrian, and is filled with tales of intrigue, ambition, violence, and suspense. Continuing the story he began in Roma, each chapter of Empire chronicles a generation of the Pinarii, one of Rome's oldest families, as they try to guard their position in society and their lives. Their impressive bloodlines, unfailing loyalty, and talent for augury (it's always best to foretell a future that is beneficial to the emperor regardless of what the omens actually say), give them entree into the innermost circles of the imperial court.
Empire is rich with details gathered from ancient historians, poets, dramatists, and philosophers, many of whom appear in the narrative. It is also free of the anachronisms that destroy the credibility of many examples of this genre. For example, Nero's talent for music is well known, but Saylor subtly dispels the myth that the emperor fiddled while Rome burned in the great fire of A.D. 64. The violin did not come to Europe until the Middle Ages. Nero played the lyre.
One of the book's drawbacks is Saylor's sometimes excessive description of the brutality of imperial culture and sexual perversions of the Roman emperors, as well as the cruelty and goriness of their punishments and pleasures. In addition, some of his characters are underdeveloped. The first Pinarius we meet, Lucius, seems interesting, but Saylor banishes him to Alexandria before the reader really gets to know him. And the powerful women who often ruled side by side with (and sometimes controlled) the emperors don't have a large enough role.
But where Saylor never stumbles is in his use of archaeology and art history. Each emperor's physical appearance is taken from ancient imperial portraiture, and descriptions of the buildings and monuments are rendered with faithfulness to the archaeological record. Even when he is forced to take a few liberties, as he is with the scenes set in Nero's Golden House (little of the estate remains today), his descriptions of imported marbles, elaborate mosaics, and mythological paintings are credible. The best example of Saylor's ability to blend his storytelling ability, knowledge of history and archaeology, and obvious passion for the culture is the way he depicts the opening of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum). It is a vivid evocation of the bloodthirsty, chaotic spectacle that was ancient Rome, and an example of how the best historical fiction brings the past to life.