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Rome 80 BC. An elderly Roman nobleman is brutally murdered on the streets on his way to a secret meeting at the brothel known as the House of Swans. Violent attacks on the dark streets at night are not uncommon in Rome but this murder is different since the accused perpetrator is the nobleman's son. The crime is that of parricide (the killing of a father by his son) held to be one of the most contemptible crimes in Roman society and one which carries the most horrific of punishments. The accused son Sextus Roscius is well off farmer from the nearby town of Ameria, the well known advocate Hortensius is at first hired to take on the defence but quickly and inexplicably drops the case passing it on to a young and inexperienced advocate named Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero quickly realises that this case is far more complex than it seems at first and that in order to successfully defend his client he will have to get discover the true identity of the murder. With this in mind he calls upon the services of Gordianus the 'Finder' a man living on the very edge of reputable Roman society with a skill for seeking out the truth and solving crimes, what we would now call in modern parlance a private detective! Gordianus soon realises that this latest case will not only test his deductive skills to the limit but will also put his own life in danger as he uncovers an intricate web of lies, deceit and political corruption.
'Roman Blood' is the first of a set of mystery novels by Steven Saylor collectively known as the Roma Sub Rosa series. The novels are noted for their historical accuracy and for the inclusion of many real life characters from ancient Rome. Steven Saylor has vividly created a realistic picture of the ancient city in the last days of the Republic. This is the Rome ruled by Lucius Cornelius Sulla once a great general and now taking on the title of 'dictator' a role approved by the Senate in times of crisis. Rome is a violent city with a strict hierarchy from the powerless and abused slaves at the bottom of the pile we gradually rise to prized gladiators, the free citizens, the nobility and all the way up to the upper echelons of power of the consuls, senators and governors. But Saylor doesn't simply give us the Rome of the history books with its grand buildings, its temples and the famous Forum, his vision of Rome includes the seedier side. The back street taverns and brothels, the packed tenements where the poorer citizens of the great Republic are forced to live, the filthy streets, the beggar and the street criminals, the gangs of thugs hired by rich men to settle disputes are all included in his wonderful historical vision. Described in great detail the ancient city comes to life as we are easily drawn into the story and the fate of the characters. Although I'm not enough of an expert to say first hand that all the details are accurate they certainly ring true and if so must have taken a huge amount of research to write.
Despite the many pleasures to be had from Saylor's detailed view of ancient Rome the main focus of the book is the attempt by our hero Gordianus to solve the murder central to the story. In a splendid homage to the greatest of all fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes, Saylor describes how Gordianus on first meeting Cicero's slave and messenger Tiro manages to deduce all the details of the proposed case simply by observation and deduction, a trademark trick of Holmes in many of his adventures. The story is told through Gordianus in the first person, in this way we get a particular view of roman society seen from the perspective of one who is not amongst the most respected or richest of Rome' citizens but who nevertheless as a citizen enjoys many of the rights and privileges that the republic has to offer. In Gordianus Saylor has created a compelling hero. Gordianus is a true Roman and such knows his place in the hierarchy at the same time he has taken his beautiful Alexandrian female slave Bethesda as his lover and confidant. He could set her free and marry her but his cultural more and tradition does not permit him. He sees the corruption and violence around him but accepts it and is resigned that this is how the Republic operates and will continue to be beyond the span of his lifetime of course with our historical hind sight we know that he is wrong.
As a fan of historical fiction, especially those set in ancient of medieval times I delighted in the attention to detail and the realistic setting. Saylor manages to bring together historical drama featuring some of the best known real life historical characters from ancient Rome such as Cicero, Sulla, Crassus and Julius Caesar and combine them with a good old fashioned murder mystery. Another interesting aspect of this book was the examination by Saylor of the intricacies of Roman society. He examines the complicated role of slaves in this society and their importance to keeping the Republic alive. However this is done from the perspective of a Roman citizen who although sympathetic towards the plight of some slaves doesn't share the modern sensibilities that we would expect. Saylor also delves into the treacherous politics of ancient Rome where the noble families held sway and were constantly vying for the select positions of power. This is also world filled with superstition where the people believed their fortunes rested in the lap of the many gods they worshipped.
Of course this blend of historical fiction with mystery story is no new even when this novel was first published in 1991, the most famous examples would be the medieval mysteries such as 'The Name of The Rose' by Umberto Eco and the 'Cadfael' mysteries by Ellis Peters and just like these the Steven Saylor books involving Gordianus the Finder show a talent for writing a good mystery embedded in history through meticulous research in the subject matter. The care taken in the details is what marks these books above other poorer examples.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed 'Roman Blood' the first in this series, I found the story engrossing and the central mystery is well plotted and skilfully written. The book works as an intriguing mystery and as a realistic historical glimpse in to the lives of the citizens of the ancient Republic of Rome.
'Roman Blood' by Steven Saylor is available in paperback (384 pages) for £6.29 delivered free in the UK or for just £ 0.85 as a kindle edition at the time of writing this review.
"Roman Blood" is the first book in the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, revolving around the adventures of a man called Gordianus the Finder, an investigator in Ancient Rome. The series now runs to 12 books, including two collections of short stories which were written after the first four books but set between the first and second books.
