Good Reads: Roma Sub Rosa Series
Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa Series
By: Andrea Cole
I’m a Classics nerd and have been since I was in middle school. I love reading Greek and Roman myths and learning all that I can about the history of Classical Europe. But really, my one true love is of Rome. I took six years of Latin in middle and high school, so it’s no wonder that I love everything about the Romans and their culture and history. I find the Late Republic to be the most fascinating of all the periods in Roman history, with Ceasar, Pompey, Cicero, Clodius, Marc Antony, and slew of other characters working their way through each other’s lives. The politics, the intrigue, the mayhem! Oh how I love it! But the other thing I love is a good mystery. Give me a puzzle to solve along with the protagonist and I’m a happy girl. Enter Steven Saylor and his Roma Sub Rosa series.
Steven Saylor is a genius at recreating the grandeur, squalor, intrigue, and daily life of Late Republic Rome (roughly 90 BCE and on). Together with his main character, Gordianus the Finder, he takes us on a ride through some of the most tumultuous years in Roman history. Gordianus is a Finder, or private eye, working to uncover every mystery that comes his way (provided that he gets paid). This leads us to the title of the series, Roma Sub Rosa. “Sub Roma” or “Under the Rose” is a Latin idiom to mean “that which is done in secret”, as the rose was a symbol of secrecy in the ancient world.
Gordianus’ adventures take us from the proscriptions of Sulla to the Catilinarian conspiracies to the First Triumvirate and most recently to Caesar’s time as Dictator for Life. With each book we meet a wide variety of characters, some who end up changing the world and some who don’t. Each character has a role to play and when you meet one of the historical heavies, Saylor makes sure that you do not see just a stereotype, but offers insight into each man and woman, his or her character and motivations. Characters such as Clodia, Caesar, and Cicero do not circle the periphery of the plot, but are all made real and play integral parts in every story in which they appear.
The series itself is an interesting set of books and short stories. Saylor has written scads of short stories featuring his Finder and has compiled many of those stories into anthologies inserted appropriately into the timeline of the books. The most recent of these compilations is The Seven Wonders, which chronicles the adventures of a young Gordianus exploring the Mediterranean and the Seven Wonders of the World, culminating in his time in Alexandria, an oft referenced time in Gordianus’ life. The other books in the series are proper novels, progressing in a single timeline from a youthful Gordianus to a self-described “grey beard”. We see the major events of the fall of the Republic through his eyes and learn what it must have felt like for a regular person living in that time.
The stories themselves are mysteries through and through. But Saylor doesn’t fall into the trap of laying a scene and progressing through the steps of a mid-range whodunit. Instead, he uses his mysteries to explain each book’s particular place in history and they mysteries themselves don’t always have the most obvious solutions. The prose is full of humor, detail, sadness, sensuality, and more than a little cynicism regarding Roman politics. Characters are well constructed and rarely contradict themselves. Historical figures are more than plot devices. My one criticism when it comes to the characterization is Saylor’s lack of originality when it comes to the fictional women of Rome. The women with historical influence are full of depth and well thought out, while the purely fictional ones lack a certain sparkle or fade over time. The prime example of this is Bethesda, Gordianus’ wife. At the beginning of the series she is full of fire and over time we see her almost fade away completely. Other female characters in the series also appear to be higher forms of stereotypes of Roman women, the maid, the matron, the mother-in-law, etc. These characterizations sometimes lead to stilted heteronormative relationships, while the homosexual relationships discussed do not often have this problem.
That being said, I highly recommend anyone who is looking for a mystery series, historical fiction, or otherwise captivating read to try the series. Start with the original book, Roman Blood, and continue on from there. Lose yourself in Rome and discover the mysteries of the ancient world.
For more information on Steven Saylor and the Roma Sub Rosa series, visit firstname.lastname@example.org