The Judgment of Caesar

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jun 1, 2004
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Nobody does ancient Rome better than Steven Saylor, as fans of his novel -Slaves of the Empire- (written under his nom de soft-core Aaron Travis, and about to enjoy a reissue) can attest. But there were other great powers in the ancient world, and Saylor pays a visit to one of them in a book about loss and rediscovery. Steven Saylor delivers a tale of reconciliation in the tenth installment of his Roma Sub Rosa series.

The most obvious moment of reconnection is between the main character of the series, Gordianus, and his estranged son, Meto. The moment Meto shows up in Alexandria, where Gordianus and his wife Bethesda have journeyed so that Bethesda may bathe in the healing waters of the Nile, it seems like a sure thing that father and son will put their differences aside. It’s been a long time, after all, since Gordianus publicly disowned Meto (back in the eighth book in the series, -Last Seen in Massilia-), and the journey from Rome has been a hard one.

To begin with, the boat on which Gordianus and his family sail to Alexandria is blown off course by a sudden storm; then, when the gale subsides, a new and more political tumult greets Gordianus and company in the form of a fleet of Roman warships under command of Pompey, a bitter enemy of Gordianus and the general opposing Julius Caesar in the Roman civil war. A sudden reversal saves our hero from Pompey’s revenge, but strands Gordianus and his family on the shore, miles from Alexandria. Next, a series of incidents combine to bring Gordianus and party into the presence of King Ptolemy, the Egyptian monarch embroiled in battle with his wife and sister Cleopatra for supreme rule of the land -- but not before Pompey’s wife, Cornelia, has made a gift to Gordianus of a vial of poison.

Like a loaded gun, a bottle of poison glimpsed in the first act is bound to make a reappearance in the third. And sure enough, late in the book a poisoning brings Gordianus’ son Meto under suspicion for treason and attempted assassination. It’s finally time for Gordianus to set aside his anger and disappointment and use his noggin -- because if he fails to clear Meto’s name, he will see his son executed by Cleopatra and her new playmate, Julius Caesar.

And here’s where the next level of reconciliation comes into play, as the parallel civil wars in Egypt and Rome both come to bloody conclusions and a new friendship is forged between the two great countries (and their rulers). Passions boil over; the delicate business of drawing room seductions resound on the battlefield as Alexandria becomes the site of urban warfare and the Nile a proving ground for the forces of Caesar and his Egyptian opposition. It isn’t an easy situation to sort out, but Saylor makes use of the political intrigue afoot in Egypt to recap the saga of Rome’s civil war, as well as to explain, entertainingly, the attitudes and theocentric belief systems of the ancient world.

This development gives rise, finally, to the most pervasive, and most subtle, of the book’s several entwined variations on the theme of reconciliation -- the ecstatic reunion between mortals and the gods. From Cleopatra’s presumptive incarnation of the goddess Isis and Caesar’s claim to be a descendent of Venus to the River God of the Nile appearing to claim some of the characters for his own, gods from ancient times haunt the pages.

The mystery of the poisoning takes a back seat to the greater mysteries of fate and divine will. Saylor doesn’t spend much time on Gordianus’ deductive prowess, though the riddle behind the poisoned wine is deftly put together by Saylor and adroitly unraveled by his characters. What the author places at the center of the work, rather than a standard whodunit, is a sense of life’s unfolding as a mystery in its own right. Rattling around a richly evoked Alexandria, Gordianus is stricken with an acute case of nostalgia; pent up in his rooms at the royal palace, as rioting and war afflict the city, he has time to reflect on the needs of his family and the choices he has made, sometimes selfishly, in the course of meeting them.

Gordianus engages in an inner struggle, for among his terrors and concerns there are regrets as well -- for mistakes, for losses and time vanished, for having spent so many years among the ’great men and women’ of his age, only to come to the realization that, "They’re no better than criminals and madmen, but because they perpetrate their crimes on such a grand scale, the rest of us are expected to bow before them in awe." Saylor is quite a bit younger than the hero of his books, but, precociously enough, he has tapped into the wisdom and the discontent of late middle age. But there is also, by the end, a sense of calm and content as Saylor allows Gordianus (and us with him) a few moments between the bewildering tapestry of half-lies and fuzzy truths that defines life, and the enigma of eternity, to pause and ponder the whims and symmetries of personal and political history.

by Steven Saylor

Publisher: St Martin’s Press. Pages: 290. Publication Date: June 1, 2004. ISBN 0-312-27119-0

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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