The Triumph of Caesar
by Steven Saylor
Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur
320 pages, 2008
No Rest for the Dead
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
The tenth novel in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, The Triumph of Caesar, feels a bit like a valedictory lap. The ambiguous ending of Saylor’s previous series outing, The Judgment of Caesar (2004), seemed to kill off both Saylor’s grizzled detective, Gordianus the Finder, and his wife, Bethesda. Yet here they are again, back in their house on ancient Rome’s Palatine Hill, Bethesda’s illness mysteriously cured and Gordianus none the worse for his apparent drowning in the Nile. Gordianus has officially retired, but, as always, for the right reasons he can be coaxed into a little light investigation.
Julius Caesar, the dictator of Rome, and Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, have followed the Gordianus clan back to Rome, and Caesar is planning to celebrate not one but four triumphs in recognition of his many military victories around the Mediterranean. Hieronymus, an old friend of Gordianus (introduced in 2000’s Last Seen in Massilia) has become a spy for Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, and gotten himself stabbed in the heart for his pains. Calpurnia is obsessed with the idea that Caesar’s life is in danger, and Gordianus reluctantly agrees to investigate Hieronymus’ death.
What follows is essentially a police procedural, with Gordianus traipsing around town interviewing people who knew Hieronymus and attending the four triumphs. The pattern feels familiar, because it’s essentially the same plot as that of A Mist of Prophecies (2002), the eighth book in the Roma Sub Rosa series: Gordianus investigating the life of a friend he didn’t really know that well by talking to a cast of the rich and powerful. Gordianus is tired -- he can’t climb the stairs to Hieronymus’ rooftop apartment very easily, for example -- and The Triumph of Caesar feels a little drowsy, too.
Saylor’s vivid character sketches of historical figures are just as strong as always, with bright cameos by Arsinoë (Cleopatra’s younger sister) and, for the first time in this series, the aloof, reserved Octavius (the future emperor Augustus). But Saylor’s acute historical sensibility is aware that his readers already know how the story ends: Caesar is going to be assassinated.
Much of this is due to Shakespeare, whose play Julius Caesar made Caesar, Mark Antony and Brutus into household names. Saylor’s Calpurnia, with her maybe-not-so-paranoid fears, owes much to Shakespeare’s anxious portrayal of Calpurnia. And it is easy to recognize the vacillating Brutus of Shakespeare in Saylor’s unguarded, unpredictable Brutus. (Mark Antony’s Shakespearean demagoguery, however, isn’t on display in Saylor’s book, Antony being too busy sulking and drinking instead.)
Saylor cleverly cuts off his book before Caesar himself is cut down by knives in the Senate house. Nevertheless, it’s hard for a reader of The Triumph of Caesar to feel much narrative tension over possible plots against Caesar’s life when the historical record affirms the success of those very plots.
A year before The Triumph of Caesar reached bookstores, Saylor published a Colleen McCullough-style epic novel titled simply Roma. While the Gordianus series has chronicled the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, Roma scrolled backward in time to the earliest days of the republic, following a single family through several generations and offering plausible historical explanations for the origins of many of Rome’s civic myths. Gordianus is getting old, like the Roman Republic, and it’s hard not to assume that, once Caesar dies, so will the Roma Sub Rosa series. And Saylor will move on to other writing interests. Roma was likely a step in his new direction.
”For a great many people, I suspect, attending Caesar’s fourth and final triumph was done more from perseverance than pleasure,” Gordianus muses as he awaits the start of the last triumph. “It is a Roman trait -- to see a thing through to its end; the same dogged determination that has made us the possessors of a vast empire applies to every other aspect of life.”
I suspect we’ve seen Gordianus through to the end, as well. Though you never know. | June 2008
Caroline Cummins, a longtime contributor to January Magazine, is now the managing editor of the online food magazine Culinate.