Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome

EmpireSuggested by Brad Nelson • Continuing the saga begun in his New York Times bestselling novel Roma, Steven Saylor charts the destinies of the aristocratic Pinarius family, from the reign of Augustus to the height of Rome’s empire.
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16 Responses to Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Having recently re-watched HBO’s “Rome” series, I’ve gotten the bug to learn a little bit more about the history of the Romans. I’ve received some great suggested reading from Mr. Kung but most of his suggestions are not available for the Kindle. And I’ve become fairly Kindle-centric.

    I’ve searched around for books on Rome and haven’t quite lit on anything to my taste, although I did find a decent online history of Rome.

    I’ve read a few chapters of that online history. And it certainly gives you a dates-and-names background. But it wasn’t until I ran across Steven Taylor’s “Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome” that I realized why those histories — detailed though they may be — don’t tell the story. A series of names and dates doesn’t tell you what it was like to live in those times. Mostly you’re just dealing with analysis by intellectuals. And they all compete to be the most erudite which tends to squeeze the life out it. “Erudite” and “enlightening” are not always the same thing.

    They say that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. If so, then neither can you judge it by 10% of its content. That’s how far into “Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome” that I am. And although the writing style will not compete with Shakespeare, Saylor does a credible job of putting you right into the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus.

    You see Rome through the eyes of Lucius Pinarius who is a young man in an old patrician family, but one that is down on its luck. The good news is that his family is related to both Julius Caesar and Augustus. The bad news is that Lucius’ grandfather had backed the Marcus Antonius/Cleopatra faction. Even though he eventually switched sides to Octavian, the family named was tarnished and Caesar Augustus has showered the family with no favors. But neither has he had them murdered, which is a step up from many families.

    But perhaps things are starting to change for the better. Pinarius (along with Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus — yes, the Clavdivs of “I, Clavdivs”) has been selected as an augur. They are both given their final exam in front of Augustus and the other augurs. Lucius chooses lightening as his test and Claudius chooses birds. They both pass with flying colors, so to speak.

    In this chapter you learn a bit about the art of augury, which is five ways the auspices may be obtained (to know the will of the gods). You learn, for example, that there are five categories of augury: 1) thunder and lightening, which come directly from Jupiter, 2) the behavior and movement of birds (particularly the raven, crow, owl, eagle, and vulture), 3) the releasing of a hen from a cage (which is meant as a portable form of augury, intended for military campaigns), 4) auspices via four-footed animals (if a fox, wolf, horse, dog, or any other quadruped should cross a person’s bath or appear in some unusual setting) — this 4th form is meant only for private divination and can never be used on behalf of the state, and 5) all signs which do not fall into the other four categories and may include novel events such as something falling from the sky.

    With Claudius as his “in,” Lucius gets to visit the private home of Augustus where you learn just a bit about him. Roman history is sprinkled throughout this building plot. And I quite like that it feeds you the history in interesting bits that go down much better than the typical formal history which is akin to Castor Oil.

    As I read through this I’ll report back and let you know how it’s going.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Note that this is the sequel to Roma, a novel that covers the same family over a period from before the founding of the town to the beginning of the imperial era. It includes a number of stories set in significant mythological or historical events. In addition, Saylor has written a number of fine mystery novels (and some short stories) about a 1st century BC detective, Gordianus the Finder. (There are also two other notable detective series set in that era, one by John Maddox Roberts featuring Roman politician-detective Decius Metellus Cimber roughly contemporary with Gordianus, and one by Lindsey Davis featuring Marcus Didius Falco during the imperium of Vespasian. In addition, Ruth Downie has been doing a series of books about a Roman doctor in Britannia, Gaius Petreius Ruso, during the imperium of Hadrian.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, if I finish this novel, I may then move onto the first one, Roma.

      And that sounds like more good reading. I like the idea of a historical novel done in the form of a detective. I’ll keep on the lookout for Gordianus the Finder. That sounds like an auspicious suggestion. Thanks.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        An interesting narrative history of Pre-Imperial Rome, especially of the 150 years prior to Augustus, is “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. My paperback version is slightly less than 400 pages of text. There are also a number of good photographic plates.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          That sounds like another good one. I’ll keep it in mind. It’s even in Kindle format. Woo hoo! The customer reviews on that are pretty strong as well.

          From what little I’ve read from various books and articles, I think we can see ourselves in the transition of Rome from a republic to an Empire. Just look at our Senators (and House members) for instance. They are little better than a rubber stamp for the emperor (and its the unelected bureaucracy who more and more rules). And even if the “Republicans” (an ironic name these days) are in power, they offer little resistance. They simply aid and abet the centralization of power in our version of Rome.

          And we see the bread and circuses and the people turned into beasts because of this. Where the analogy perhaps falls short is that we do not have a vast collection of acquired provinces to maintain control of. Any idea of finding an analogy with the 50 states of the union will not work, in my opinion, because the states have whored themselves to Rome and have no place to go. Maybe Texas or Alaska might one day want to part. But the states are major contributors to the centralization of power.

          Is Ted Cruz our Cato? One reviewer of this book said, “And Cato, dear inflexible, unbending Cato, trying to hold these Romans to their best traditions, and of course ultimately failing.”

          Another analogy that is imperfect, but workable, is the idea of the Barbarians. The Left is our internal set of Barbarians. While going off on goofy and naive tangents of collectivism as a quasi-goal, their real motivation is simply to tear down the Republic. This is surely why, as I’ve read, that more and more revisionist texts are appearing that say the Germanic barbarian hordes did not cause a violent death of civilization but was more of a transition or “sharing” of different ways of thinking. The conclusion by the revisionists is that Rome, and the world, gained something.

