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Survival of the lucky in Rome

Steven Saylor's Pinarius clan plays a capricious power game to stay ahead in the imperial city.

The Novel of Imperial Rome

By Steven Saylor

St. Martin's Press. 589 pp. $25.99

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Reviewed by Desmond Ryan

In the dozen novels that compose his

Roma sub Rosa

series, Steven Saylor has made the mystery an immersive experience in the life of ancient Rome.

Gordianus the Finder, an investigator who toils in Rome in the waning years of the Republic, is very much a man of his tumultuous times. But he also shares the world-weary attributes of his many descendants in modern crime fiction. Gordianus and Kurt Wallander, the downcast Swedish detective of Henning Mankell's novels, would embrace each other as kindred spirits.

With the publication of Roma three years ago, Saylor took a break from his popular Gordianus mysteries and embarked on a more ambitious path - a sprawling novel that would attempt to convey an entire millennium of the history of Rome, from the myth-shrouded beginnings of the city that would rule the world to the assassination of Julius Caesar and the downfall of the Republic.

With Empire, Saylor resumes the narrative with far more satisfying results and an approach that brings him closer to the elements that have made the Gordianus mysteries so popular. Gordianus is a freelance detective who must live by his wits, and his enemies range far beyond criminals to the vicious infighters of the imperial court and the shifting whims of the emperors who cling tenuously to power.

In Empire - as in Roma - the protagonists who must navigate these treacherous shoals are the succeeding generations of the Pinarius family, a clan that stays close - sometimes dangerously so - to the center of power down through the centuries. In the 140 years covered by Saylor's novel, life becomes ever more precarious.

In this period, once beloved by Hollywood for the opportunity to fuse pious depictions of early Christianity with scenes of gruesome violence in the arena, staying alive is an even more tenuous proposition because the political realities change with sudden unpredictability.

The Pinarius family - most notably Lucius Pinarius, who dominates the main and most intriguing part of the saga - are augurs who provide keen observations of the present while carrying out the rituals that seek to divine the future and thus dictate imperial decisions.

The Pinarii are one more reminder that pivotal events of history - such as the great fire of Rome in Nero's reign, vividly reignited here by Saylor - are often best perceived and interpreted from the sidelines.

What Lucius and his son witness is barbarity and carnage on an appalling scale, and their observations are deepened by the fact that the victims are chosen almost randomly. A fit of pique from Nero or a mood change in the mad Caligula can be instantly fatal - from being buried alive to being torn limb from limb by wild animals.

The Pinarii make it on the principle of the survival of the luckiest, and Saylor thrives on the opportunities for set pieces. He is also immeasurably helped by the relative shortness of the period covered in Empire. Where Roma was choppy and episodic and often sank into recitation and wearing exposition, the rush of events in Empire provides a natural pulse.

After an ungainly start, the novel hits its stride with the developing friendship of Lucius Pinarius and the future emperor Claudius, a stuttering pedant more at home in the library than in the political arena. Lucius, whose brother Kaeso has made the unwise choice of converting to Christianity, is our guide through the reign and suicide of Nero. Here, the emperor is more than the usual caricature.

Saylor is a connoisseur of the world of Rome, but he is not above the amusing and impish touch that connects our own equally contentious age to it. The Emperor Trajan's instruction to his underlings on the imperial policy to be adopted toward Christians may sound painfully familiar: "Ask not, tell not."