Interview with Steven Saylor
Mr. Saylor was featured on the podcast “Save Me a Seat at the Triumph, and Let’s throw a Cabbage at the Gaul.” The following is a transcript of the interview.
Rob Cain: On the telephone we have Steven Saylor who is the author of the Roma Sub Rosa series of the historical mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder. The action is set in the ancient Rome of Cicero and Caesar. His latest book is The Triumph of Caesar. Now, first of all, I want to thank you for coming on Ancient Rome Refocused. I want you to know Steven, I’ve read all of your books and it’s a privilege to have you on the show.
Saylor: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Rob Cain: We have Mr. Saylor on a speaker phone. The topic of this podcast is Roman triumphs and I wonder if you might describe a triumph. What is it?
Saylor: I wrote my novel, The Triumph of Caesar, it’s the latest in the series, because I’ve come to that point in history when Caesar finally gets to celebrate his four triumphs which have been postponed because of the Civil War. The triumph was of course the apex of any generals or emperor’s career. This is a chance to show what you’ve done to bring it all home to Rome, to show the people what you’ve conquered, to boast about your accomplishments, and of course it’s also as with everything with the Romans, it’s a religious ceremony. This is all in honor of Jupiter who makes everything possible because he favors the Roman people, so it all ends at the Temple of Jupiter with a sacrifice as well as the execution of the captured generals and dignitaries and their deaths which will be pleasing to Jupiter. This started with Romulus. He is celebrated the first of the triumphs when he was king of the city state of Rome which he founded after conquering one of the rival city states, and it is there he stages his first triumph. He did it on foot walking through Rome. Subsequently, they did begin to ride a chariot, by the time of Caesar’s it became a super spectacular event. There’s not just the triumph but there are days and days of games and theater, feasting and celebration. This is a huge event in the life of the Roman people.
Rob Cain: How did you do your research?
Saylor: Well, you know, this novel is kind of irresistible. The course of the Roma Sub Rosa series sort of begins with the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, the dictatorship of Sulla. I wrote it forward now to vision much the end of the Roman Republic which is the dictatorship of Julius Caesar after a long civil war and often times the research just sort of fell into my lap. I don’t think anybody has previously done a novel specifically about the triumphs of Caesar when he stages his four triumphs in Rome. And the sources are just fantastic, we have Suetonius, we have Pliny, we have Plutarch, we have Dio Cassius, we have Appian, they all write about the triumph, plus there are many other smaller details found through the historians so that we’re able to reconstruct day by day exactly what happened at these four triumphs of Caesar. There were staged about a day apart, they didn’t concentrate them all at one go and the historians were astounded by the things that happened so naturally they wrote them down. So for a novelist like myself just to be able to go through each day and make a chronology, to look at what’s happening, who’s in Rome, and what’s being celebrated makes fantastic material. It’s all very larger than life, mainly coming from ancient sources. I think the fact that Cleopatra is in town — that’s always interesting to have a big name in town. She gets to come on stage and one of reason she is there perhaps is to see her sister Arsinoe. Her sister is the reason she had a civil war and she is scheduled to be in the triumph as a prisoner and to be executed at the end so Cleopatra appears to be anticipating that. So the sources all just fall into place.
Rob Cain: Are the subjects in Roman history hard to talk about with modern audiences?
Saylor: Well, you know, it’s the bloodthirstiness of the Romans always takes at the back of it because that’s something that we have assiduously tried to breath out to our society even though we are still warlike, we do still have violent entertainment. The Romans go places that most of us just don’t even think about going. The coliseum hasn’t been built yet, so the great apex of the Roman entertainment, death as a spectacle, has not been reached yet. But certainly the triumph is an expression of that. To see the enemy paraded in chains and humiliated, to be pelted with fruit and for everyone to enjoy that, is not something that Americans would publicly allow themselves to do. We simply wouldn’t allow that and of course to see the leader of Gaul Vercingetorix scheduled to be strangled and killed at the end of the triumph after being paraded publicly is total humiliation. They take a great deal of joy in the misfortune and the vanquishing of others and once again this comes back to the Roman religion. There is the reason this is happening because what you’re doing is pleasing to Jupiter and the other gods. And so they make all this possible. And one of the things that Jupiter and the other gods like to see is the humiliation of your enemies to their honor.
