The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor is the 16th Novel of Ancient Rome, which turns to the most famous murder in history: It’s Rome, 44 B.C., and the Ides of March are approaching (available February 20, 2018).
Author Steven Saylor had a real dilemma on his hands. With 15 historical mystery novels set in ancient Rome under his belt, he eventually had to address perhaps the most famous murder of ancient Roman times: the murder of Caesar.
The mystery part is the challenge here. Anyone who’s heard the line “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare is familiar with at least one of the Roman dictator’s killers. Saylor still does a great job building the tension towards the anticipated stabbing of Caesar in the back, showing both the chaos and the odd politics of the aftermath, and throwing in another famously savage murder as a twist. When the destination of the story is known, it’s the journey that’s important, and Saylor delivers a fascinating eyewitness account of one of the seminal events in ancient times.
Gordianus, who has a reputation for solving murders and causing people to unwittingly divulge information, is summoned by none other than Caesar himself on March 10 to ascertain whether there’s a plot against him that he should be concerned about before he leaves Rome on his latest conquest of a foreign land. The date Caesar is to address the Senate one more time before leaving? March 15. The Ides of March, of course. Spoiler alert!
It goes without saying that Gordianus fails to prevent Caesar’s death. Even though the Finder meets many toga-wearing suspects—I don’t like the looks of that Brutus guy—he doesn’t quite figure out that there’s not just one but a whole mob of Senators ready to skewer the dictator. There are a number of close calls where Gordianus almost figures it out and warns Caesar, including some circumstances that are especially tragic for Caesar.
The failure by the Finder to carry out his mission threatens to undermine the reader’s faith in his abilities as a mystery solver, but Gordianus does redeem himself as a sleuth by the end of the book. He’s clearly better at solving murders than preventing them.
This novel provides Saylor the opportunity to lay out some epic scenes, and he delivers. From meeting Caesar, Cleopatra, and their secret love child in their garden to the murder of Caesar to Marc Antony’s famous speech—with an original and powerful take—at Caesar’s funeral, this is a star-studded tour through ancient Rome.
Antony did something even more provocative. He paid aside the will, which he had been clutching all this time, using it to jab the air for emphasis. With both hands he took hold of the pole on which Caesar’s effigy was mounted. He raised the effigy high in the air and strode from one end of the Rostra to the other, back and forth, turning the effigy to show all sides of it.
“I cannot show you the body,” Antony shouted, “but I can show you the toga he wore on the last day of his life. Every place the fabric is torn and stained with blood marks the cut of a dagger that ripped his flesh. So many daggers! So much blood!”
The effect on the crowd was like a thunderbolt from heaven. The sound of weeping, wailing, moaning, screaming, shouting, and the banging of swords on shields was deafening. Never had I heard such a din.
The chaos that ensued was intense. This novel shows how Rome was in flux after Caesar’s death and how certain groups capitalized on that opportunity.
There are many religious rituals described in detail—some seemingly innocent and some shockingly bloody. Gordianus doesn’t seem to mind that his wife and daughter belong to a group that worships Bacchus, the god of wine, who sometimes drives his followers into a cannibalistic frenzy.
Hey, everyone has hobbies, right?
Saylor also takes characters that were present but little-known and builds them into interesting figures. Gordianus finds a drinking buddy in Cinna the poet. He was a real poet in Rome, but his most well-known work, Zmyrna, has been lost over the years. Saylor recreates most of the poem—which is about an incestuous king and princess—in a way that’s both captivating and cleverly woven into the plot.
Perhaps the best quality of The Throne of Caesar is that it’s easy to read and not bogged down by overdoing historical references that would go over the heads of most readers. After sampling my first taste of the Roma Sub Rosa series, I’m interested in going back and reading what I missed.
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Brian Bandell writes science fiction and mystery thrillers for Silver Leaf Books at http://www.silverleafbooks.com/Authors_Bandell.htm. He’s a senior reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. You can also follow him at @brianbandell