Roma Sub Rosa literally means "Rome under the Rose" - this is explained in the front of the book under the list of titles in the series. The Rose is the symbol of confidentiality and a rose hanging over a council table meant that all attending the meeting were sworn to secrecy. Saylor explains that Sub Rosa has come to mean "that which is carried out in secret" and thus Roma Sub Rosa is the secret history of Rome seen through the eyes of Gordianus.
As well as this helpful explanation, a map of Rome is also included at the start of the book, showing it as it was at the time of Sulla's dictatorship in 80 B.C. Saylor has included the locations of several buildings or places relevant to the novel. Rome is also shown in relation to the surrounding countryside on a smaller section of map.
"Roman Blood" is based on a trial of Cicero's and his speech "In Defence of Sextus Roscius of Ameria". Gordianus is summoned by a young Cicero, preparing for his first important trial defending Sextus Roscius - a man accused of patricide. Cicero asks Gordianus to investigate the crime and discover anything that will help his case. Patricide was seen by the Romans to be an unforgivable sin and the punishment if convicted was a terrible death.
I found this quite an engaging read from the start and found that Gordianus as a character was quite easy to relate to. He is a principled man and uses his skills as an investigator to find the truth as that is what matters to him. The corruption of Roman society is clearly shown throughout the story - from the abuse of the power of the rich to the degradation of the poor, as well as the suffering of those even lower - slaves.
Gordianus has quite liberal views for a Roman and tries to treat people with respect. This is not understood as most Romans see slaves as expendable and poor people as of no consequence.
Gordianus has only one slave (as he cannot afford any others) named Bethesda and she very often appears to be the one in charge in his household. She is also his lover and he treats her with genuine affection, allowing her to do as she wishes and scared in case she should come to harm.
I thought that Saylor did well balancing the characters and plot with the very detailed descriptions of Rome. He is very good at bringing an ancient city to life and showing the reader, through Gordianus, how society worked in Rome. It is even better as he does it in a way that isn't lecturing or overly descriptive but merely interesting.
Gordianus often finds himself in danger in the course of his work and has little protection. Rome has no such thing as a police force, due to the dangers of corruption and their becoming a rich man's private army. Money and influence are everything in Rome, as Gordianus shows us.
The plot is interesting and did keep me guessing to the end, although I found some elements easy enough to work out. The presentation of the young Cicero and his slave Tiro was at times amusing. Cicero is shown to be very cunning and devious in his determination to make a name for himself but is also rather irritating. Gordianus is often irritated by Cicero and finds his constant practicing for his oration almost unbearable.
Saylor does well in blending fact and fiction, often bringing real historical figures into his stories and bringing real historical events to life within the events of the plots. The inclusion of real people and events doesn't stop this series from being an enjoyable read, if occasionally a bit silly. Gordianus's liberal attitudes would be unlikely at that time and in his situation but they make him an engaging character and one it's hard not to like.
Having read this book I then went on to read the next two in the series and have ordered the two collections of short stories to fill in the gaps. I would highly recommend this series to anyone interested in Ancient Rome.
The second of Saylor's books I have read but the first in the "sub rosa" series featuring Gordianus The Finder, a kind of historical Rome Sherlock Holmes, this intriguing first novel proves itself to be a very, very entertaining read.
As with the recent Robert Harris novel, Imperium- which, if you have read my review you will know I was less than impressed about- this book takes a good, long look at the Advocate Marcus Tullus Cicero as Gordianus assists both him and his personal slave, Tiro, in a very complicated case featuring a young roman noble accussed of patricide; namely the murder of his own father.
The sentence for patricide is extreme even by roman standards- the accused is bound hand and foot, pelted with excrement then placed in a sack with a cockrel, a snake and a dog before being cast from a cliff- and so the case becomes very much a matter of life and death which Gordianus begins to take very seriuosly indeed when his own slave and household become threatened by his possible involvment.
Although Gordianus is a fictional creation, and a very believable one at that though you wouldn't think it of someone essentially described by critics as a roman private detective, the situations that occurr around him are almost always based on true historical events. The case detailed in this novel is an actual, well-documented legal case that was actually undertaken by Cicero during this time and in a later novel, The Judgement Of Ceasar, Gordianus also finds himself in Egypt just before the arrival of Pompey fleeing his famous defeat in battle by Julius Caesar himself.
From the two I have read, these novels are just as much about the times, life under the Roman Empire, as they are about the mysteries Gordianus investigates and this I think is what makes them so enjoyable. We are given a ringside seat to some of Rome's finest historical events but they come almost as an aside as we are caught up in the lives of ordinary Roman people- albeit that they are mostly nobility and not the mindless plebs that make up much of the population.
It is true too that these books, at first glance, appear to be vastly more historically accurate than the equally enjoyable novels of Conn Iggudden whose Emperor series was a pure joy to read and whose novels first got me hooked on historical fiction. Saylor perfectly and seamlessly captures the pure essence of the Roman era and it is almost at times as though you are walking the streets themselves. Perhaps because I visited Rome last year on my honeymoon, I feel more of a resonance for books about this majestic city but I can honestly say that I await with baited breath to read more of this tremendous series and follow more of the adventures in the life of Gordianus The Finder!!