“We know that you help us do this Jupiter. We’re publicly acknowledging it. We’re going to publicly execute these people.”
So that’s one of the aspects where I think it’s a bit of a reach for the modern American to get their psychologically, so in showing these triumphs, I tried to show also the excitement of the audience, what they’re getting out of this, what they expect from it. It’s not just a publicity stunt for Caesar; it’s also a very public and a very participatory thing for the Roman people.
Rob Cain: What first led you down this path? How did you get started writing about Roman history?
Saylor: Well, you know, I grew up in 1956. I grew up in the absolute heyday of the old Hollywood spectacle about the ancient world, movies like Ben Hur which of course won 11 Oscars, I think the year I was born; followed by movies like Spartacus; Cleopatra, the most expensive film ever made with Elizabeth Taylor which was a huge deal when I was a child, also all those movies from Italy which starred Steve Reeves as Hercules and so forth. There was just a huge amount of this all around the world saturating the popular culture. So this is a boy growing up in a very small town in Texas, you know I owned a battery-operated Roman galley as a boy.
Rob Cain: Oh, my gosh.
Saylor: It’s like kids now have Star Wars or Avatar, back then we had ancient Rome, this was the world of wonder, the world of imagination.
Rob Cain: I just have to throw this in; you said a battery-operated…?
Saylor: So you still have yours?
Rob Cain: Oh, God, yes. I have it. I think the company was Remco.
Saylor: You know, I’m sure it came from a Sears catalogue that’s all I know.
Rob Cain: And the oars actually moved back and forth.
Saylor: Yes the oars moved. Mine is no longer operable. The oars are all gone, they were broken off, I have some of them and the motor is not really working now, but you can see where to put the batteries and it’s mostly intact. It’s a beautiful object. Yeah. It’s a treasured thing from my childhood, so it all starts there. And then later when I became old enough to sort of study this legitimately. I studied history at the University of Texas at Austin. I didn’t start as a history major but when I found I could actually do this full time and I could get away with it, I thought I just want to do nothing but take history courses. So it’s very fortunate to have some really good profs. I studied Roman history, classics, Greek history, Byzantine history, so I became pretty well grounded in all that, left it behind for a while. But then I think my first trip to Rome was when I was about 29 years old and my interest in all that was really re-ignited just by being in visible contact with those ruins. I came back to where I was living in San Francisco and I just wanted to be mentally in Rome all the time and I wanted to read a murder mystery set in ancient Rome because I was also getting very much into Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie at that time. And at that time, the late 1980s, there really was not much of a historical mystery genre. That’s a situation that’s changed a great deal now. You can find sleuths in every time and place now. But I wanted a crime novel set in ancient Rome. I couldn’t find one. I started reading the murder trials, the Cicero translated by Michael Grant, a wonderful Penguin volume. Sort of a true crime fix and the very first oration was Cicero defending a man accused of murdering his own father, the most terrible crime in ancient Rome and I became riveted by that story, many fascinating details were in there, the politics factored into it. I thought I think I can make a novel out of this and I think a year or two later, I had my first novel, Roman Blood, ready to share to an editor and from that point on for me that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been writing these murder mysteries set in ancient Rome.
Rob Cain: Do you see any similarities between then and now?
Saylor: Many. I mean there are some things that don’t change about human nature especially the bad parts: the venal behavior, the politics, the cutthroat attitude. One of the reasons that Rome is so popular and so fertile aground for movies and novels and popular entertainments is that we have so much material and so many kinds of material from the literary and visual sources. We don’t just have history, we don’t just have speeches in the Senate and in courtrooms, as valuable as those are, but we also have erotic poetry. We have cookbooks, we have all kinds of engineering manuals, we have so many things that we can get our hands on and really sort of have a touch feel experience about what the ancient Romans thought, what was important to them, how they expressed themselves. Unfortunately, all of these works and virtually everything has been translated starting in the 1800s, scholars are still working on all of that and it’s an immense amount of material, but so much of it has remained available in so many ways, not just the literary but also the archeology. We’re so fortunate to have had the entire city of Pompeii preserved for us, so much of Rome has been excavated; new things are being found still in the forum. Every year there’s Yahoo headlines, just a couple of years ago, supposedly the Lupercal on the Palatine where supposedly Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf and this was made into a monument by Augustus underground, supposedly they found that. I’m a little dubious until they excavate, but there are still exciting things like that happening. So we’re able to really kind of see ourselves in the Romans in many, many ways. It’s a very multifaceted experience when you start researching them.
