Roma, Steven Saylor's latest novel, is one of the most interesting experiments in historical fiction in the last years. Through more than 500 pages, the History of Roman monarchy and republic is drawn before our eyes, with its legendary, mythical and historical facts ingeniousely mixed. Roma is not one singule novel, but a set of short stories, covering 1000 years of Roman history, from 1000 b.C. until I b.C., tightly connected, but independent enough to be read seperatly. The link between all the short stories is a gold talisman, the Fascinus, presented in the novel as the first god worshiped in Rome - actually even before Rome was born as a permanent walled settlement. This gold charm passes as a heirloom from generation to generation, through two families more ancient than Rome itself - the Potitii and the Pinarii -, and it's through the eyes of its wearers that we see the birth of Rome, and the main events, actual or mythical, which turned a small settlement in the confluence of trader routes into the most powerful nation in the Ancient World.
Thus the story begins much earlier than the birth of the mythological twins, in the VIIIth century. Saylor's narrative begins about 1000 b.C., in the banks of the Tiber, where Lars and her daughter Lara initiate the cult of Fascinus, the flying phallus. Of course, it may not be a coincidence that Lara is the name of a Tiber nymph and mother of the Lares. Here begins Saylor's ingenious mixing of myth, legend and history, best seen in Chapter II, presenting as the legend of Cacus and Hercules, and that's also when we see for the first time the Potitii, descendents from Lara and the Fascinus wearers, and the Pinarii - and the legendary origin of the herculean cult in Rome, as told by Vergil in Aen. VIII, 262-279. Always skillfully, through the rest of the book we witness the legendary birth of the Roman Republic, in 753 b.C. (chapter III), the Republic, Coriolanus's sedition and Lucretia suicide (chapter IV), Verginia's rape and the XII tables (chapter V), the capitoline geese and the Gauls (chapter VI), Appius Claudius Caecus and the building of the Appian Way (chapter VII), Scipio Africanus and Plautus (chapter VIII), the Gracchi (chapter IX), Sulla's horror and young Caesar (chapter X), and finally the rise of Octavianus (chapter XI).
We could be lead to think such a large chronological span would become a fragmentary narrative. It is not. Roma is rather a coherent and fascinating narrative fabric. And, as usual, Saylor's erudition is irreprochable - but, what's most, it nevers get boring, it never sounds as a History lecture, as it happens with so many historical fiction writers. Saylor's narrative is vivide and dynamical, we often think he actually was there, witnissing all and telling us what he really saw (please Steven, take me with you next time you travell to ancient Rome). And that's not something easy to do: the trick in historical fiction is to make us believe the author was there, and make us think "I know this is not real, I know I'm being dupped, but I like it and I don't care, as this could and may have happened just like he says".
But to forget willfully this was writen not by a roman but by a XXIst century man, that's only one of Roma's many qualities. Roma is an excellent novel, skillfully writen, a finest historical fiction, proving once again (if necessary) Steven Saylor is one of the best storytellers in modern fiction.
About the didactical qualities of this novel, that's something to talk about in another post. Coming soon.