Toiling in the Trenches
STEVEN SAYLOR tells Sarah Cuthbertson how he unearths murder and mayhem in Ancient Rome (and finds a link to Bill and Monica).
I met Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Roma series of mystery novels featuring Gordianus the Finder, in his London hotel during his recent book tour of the UK. To date there are five novels in the series*, which is set amid the tumultuous events leading up to the end of the Roman Republic. All but one are based on the murder trials in which Cicero made his most famous speeches.
Steven talked enthusiastically of his work, which has met with popular and critical success in the USA and is now being published here by Robinson to great acclaim from both readers and reviewers.
Born in small-town Texas in 1956, his first exposure to the classical world was a crudely-censored version of Cleopatra, which his older brother took him to see at the local drive-in. Similar films followed – Ben Hur, Spartacus, Jason and the Argonauts.
Over tea, I ask him about his early reading influences. ‘I’d put Tolkien at the top of the list. I noticed in one of the issues [Solander 1] someone had written a piece about the relationship between Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Tolkien’s Hobbit [Dominique Nightingale, Fantastic History or Historical Fantasy?]. I picked up on that immediately because I read a lot of Tolkien when I was young and I think that’s had a big influence on my work – that whole thing of building a big world that you can move around in. In Tolkien’s case it was largely fantastic and creative. In mine, I already had a place to go, but I try to give it the same kind of richness. I hoped to create something on Tolkien’s scale, that roominess of the world that you find yourself in, very vivid and expansive. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, but I think that when I got to college those kinds of genres stopped working for me. They seemed too made-up, too small. I became interested in historical novels. That’s when I read Mika Waltari – The Etruscan, The Roman, The Egyptian. And Robert Graves – King Jesus. I love that book. And before that, while I was still in high school, Mary Renault.
‘I read all of her stuff. I love those books, of course.’He knew from an early age that he wanted to be not so much a writer as an author.
‘In the States, we had a rummy game called Authors. All the cards had a picture of an author on them, Dickens, Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and they would also list the works of that author. When I was about seven, we were all asked at school what we wanted to be when we grew up. I didn’t say I wanted to be a writer, but an author like the people on those cards.’ He laughs as he explains the distinction:
‘As an author, you had your picture on the card and a list of works. It’s amazing. I cannot believe that I now have a body of work. So I guess I was always aiming toward that, one way or another, from childhood.’
Steven graduated in history from the University of Texas. ‘I studied ancient Greece and Rome and on into Byzantium and Russia. I wasn’t raised having a classical education. That simply wasn’t done in central Texas when I was a boy. I don’t have a lot of Latin, but I had my childhood interest in the ancient world from popular culture and when I got to college and realised I could seriously study this as a legitimate enterprise, that was wonderful. Of course, you’re always asked when you’re studying history, what will you do with that? And I wish I’d thought to say I’d write historical novels. But I didn’t have the foresight for that.’
And the writing? ‘After college I wrote for the gay press in San Francisco for about ten years – newspaper and magazine work. Then when I came to write Roman Blood, I found I’d met enough editors and agents to give me some entree.’
He came late to the mystery genre, discovering Sherlock Holmes at the age of 30 through the television production with Jeremy Brett, ‘the quintessential Holmes. I read everything. I spent a whole summer just addicted to that.’ A trip to Rome followed soon after. Steven describes it with fond enthusiasm. ‘From California, you arrive in Rome so jet-lagged you wouldn’t believe it. But, having studied ancient Rome in college, you’re so excited to be there. It’s 9 o’clock in the morning and you haven’t slept for thirty hours. I remember stumbling into the Forum feeling like I was hallucinating, seeing these ruins. That trip was just wonderful.
‘So when I got back to San Francisco, I wanted to read classics again. I was interested in mysteries at that point, and the first thing I found in a used bookstore was Michael Grant’s translation of Cicero’s Murder Trials. I thought, this is going to be perfect – ancient Rome, true crime. The first one I read was the oration on Sextus Roscius, a man accused of murdering his father. It seems straightforward at the start, but it ends up with the dictator Sulla being involved and as they go into higher circles, Gordianus and Cicero are in greater and greater danger the more they find out. I thought, it’s like a John Grisham thriller!’