Rob Cain: Rome was a dangerous time, how does your hero stay alive?
Saylor: Well, one of my explanations for this, first of all lifespan in the ancient Rome, many people think it must have been intrinsically shorter but in fact people were able to live as long then as they can live now. We know, for example, that Cicero’s wife live to be a hundred. Now that was a notable thing that’s why it’s recorded in the book, but it was possible for people to live to be a hundred or maybe even older. Physically, that was possible if you had a good life, if you haven’t worked really hard, if you had a good constitution obviously, most important good teeth. You’ve got to have the teeth. So people could live that long. In Gordianus’ case, in spite the fact that he courts danger because of his livelihood, he does go out sort of snooping and looking for the truth and digging up the dirt about people, meeting prisoners, meeting assassins on taverns along the Tiber and so forth, so it puts himself in harms way quite often. And he has faced near death on more than one occasion, but if he himself explains it, apparently the gods are interested in the story of his life. And to him that’s an explanation of why he is still around. The Romans really believe in fate and fortune and they didn’t entirely think that it was all up to you. There were larger forces at work, above you, all around you. Maybe protecting you, maybe trying to harm you. This is why they try to ward off the evil eye and so forth. But if the gods were on your side and most importantly the God Fortuna, the goddess of fortune; if things went your way then life was easy. This is why the dictator Sulla called himself Felix, the fortunate, because everything worked out for Sulla. How did that happen as wild the life as he lived, as much dangers he faced? Everything went his way and Caesar was virtually the same way right up until the last act. So in Gordianus’ case, the gods were interested in the story of his life. To me that translate as, as long as the readers are interested in the story of his life there will be more volumes. So he just keeps getting through the scrapes.
Rob Cain: Well, that brings up an interesting point on your next book. Can you give us any clues?
Saylor: In the book I’m working on right now is the next Gordianus book, which is going to be a prequel that is going to go back to his younger days and it’s going to take him to see the Seven Wonders of the World. Most of them still existed in his time. This is about the time that we were getting the official lists of the Seven Wonders of the World, compiled by various poets and engineers and so forth and people actually took these itineraries. They would go and see the Seven Wonders of the World, and it was possible to see them all in about the span of a year if you travel quickly. So that’s going to take him to see the great temples, it’s going to take him to Olympia, Halicarnassus, it’s going to take him as far as Babylon when there really only ruins of the garden and walls and ultimately to Alexandria, the Lighthouse of the Pharaohs, and of course the pyramids in Egypt. So that’s what I’m working on now. Researching that is a lot of fun. Of course it’s a topic everyone finds interesting. And having Gordianus being a younger man will also be fun for me. The origin of Gordianus has been sort of shrouded in mystery all through the series.
I should say what I am doing outside the Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I have been embarked on a whole other enterprise which is these big massive historical novels about Rome itself, kind of in the name of James Michener or Edward Rutherford who writes the big London books and so forth. The first one was called Roma. It’s about the first thousand years of Rome, a family saga. This sort of transpires from the ancient days and the trade routes along the Tiber when there was no city at all at Rome just a little settlement up to the age of Caesar. So you see, the time of Hannibal and before that Romulus and Remus and so forth. And the next book I’ll have out which will be September of 2010 is a followup to that which is called Empire. The same family is being taken forward into time, only about 180 years. The material is so rich once you start having the reign of Augustus up to the reign of Hadrian which is the absolute height of the empire. So that’s the next book: Empire.
Rob Cain: What Roman history or Roman history novelist most influenced you?