These books are a MUST-READ if you are a fan of historical fiction or the Roman Empire and I would challenge anyone not to be as enthralled by them as I have been...
Roman Blood is the first book is Steven Saylor's acclaimed Sub Rosa series, which has been very popular in the US. (There are 11 books in the series although only five have to date been released in the UK) The books follow the exploits of Gordianus the Finder - a sort of Roman equivalent to a private detective. While this idea may sound silly to some (a roman private detective? what Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade in a toga!!??) the concept does in fact work well within the political intrigues and double dealing of ancient Rome and its senate. Gordianus' skill and approach is not the conventional detective mantra of deductive reasoning but rather he has an intuitive ability to connect with people of all backgrounds and classes, to understand them at a deeper level than mere external observation would afford. Thus in solving mysteries he simply collects the pieces of the story by taking to people rather than performing great feats of mental dexterity. However the story is far from a bland collection of discussions and has plenty of intrigue and twists to keep the reader entertained. While the books themselves are pure fiction they feature many famous characters from Ancient Rome such as Pompeii, Sulla, Crassus, Caesar etc who are seamlessly and believably woven into the story.
Story (without giving too much away)
Gordianus lives on the Esquiline Hill, in the centre of Rome, in a small run down house with a tiny garden and a half-Jewish slave girl, Bethesda, who doesn't seem to know her place and also serves as Gordianus' s concubine. The story begins in the summer of 80 B.C with the arrival of a slave named Tiro at Gordianus' door stating that his master wishes to employ Gordianus to assist him in an important legal case. The master of Tiro is none other than Marcus Tullius Cicero, (sometimes regarded as the world's first modern lawyer although more famous in history as a politician) who is a novice orator about to undertake his first case in the Rosta (Roman Senatorial Court). Cicero has undertaken the defence of a wealthy farmer named Sextus Roscius on the charge of killing his father and he seeks the help of Gordianus to dig up evidence to help in the defence to save Sextus' life (the punishment for patricide in Ancient Rome was for the criminal to be beaten over the whole of their body so that blood poured from their wounds, then forced to crawl into a sack into which was sewn a snake, a dog, a monkey and a rooster. The sack was then thrown into the river Tiber so it flowed out to sea!!). Gordianus is so skilled at his job that he soon learns the pretext that lured the elder Roscius to his death--a summons from Elena, a young prostitute pregnant with a possible heir. Gordianus finds where the murder was committed; unearths two witnesses who set him on the track of a brutal conspiracy that's stretches to the very top of Roman society; and uncovers some sordid truths about the Roscius family in time for the young Cicero to set off the expected courtroom fireworks with some unexpected twists.
Steven Saylor is a good storyteller with an excellent writing style and a very good historian with a good eye for accuracy and detail. What I most enjoyed about the book was way the author brought ancient Rome to life from the decadence of the ruling elite to the hopelessness of the poor. The book really allows the reader to travel back to the sights, sounds and even smells of the characters world. It was interesting to see that the wants, desires, concerns of ancient Romans were very similar to modern life, social standing, moral values, keeping up with the latest fashion, political advancement, manipulation of the legal system by the lawyers and politicians, etc. The characters in the book were excellent and many will be familiar to anyone who knows a little of Roman history.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to lovers of historical fiction or crime/mystery
Price - I picked this book up for a pound in Waterstones on a trail offer but you can get it at Amazon for £5.59.
Length 560 pages
"Roman Blood" is the first novel in Steven Saylor's enormously popular Roma sub Rosa (Rome under the Rose) series, based around the various investigations of Gordianus the Finder, a sort of private investigator operating during the last days of the Roman Republic. Far less chatty than the other well-known Roman 'tec novels by Lindsay Davis and featuring Marcus Didius Falco, Saylor's novels feel historically accurate, with a great deal of research going into every aspect of Roman life, from clothes and customs even down to the words the various (real) characters use. In "Roman Blood" Gordianus first meets Cicero as the famous advocate employs him to help in gathering evidence in the trial of a man accused of murdering his father. As you might expect, things soon get confusing and, equally as expected, Gordianus sorts it all out in the end. These novels are best read in sequence, by the by, starting with this one, as the path to the fall of the Republic goes on in the background.
First in a series of murder mysteries set in Ancient Rome. Steven Saylor's historical mysteries set in ancient Rome and featuring investigator Gordianus the Finder enjoy a widespread following in America. Over the next two years, Robinson will publish the whole series - five novels to date - in the UK. We begin on 25 September with three titles: Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis in paperback and the most recent title, A Murder on the Appian Way, in hardback. Vivid historical fact, a completely believable world and keen plotting are the hallmarks of Saylor's novels. In Roman Blood Gordianus the Finder - the large, eccentric, philosophical investigator whose famed skills and integrity have made him much sought after in Rome - is hired by the young Cicero to acquit or convict a man accused of murdering his own father, an ugly, delicate case that soon produces dangerous fireworks.