This book review was first published on Suite101.com on April 27, 2011
Steven Saylor in his book, Empire continues the story of the Pinarii family history in Ancient Rome as started in Roma, Saylor's previous book.
Empire begins where Roma left off by showing us the progress of the Pinarii under the rule of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. At the start of the book, Augustus is becoming older and what has been regarded as the golden age is soon going to come to an end.
Saylor uses this old established family, which he has invented, to tell tales from different reigns of the emperors beginning with Lucius Pinarius, an augur (a reader of omens), these being very important to the Romans as their readings were used to judge whether their actions were receiving the approval of the gods.
This role brings him into contact with the Imperial household and provides Saylor with the opportunity to create his impressions of key characters from Roman history through dialogue and scenarios.
Saylor creates a real sense of the dangers as well as the benefits of being close to power. The Pinarii become more popular due to their connections but they are constantly aware that this can swing to disfavour and Saylor conjures a clear picture of the metaphorical tightrope that senators were obliged to navigate in order to ensure not only their personal safety but the future prosperity of their families.
For Lucius, this means the security of his identical twin sons, Titus and Kaeso. Lucius is ultimately forced to leave Rome as he is exiled by Tiberius, Augustus' successor, the alternative being death, and reluctantly, he moves his family to Alexandria.
When Titus and Kaeso are of age, they return to Rome, Titus thrilled at being there, Kaeso less so. They arrive in turbulent times when Caligula is wearing the laurel wreath and abusing his power magnificently. This is illustrated perfectly by Saylor when he shows us the twins' first audience with the emperor. They are initially excited at the prospect, especially Titus who is eager to improve the family's position under the new emperor.
However, this keen anticipation is soon dissipated as the meeting turns into a humiliating experience where the emperor wields his power to its full extent. Caligula uses the fact that the twins are identical and have brought their wives with them to involve them in something degrading purely for his own amusement. Saylor creates a sense of the helplessness of the twins and the inevitability that they must comply or suffer.
There are other cringe-making scenarios like this throughout the book, vividly giving the reader a picture of the madness of Imperial Rome and the extreme danger of placing power with someone prone to frivolity.
Added to this are the imagined descriptions of the games which truly show the Romans' obsession with brutality as a spectator sport whether this involved watching bears tear at a rhinoceros or the humiliation and torture of the perceived enemies of Rome. The burning of Christians by Nero is particularly gruesome and unforgiving.
The madness of emperors continues with the reign of Domitian, prone to random acts of violence against people he believes are plotting to depose him. This is paranoia at its most deadly. There is more and more of this throughout the book and to avoid becoming too list-like, it is fair to say that whoever the emperor, the events that Saylor chooses to describe within that reign are threatening, most likely violent, and gripping to read.
The ability to create a vivid world by description and characterisation is Saylor's strength. He transports you to the ancient world as he did in his Roma Sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder. In Empire, he manages successfully, by choosing to follow the fortunes of one family, to examine many different aspects of life in Ancient Rome, from the tasks of the augur to the limitations of the life of a vestal virgin, to the persecution of the Christians. As an introduction to the world of the Roman Empire, Saylor provides an accessible platform which is entertaining and extremely learned. As Saylor has only taken us to a certain point in the empire, one can only hope that Empire 2 is being drafted at this minute.