Out of such serendipity was Roma sub Rosa born. But at that stage, Steven had no intention of developing a series. Inspired by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, ‘a template of the history-mystery nexus’ as he describes it, he thought that like Eco, he had written a literary novel. It sold well in the States, but he was taken aback when his publishers asked for a sequel. ‘Then I thought, what an opportunity they’re offering me here. I couldn’t ask for a better field, more wonderful material. The murders, the trials, would all come very easily. So I thought it wasn’t such an unreasonable request – I myself always wanted more from authors I liked. It was an honour, actually.’
Where did Gordianus come in? ‘I wrote the first 60 pages of Roman Blood, the first draft, with Cicero as the narrator, but after researching his character, I realised that to spend 24 hours a day with him was going to be an ordeal. And having him as the sympathetic narrator wouldn’t have worked for the whole series. I needed another point of view, so I had him bring in Gordianus as a detective. There’s no real record of detectives in ancient Rome that I know of, but it does make sense that in the litigious late Republic there would be independent agents who were skilled at digging up dirt, such as Gordianus. And he’s not a patrician. If he were part of that upper class, he’d have all sorts of prejudices and links to other people. So he’s the outsider, able to see everything from a distance.’
Steven sees him as something of an alter ego. ‘But he always makes the right choices, the moral choice. I don’t know if I would do that, but through him I’m able to explore that and do it.’
Steven has been criticised for making Gordianus somewhat anachronistic, particularly in his compassion for slaves. His answer is robust. ‘My view of history is the Tolstoyan one, that there’s a core of moral decency that all human beings everywhere, at all times, share, and that we’re not really so very strange to each other through time and space. And if you think about it, history is the record of the winners. It’s about the rich and powerful and most of them are pretty awful. I think the common people are often more like Gordianus – fairly decent, if they have the chance.’
‘Gordianus is kind to slaves,’ I suggest, ‘but he never actually questions the institution of slavery.’ Steven agrees. ‘Now that would be an anachronism. It’s so much part of the social structure you’d have to have been very imaginative to think of any other way of doing it.’
Some reviewers have commented on the homoerotic element in Steven’s work. ‘It’s part of the Roman world,’ he says, ‘and Roman attitudes to homosexuality to me, it seems, are largely about power. They use it for character assassination – Cicero is one of the worst. The scandal is not being homosexual, but of being the passive partner in a homosexual act. If you’re a citizen and you have power, it’s okay to have sex with slaves and gender’s not really the issue. The issue is what you do, and if you were to lower your dignity and assume the feminine or passive role, that’s what they find offensive, for a man. So it’s very much a power role, and of course women lose out in a world like that because they’re always at the low end of the order.
‘I think if I weren’t gay myself, I wouldn’t be as scrupulous about including the homosexuality. In a way, I wish there were more. In Arms of Nemesis there actually is a gay couple and they have the happy ending, whereas the other (heterosexual) couple don’t. So I’m doing a subversive thing here, and that’s very gratifying.
‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I write about the ancient world BC, because the whole Christian ethos of the Byzantine era would have been problematic for me. I like the world of Caesar, Pompey and Sulla, just because the morals are a little looser. I think I’ve reached that pre-Christian view of the world.’
I ask him if he found it difficult to make the leap of the imagination he needed to take him into that world. ‘Yes, it is difficult, because even if one is not a Christian, if you’re raised in a Christian society all of your values come from that. This has been one of the challenges.’
This brings us to research, a particular delight to Steven. ‘It’s so much fun. It’s the best part of the book in a way, because as long as it’s at the research stage, it’s still a perfect pearl in my mind, just an image of the novel. The research itself – it’s like being a detective, I think, except you’re in the library. You find a name here and you realise you saw that name somewhere else. You track down the reference and you suddenly think, oh, it’s the same person. You start seeing all the connections, finding the clues. It’s very gratifying.
‘These days, I seem to do about three months’ hard research, then although I may not be totally finished, I’m just ready to write. Then I’ll stop and do a bit of on-the-spot research when I need to.’
His most invaluable tool is William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, which his companion, Rick, found for him on their first visit to London five years ago. ‘It lists everything known about the Romans at the time (1869), every citation, every author. It’s an incredible source for me.’
I comment on the richness of accumulated detail that makes Rome so vivid in his work, like the leaky aqueduct in A Murder on the Appian Way. ‘That,’ he says, ‘comes straight out of Juvenal. When we’re moving through Rome in the books, I do as much research as I can about where we’re going – the temple that’s in front of us, the sacred grove we’re passing by. All those details are authentic – the tombs, the brigands at the Monument of Basilius, which is mentioned in several places in the ancient texts.’
