by Steven Saylor
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Empire covers the sweep of ancient Rome's history from 14 A.D. to 141 A.D. as experienced by four generations of a fictional patrician family introduced in Roma. The family has dwindled, but fathers still pass down to the eldest sons a curiously shaped golden pendant, its meaning and origin long forgotten. Young Lucius receives it the day of his examination to become an augur. The same day, an obscure member of Caesar Augustus's family, the stuttering, drooling Claudius, also takes the examination. Their friendship begins a generations-long association with the Roman emperors, offering readers a close look at Rome's rulers from the perspective of less exalted citizens.
After Augustus died in 14 A.D., Rome fell into the hands of emotionally disturbed men who used their position for self-gratification. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian may have been the worst, but were not the only emperors who plundered Rome's treasury for self-indulgent feasts, palaces, artworks, and bloody exhibitions ranging from gladiatorial games to mass executions. Romans lived in fear of being summoned by a capricious, easily enraged emperor who might execute them in a torturous public display or terrify them at length before releasing them. But these years also saw the rise of a disreputable foreign religion, Christianity, and the pagan philosophies of men like Epictetus and Apollonius of Tyana which can still comfort and inspire.
A well-researched panorama of Imperial Roman history, Empire falls prey to some typical weaknesses of time-sweep novels. Dialogue, frequently used to convey background information, tends to be stilted, but the information is interesting, the dialogue sometimes dryly humorous. A playwright comments of Euripedes, "Despite the antiquity of his subject matter, his outlook is remarkably modern; the darkness and violence of his stories resonate with present-day Romans." Some scenes in the novel are exceptionally vivid, bringing readers right inside the characters to share their fear, horror, joy or hope. (2010; 589 pages, including an Author's Note discussing the historical and archaeological sources behind the novel)
More about Empire at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Interview with author Steven Saylor
Empire appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History
Previous novel in this series:
Roma (2007), covers the period from Rome's earliest founding as a small settlement on the banks of the Tiber to the time of Caesar Augustus. More info
Other novels about Imperial Rome:
Tiberius by Allan Massie (1991), about Augustus's successor as emperor of Rome. More info
I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934), More info
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951), a literary novel about the Roman Emperor Hadrian. More info
Nonfiction about Imperial Rome:
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (circa 121 A.D.), a gossipy and very readable account of the twelve rulers of Rome from Julius Caesar to Domitian by a Roman historian used as a character in Empire. More info
The World of Rome by Michael Grant (1960), an overview of Roman history and culture from 133 B.C. to 217 A.D. More info
A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela (English translation 2009), a look at life in ancient Rome during a typical day in 115 A.D. More info
At the Movies:
I, Claudius, the acclaimed 1977 BBC television series starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius. Highly recommended.
Early Empire at the United Nations of Roma Victrix website
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