Roma – my airport novel

My two holiday books during my 8 days in Germany were Lark Rise to Candleford, 537 pages of sheer delight, and Roma by Steven Saylor, 663 pages of mixed fascination and irritation.

The fascination came, first, with discovering how skilfully Saylor selects moments in the thousand years BC that he chooses to cover, so as to give the reader a sense of what was important to people in the growing city state. Livy is Saylor's hero in historiography – the book is dedicated to his shade – though Saylor goes several steps further than Livy when he describes his own work work as a novel. Thus he absolves himself of the duty of being historically complete, even though he clearly strives to be historically accurate.

The second cause of fascination was to find out how a 21st century writer deals with legend and with religion. Hercules and Cacus get a whole chapter to themselves, and one of the two fictional families, whose fortunes are followed throughout the book, springs from one or other of the two – the Greek hero or the local bully. Clearly Saylor is making a point about the formative influences on the growing city. What is more, both characters are presented as real people, and I think on the whole just about believably. Romulus and Remus are local toughs, and their story is told in a way that brings it nearer to fact than myth. Some of the best loved Livy tales, of Horatius and Gaius Mucius for instance, are omitted, and others referred back to by later characters. Religion is given the all-pervading importance that it almost certainly had, and the tension between state religious ritual and private belief is well managed.

With such a vast canvas to fill, it is inevitable that some characters come alive where others remain cardboard. (Pardon the mixed metaphors!) Julius Caesar and the young Octavian are, at times, more than cardboard.

What irritated me? Strange how a tiny thing can itch. One word came far too often – atop – atop a horse, atop the Capitol. Perhaps it's a common American word, but I mentally substituted 'on', or occasionally 'on top of.' Much more serious is the dialogue. It is not believable. Here is Tiberius Gracchus on the day of his murder, addressing his supporters:

But if I should perceive an immediate threat, and require a ring of brave men around me, I may not be able to cry out to you.

Oh dear! Living speech might take a few more words, but what a difference it would have made. Or here is Plautus, in informal conversation 'amid the din of hammering' after the news of Cannae has reached Rome;

Like everyone else, in the light of the crisis, I had assumed that the plays would be cancelled.

You get the picture. I don't think Saylor tries out his dialogue, either aloud or even in his head. Both the examples I have quoted sound as though they come from a scripted chairman's address to a meeting of shareholders.

But if you can cope with that, and the filling in of large chunks of history by the device of getting a boy to recite his lessons, then do read the book. There is enough good content to make up for the style.

Roma, the epic novel of ancient Rome by Steven Saylor

Pub. Robinson, £7.99 paperback
ISBN 978-184529-566-0

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