The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor
23 January, 2011
In ancient myth, the Egyptian god Horus (whom the romans called Harpocrates) came upon Venus engaged in one of her many love affairs. Cupid, her son, gave a rose to Horus as a bribe to keep him quiet; thus Horus became the god of silence, and the rose became the symbol of confidentiality. A rose hanging over a council table indicated that all present were sworn to secrecy. Sub Rosa (‘under the rose’) has come to mean ‘that which is carried out in secret’. Thus ‘Roma sub Rosa’: the secret history of Rome, as seen through the eyes of Gordianus.
The Triumph of Caesar is Steven Saylor’s 12th book in his Roma sub Rosa series about Gordianus the Finder who goes looking for, and uncovers, mysteries in ancient Rome. Saylor’s series begins in 80 BC as the Roman Empire edges towards civil war and Gordianus is a young man seeking to further his career. The first book in the series, Roman Blood, sees Gordianus hired by Cicero to help him with a case. One of the things I like about Saylor’s series is that it spans almost forty years in which we see Gordianus grow and age together with the changing tides of Roman history.
In The Triumph of Caesar, it is 46 BC and Caesar has returned triumphant to Rome with Cleopatra and their unacknowledged son Caesarion by his side as he prepares to celebrate the defeat of his enemies and the end of the civil war that has torn the Roman empire apart. Caesar is now dictator and is planning a series of four triumphal parades to celebrate his victories. Gordianus, recently returned from his previous adventure in Egypt safely with his wife Bethesda, is not interested in politics and is looking forward to a quiet retirement. He is rudely summoned by Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, who has been suffering from nightmares about Caesar’s impending death. Gordianus isn’t interested in getting involved until he finds out that her previous employee Hieronymous was murdered. Hieronymous had once saved Gordianus’ life in Massilia and lived with his family for a while. Gordianus agrees to find out who killed him and in doing so uncover any threats towards Caesar. Complicating matters is Hieronymous’ extensive social network and Gordianus must once again cross paths with the famous and powerful of Rome including the usual suspects Cicero, Mark Anthony, Brutus, Cleopatra and Caesar’s prisoners, Arsinoë and Vercingetorix. It was rather shocking for me to read about Vercingetorix, defeated and facing execution, when up until now I have only known him as the stalwart warrior in the Asterix comics (which shows the extent of my knowledge of Gaul).
Saylor certainly knows his history but he wears his research lightly, deftly putting in details so that it feels a part of the story rather than a lecture. His characters are well rounded and complex, and although the mystery doesn’t leave you astounded at the conclusion, The Triumph of Caesar is more than a mystery but less than a history book. I’m a huge fan of historical mysteries and for me, the two best Roman historical mystery series are the Roma Sub Rosa series by Saylor and the Marcus Didius Falco series by Lyndsey Davis. They both differ in the historical period (Davis’ is set much later during the Emperor Vaspasian’s time) and approach (Davis’ has more comic touches), nevertheless, I have learnt so much from both. Saylor’s is darker and adhere’s more to the historical literature of the period, two of his novels are about Cicero and Catilina, and shows the unforgiving side of Rome. Caesar also looms large in Saylor’s series, although he is in the background in the earlier books, slowly taking over and growing in stature as his power increases.
Saylor’s interest is in the politics of the period and he is very good at recreating the often messy, yet extremely organised Roman political and military systems. I’m not a huge fan of battle scenes or military history, but Saylor shows how crucial it was to the might of Rome and how intricate the double and triple dealings that I didn’t mind it at all.
I also enjoyed reacquainting myself with Gordianus’ family: his wife Bethesda, once his slave and now a free Roman matron, his daughter Diana, his two adopted sons Meto (Caesar’s trusted soldier) and Eco (who has followed in Gordianus’ footsteps), Rupa, mute and newly adopted, and Mopsus and Androcles his two slave boys. Theirs is a warm household amidst a busy and bustling city.
If you are interested in the period or in historical mysteries, I urge you to give Saylor’s series a try. However I do think that it is best to start right at the beginning with Roman Blood so that you can grow together with Gordianus and understand how Rome’s political system evolved.