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Tom Chaney: Roma: from salt makers to the Ides of March

Of Writers And Their Books: Roma: from salt makers to the Ides of March. Tom reviews a sprawling historical novel, Roma, focusing upon two families present for an entire millennium merging in the person of Gaius Julius Caesar. This column first appeared 22 July 2007.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Davis McCombs in Lexington

By Tom Chaney

Roma: from salt makers to the Ides of March

Steven Saylor is one of the most interesting writers to come down the pike in the last few years. I found the first of his "Roma Sub Rosa" series by accident one day in The Bookstore. You probably know by now that I am a fan of mystery and detective novels. Historical mysteries have of late intrigued me. Brother Cadfael in a monastery along the Welsh border in the twelfth century; Sister Fidelma, the Irish judge of the seventh century -- books about them and others have provided entertainment as well as great information about life in other times.

Saylor chose the Rome of Julius Caesar for the setting of his "Roma Sub Rosa" mysteries. His delightful detective, Gordianus the Finder, is a private eye clad in a toga.

Fifteen stories in this series have been published through 2015.

Recently Saylor took a breather from the Rome of Gordianus to look back at the history of Rome for the 1000 years prior to Gordianus in a sprawling historical novel, Roma, focusing upon two families present for the entire millennium merging in the person of Gaius Julius Caesar.

In the tenth century B.C., Lara and her father Larth are salt traders plying the river path along the Tiber from the sea to the foothills of the mountains where an island in the Tiber is guarded by seven hills. "Many people lived in the forests and grassy meadows of the foothills, gathered in small villages. In return for salt, these people would give Lara's people dried meat, animal skins, cloth spun from wool, clay pots, needles and scraping tools carved from bone, and little toys made of wood."

On one of these trips Lara meets Tarkitios. Larth, perceiving the approval of the spirits of the place, sends Lara to lie with him. Po, young friend of Lara and Larth, kills Tarkitios and claims the child of Tarkitios and Lara as his own.

Tarkitios had given Lara a golden amulet, a winged phallus, which Larth perceives to represent the numen or spirit of the place. That amulet becomes the unifying thread of the novel and of Rome's story. Those who wear it scarcely know its origins. Its significance increases over time -- changing like a kaleidoscope depending upon its wearer.

Around 850 B.C. the descendants of Lara founded a permanent settlement at the point which would become Rome -- a trading post along the path by the Tiber.

Within one hundred years the twins, Romulus and Remus, establish the city which will become the heart of the most powerful city-state empire in history.

Over the next centuries the Politia (the family of Lara) and the Pinaria intermarry from the era of the traitor Coriolanus down to the age of the Gracchus of which family came Gaius Julius Caesar in the first century B.C.

In an interview, Saylor talked a bit about the genesis of the story. He found his attention riveted on Rome's decadent height. Seeking the back story of Gordianus, Saylor became intrigued by the process of empire building from its early beginnings.

Saylor noted how fortunate we are to have the Roman storytellers such as Livy. "We know the names," he observed. After all, he continued, "we recount Roman history every time we say the months" of the year.

With the help of Saylor's most useful family tree and map showing the location of hills and shrines, I was not ready to come up for air on that fateful Ides of March in the forum when Brutus and his gang did in Caesar.

Saylor's prose is spare. His descriptions are not overblown. Yet I found the 500 plus pages all too brief. I kept seeing the possibility of other novels within the gaps of this story.

Were I to compare him to another writer, it would have to be Mary Renault whose multiple novels deal with the Greeks from the mythic Theseus down to the glory of the Athens of Plato and Socrates.

For leisurely summer reading, I suggest Steven Saylor. Great pleasure can come from either the epic Roma or the shorter mysteries featuring Gordianus the finder.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

Steven Saylor website.

Empire (2010) is a follow-up to Roma

The volumes of the ROMA SUB ROSA series in chronological order:
The Seven Wonders
Raiders of the Nile
Wrath of the Furies
Roman Blood
The House Of The Vestals
A Gladiator Dies Only Once
Arms Of Nemesis
Catilina's Riddle
The Venus Throw
A Murder On The Appian Way
Last Seen In Massilia
A Mist Of Prophecies
The Judgment of Caesar
The Triumph of Caesar

This story was posted on 2016-03-27 06:50:56
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