In Empire, the sequel to his New York Times bestseller Roma, Steven Saylor returns to the multi-generational saga, this time depicting the fortunes and tragedies of his fictional Pinarius family during the ostentatious reigns of the emperors— an era of incredible wealth, intrigue, and corruption. Saylor’s encyclopedic knowledge and sense of detail are on ample display, as is his impressive ability to weave centuries of history into entertaining narrative. From the follies of Nero and Caligula to the oddities of Claudius and paranoiac tyranny of Domitian, Saylor brings to vivid life the swift, often lethal changes in imperial power, as well as the upheaval caused for those who, upon serving one emperor, found themselves subjected to the proclivities or vengeance of his successor.
Because Saylor mines a richly documented time in Rome’s history, there is ample grandeur and brutality, even if the sheer volume of information can prove overwhelming. Empire has some intense set-pieces, such as the horrific mass execution of Christians under Nero; a day-long bloody event at the newly completed Coliseum; a banquet of death in which Domitian decides one man’s fate based on a whim; and a transcendent encounter with a lion. Yet because so much of interest happens, the reader is often whisked through momentous events, such as the eruption of Vesuvius, while left to linger at erudite philosophical discussions. At times, the fictional protagonists fail to engage as much as their historical counterparts, and Saylor’s female characters are mere sketches, though many Roman women had significant power. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise magnificent feat of storytelling; for despite his unwieldy canvas, Saylor has once again managed to capture the indomitable spirit and enduring legend of Rome herself.