Saylor: Not to say a Roman history novel, but a historical fiction set in the ancient world certainly I was very influenced in my younger days by Mary Renault, who when I was young was a big bestselling international author. She started with her novels about Alexander, Fire from Heaven, followed by the Persian Boy, and she also wrote novels about Theseus, many other aspects of the ancient Greek world that was her fascination. And those novels were superbly written. They really took you back to the ancient Greek world and I think I read them when I was a teenager so they had a big influence on me. The very idea of writing historical fiction I got that from her.
I’ve also read some of Robert Graves. I’ve never actually read the I, Claudius novel. I read his novels, Hercules, My Shipmate; once again about ancient Greece and several others. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. I think historical fiction like science fiction tends to date pretty quickly so that nowadays when you read a historical novel that was written in the 1950s say in America and quite a few novels are written in the ‘50s set in the ancient world, they tend to tell you more about 1950s America than they tell you about ancient Rome. Just the whole value set, if you think of the movie Ben Hur that’s really kind of a psycho history of the United States at that time and their value system. So that writing historical fiction is really fraught with that peril trying to find something that’s timeless that’s not going to date that isn’t really about you and and your times. I try to transcend that to some way in my own novels. I don’t know how successful I am, but I wish that as far as other big influences I have to say the historian Michael Grant who once again when I was growing up as a boy in the ‘60s Michael Grant already had, I don’t know how many books in print, but quite a few.
I grew up in the town of Gulf Lake, Texas population 12,000, and as I began to be interested in something more serious about ancient Rome and say my Roman galley and see movies, I would go to the library and lo and behold whatever the subject I was looking for whether it was a biography of Cleopatra or Nero or book about the ancient historians, it seemed like Michael Grant had written a book about this, very prolific author and I guess his quality then struck me as very fine and it does even now as much history as I read, as many historians as I read when I read Michael Grant I just feel so comfortable in his scholarship, I feel so informed by his wisdom. He’s no longer with us, but I’m actually dedicating Empire, my latest novel, to his memory. We corresponded a very small amount. I never actually meet him, I’m sorry to say. But when I was writing Empire, one of the things that was really stomping me, this was getting me away from my comfort zone of the Roman Republic where the Roma Sub Rosa novels of Gordianus takes place and into the Empire which is kind of a different animal as far as the politics and the kind of history you read. It’s all about the emperors; it’s all about the psychotherapy of the emperors. You get away from the sort of politics of the Republic and I was having a little trouble getting a grip on the thought world of the Romans in this early imperial days. Their thought world is so fraught with superstition, astrology, of course the ancient Roman religion which is still holding on, ideas about fate and fortune and of course the stoicism, philosophy is very important, man’s place in the world, submission to faith and so forth, but I was having a hard time threading this needle. Trying to understand why, for example, astrology was so important. The Roman emperors themselves accepted the importance of astrology. They frequently ban all the astrologers in Rome because if you can get hold to the emperor’s horoscope, you might bring him down. This was like a state secret. Hadrian wouldn’t even allow anybody else to cast his horoscope. He did it himself. This was too private and important a matter. But I was just having a hard time understanding why the Romans were so taken with this Babylonian practice of astrology as well as many other crazy cults they get started around this time. And I’ve read a couple of books by Michael Grant about the specific period, one is called The Climax of Rome and the other is called The World of Rome. And in many ways, they are companion volumes. They were written a number of years apart, but they cover exactly the same ground which is the first centuries and the apex of the Roman Empire under people like Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. And I have to say, Michael Grant once again came to my rescue as he did with his translations of Cicero’s murder trials, as he did when I was a child and I was just looking for, you know good books about anything to do with ancient Rome. When those two books, The Climax of Rome and The World of Rome, he lays out the Roman thought world in a way that I found so comprehensible, so compelling, so convincing that I just have to say Michael Grant is, by far, my favorite historian of the ancient world.
Rob Cain: Well, I want to thank you for coming on the show. We’re looking forward to your next book and I hope you have a good day.
Saylor: Well, it’s been a pleasure and thank you for your podcast about ancient Rome, a subject which is still important today.
Rob Cain: I think so too.
END OF INTERVIEW