The challenge, he says, is knowing how much expository detail to include. ‘I know readers who come from not really having anything except popular knowledge. They’ll know BC from AD hopefully, but not always. And the kind of reader who likes historical novels does want a certain amount of exposition. But there are also readers who don’t want to stop for it. So I usually start out with more and gradually whittle it away. I try to make it as painless and logical as possible, but even so the classicist Mary Beard in the Times Literary Supplement called me on too much exposition and then forgave me because I was writing about what she called ‘the fiendishly complicated later period’. And I thought, that’s the word – fiendish – because I’ve toiled in that trench and even I don’t have a clear picture of all those politics. It’s only come to me as I’ve written each novel. So it’s a learning process for me, too: finding out all the sources, trying to make sense of the events and the larger background. If you ask me now about later events in the civil war, I’d say, wait – I’m not there yet. I do have a bigger picture, but those fiendishly complicated details I do have to research fully. I can’t leave them out entirely. It’s always a problem to know how much is too much, and how much will slow down the plot. I hope I strike a proper balance.’
It’s a telling indication of the thoroughness of Steven’s research that his books are on the reading lists of many classics courses in American schools and colleges. He has also been invited to address the American Classical League. This he regards as a great compliment. ‘I expected to be thought of as an interloper, an upstart, but I’ve received wonderful support from American classicists.’
Their British colleagues have been equally impressed. Steven was delighted with Mary Beard’s favourable TLS review, but he was also pleased when a classicist he met in Manchester told him how much he liked his books. ‘To hear that here means a lot to me.’
Fans of Roma sub Rosa will be happy to know that Steven intends to continue the series as far as Antony and Cleopatra. The sixth novel, Rubicon, will be published in the USA next year, with a seventh, Lost in Massilia, to follow. Steven also plans to backtrack to Gordianus’s early wanderings, before he took up professional sleuthing. This he sees as a series of semi-independent stories set among the Seven Wonders of the World, each containing a murder mystery.
He has, however, taken a break from ancient Rome to write a novel set in Austin, Texas in 1885. Tentatively titled Honor the Dead, and due for publication in 2000, it’s based on a serial murder that predates Jack the Ripper by three years. ‘Visiting Texas one summer I found a reference in a history book to something called the Servant Girl Annihilator and I followed it up, thinking one of these days I’d do something with it. A couple of years later my agent sold the idea to Simon & Schuster because of The Alienist – American period crime. I spent the next summer researching in Texas and couldn’t believe what I found – the politics, the scandal. One of the victims was a respectable young lady who worked behind her husband’s back as a prostitute, sleeping with some of the biggest names in the state government. Her murder appears to be the work of the serial killer – or was it her husband? I think it’ll be a good read. I hope people will like it.’
Talking of politics, I ask Steven if he sees any comparison between ancient Rome and modern America. ‘I used to say no, but in my lifetime the tone of politics has changed. The use of litigation as a tool, of character assassination by sexual innuendo, didn’t really exist when I was a boy. The watershed seems to be the 1985 Senate hearings, when Clarence Thomas was accused by a female employee of sexual harassment. And now we have the Bill Clinton and Monica thing – a natural progression. So that’s very relevant: tying up your enemies through litigation just as the Romans did, using the courts as they’re really not intended to be used.’
Finally, I ask Steven what he thinks of the historical novel as a genre. ‘It’s a form of escape like fantasy or science fiction and yet it’s a little more cogent because it does have a tie to reality.’ He’s sceptical of its ability to teach the lessons of history. ‘But it does tell us about past times, which is important, because so many people seem to have no vision of the past at all. Yet among the literati in America, and it’s probably the same here, it’s not highly thought of as a genre.’ The reason for this, he thinks, may be that academics who teach English favour the novel of experience, the modern psychological novel.
I leave Steven to embark on the next stage of what he later called his ‘magical mystery tour’ of England. In between the talks and signings, he says, ‘I have to get in touch with the ruins again.’
And who knows what murder mysteries may be lurking there for the descendants of Gordianus the Finder?
(c) Sarah Cuthbertson, 1998
First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 4 (Autumn 1998).