Steven Saylor Essay - Critical Essays


Gordianus the Finder, characterized by one of his enemies as a man of “no ancestry at all, a dubious career, and most irregular family,” would appear, at first blush, to be an odd choice for the protagonist of a historical novel. This choice seems particularly odd for Steven Saylor because of his decision to focus on the last three decades of the Roman Republic when various politicians, often representatives of the noblest families, vied for supremacy. However, by virtue of the fact that he has no pedigree and hence no class loyalties, Gordianus can move freely among competing parties in search of the answers to problems that vex some of the key figures of his time.

Gordianus’s “dubious career”—finding the truth without prejudice—is made possible because ancient Rome had no police force by modern standards. Thus, his career as a private detective often involves Gordianus in matters of considerable public import, from the moment in Roman Blood when he is hired by Cicero to investigate matters related to the great orator’s first court case to the time in The Judgment of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome (2004) when he is charged by Caesar to discover who might have tried to poison him at a key moment in his Egyptian campaign. By virtue of his unusual profession, Gordianus, an ordinary citizen during extraordinary times, can move easily across social strata and bear witness, from more than one perspective, to some of the key events in a momentous period in world history.

The reader’s interest in Gordianus transcends his roles as detective and reader’s stand-in. Over multiple volumes, Gordianus accumulates an “irregular family” that calls into question standard definitions of the term. His half-Egyptian, half-Jewish wife, Bethesda, was once his slave and concubine; his son and junior partner, Eco, was once a street orphan abandoned by his mother as a consequence of her witnessing a brutal murder. In conservative circles in ancient Rome and in modern times, family values have often been used as a justification for intolerance of domestic arrangements that do not match some rigid prescription. Set against the often dark consequences of the real-life blood ties that figure so prominently in many of the novels—the feuding, blue-blooded Claudii in Catilina’s Riddle (1993) or the treacherous royal siblings of the House of Ptolemy in The Judgment of Caesar—Gordianus’s hand-selected family shines.

The three elements of Saylor’s formula for success are creating a character that serves as an eyewitness to history, giving that character an interesting puzzle to solve, and allowing that character to make a family of his own choosing. All three elements engage the reader’s interest and sustain that interest from book to book.

Roman Blood

In Roman Blood, the first novel of the Roma Sub Rosa series, Steven Saylor establishes the formula that he successfully applies to each book. He provides his fictional protagonist with a mystery to unravel and, in so doing, makes him a convincing player at a critical point in the history of ancient Rome. Inspired by his reading of Michael Grant’s book Murder Trials (1975), a translation of selected speeches by Marcus Tullius Cicero, Saylor involves Gordianus the Finder in the real-life public defense by Cicero, the famous orator and statesman, of the patrician Sextus Roscius, who stands accused of hiring someone to kill his father.

As the novel begins, Gordianus is thirty, and he has already established his...

(The entire section is 1465 words.)