Dominus: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Written by Steven Saylor
Review by J. Lynn Else

Following his novels Roma and Empire comes Steven Saylor’s latest about the Pinarii family, Dominus. Spanning seven generations between 165 to 326 AD, Dominus introduces us to emperors and senators during the rise of Christianity and the tumultuous final years of Rome as the center of the ancient world.

Saylor’s series starts in prehistory and ends with Emperor Constantine’s reign in Dominus. While not as prevalent as in Roma, the best moments arise from humble, mortal manifestations and subsequently evolve into myths, affecting later Roman society in their telling and retelling. The author doesn’t adjust the facts to fit his narrative (thank you for this incredible accuracy to detail!), and the historical setting is enchantingly immersive. Little-known historical figures are brought to life, like the rebellious Zenobia, whose fate and legacy become similar to Cleopatra’s after she defies Rome.

My one major gripe surrounds the Christian characters, who only ever talk about their longing to die as martyrs, and the more painful, the better. This is ascribed to almost every single Christian. Saylor does a great job presenting the Roman viewpoint (from their confusion about monotheism to their revulsion), but the Christians are presented with great disdain, which sometimes feels more authorial than character-based.

Like a literary master class, Saylor’s novels possess a rich, masterfully woven historical setting and characters (though in his author’s note, he lists three books he labels “wretched whitewashes” and “lousy fiction,” putdowns I find distasteful and hope other authors don’t emulate). Dominus is an epic, poignant look at one family stepping through the pages of Roman history, each generation writing their stories atop the last. As facts blur, Saylor presents a compelling narrative of what’s left behind in history’s wake.