          And this is exactly the deluded and self-serving attitude that you would expect from the Leftist barbarian hordes in our midst. They understand (even if the legions of useful idiots do not) that they wish to tear down our civilization and sack Rome. But they fool the hoopleheaded masses with bread-and-circus words such as “fairness,” “equality,” “tolerance,” or “social justice.”

          Our civilization is dying and we will see some type of utter collapse before we have passed on. And those here at StubbornThings generally know why this will happen (you can’t forever be taking a wrecking ball to a society’s long-established institutions and not create chaos). National Review does not know this (or, if they do, they are too milquetoast and PC to say it). But we can say that here. It’s one of the few places where you’ll find plain talk about the facts of civilizational life.

          Obama is a barbarian. John Boehner is not all that much better. These and others are selling out our society. Nothing Nero did holds a candle to what both these parties are doing to this country.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            John Maddox Robert briefly brought up the similarity between the late Roman republic and the US many years ago when discussing his Decius series in an SF convention panel. Pat Frank also briefly brought this up in his post-nuclear-war novel, Alas Babylon.

            In a short humor item in FOSFAX, I once had Obama taking over the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus (they couldn’t get business credit due to Dodd-Frank) and sending them around the country to perform for food-stamp recipients (of whom there are so many more since he came in).

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “Maybe Texas or Alaska might one day want to part.”

    One of the advantages Texas has is that as part of the treaty which annexed Texas to the USA, Texas was guaranteed control over its public land. I believe Texas is one of the only, if not the only, State in the Union which has such control. The fact that the Federal government has control over huge swaths of land in the Western States is a source of power which should be taken from it.

    By the way, Texas’ power grid is almost completely separate from the national power grid. I believe this is also a legacy of the State’s control over its public land.

    One of the reasons that Texas and Texas A&M are such wealthy universities is due to the fact that both are so-called “land grant” schools. The State granted both schools land in order to help pay for them and much of that land was later found to have oil under it.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m about 55% into this book now and somewhat running out of steam. Yes, it’s filled with facts about the early Roman Empire. But the characters in this historical novel are mere puppets. They are often simply mouthpieces for stating this history. There is a bit of plot involved, but most of the characters are paper-thin.

    The book started under the reign of Augusts and now (55% into it) we’re at the reign of Domitian whose father (Titus) built the Colosseum. The book is still following the family of Lucius Pinarius. I think it is his grandchildren who are now the main focus of the story.

    You get into all kinds of weird stuff under the reigns of Caligula and especially Nero. It would seem back then that everyone lusted after boys or other men. And with all the violence, fires, and other mayhem going on in Rome, you’d wonder why (other than social status) anyone would want to live in that dive. Yes, it was very cosmopolitan. It had the great temples. But it is the equivalent of wanting to live in Washington DC as oppose to, say, Portland Oregon.

    It’s amazing that the Roman Empire held together as long as it did considering that it was often the most capable people who were murdered. And, good golly, the Augustinian line of Caesars was a train of real warped people. Maybe Claudius was a brief diversion, but most of them were the sickest of the sick. You can’t help thinking that a narcissist such as Obama would fit right in with this crowd.

    I’ll stick with it for a bit longer. But this books lacks any kind of cohesive and interesting plot. It’s just a march through history with the barest of characters trying to tie it all together.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m not about 82% into this historical novel. It’s taken a turn for the better as there has been some character and plot development. The story has now centered for some time on Lucius Pinarius, grandson of the Lucius Pinarius who started the story.

    This grandson Lucius has gotten into all kinds of trouble. That can happen when you have an ongoing tryst with a Vestal virgin. But — sheesh — at least there is a man in this book who desires to sleep exclusively with women. According to this book, this was apparently a rare thing. Boys were typically on the menu as well.

    And this may have been a sign of the times. Doing a little research on the subject, I came upon this interesting passage from a Wiki article:

    In the Imperial era, anxieties about the loss of political liberty and the subordination of the citizen to the emperor were expressed by a perceived increase in voluntary passive homosexual behavior among free men, accompanied by a documentable increase in the execution and corporal punishment of citizens. The dissolution of Republican ideals of physical integrity in relation to libertas contributes to and is reflected by the sexual license and decadence associated with the Empire.

    Well, there’s another parallel with our age.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve finished “Empire.” And I can, after all is said and done, recommend this book. It finished strong in the last third.

    For much of the first half of the book, the characters and plots are wafer-thin, mere props and mouthpieces with which to tell an oral history of Rome and its early emperors. And this wasn’t all bad, but the book lacked much depth.

    But the characters and situation started to come alive in the last one-third. And what I can definitely say is that reading this book will much more likely make the history “stick” than reading a dusty history book.

    So I’ve started the first book in the series, “Roma.” I’m about 5% into it and so far this is a quite interesting read. Much less is known about the early history of Roma. It is shrouded in myth and half-truths. On the other hand, as the author notes, much is known of the Roman Empire period, extensive biographies having been written of most of the emperors (with just one or two exceptions, including Trajan).

    I suspect this will allow this first book, “Roma,” to read like a true novel rather than a sometimes stilted recitation of facts and figures glued onto somewhat thin characters and plots. We’ll see.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      More a connected (by family) set of stories than a novel. I certainly enjoyed it, but unfortunately my tastes are unusual (I enjoy a lot of literary social science — mostly history, economics, and politics — exposition, as for example in 1984).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. And I had no problem at all with the family continuity aspect.

        One part of “Empire” that I found especially interesting was when Grandson Lucius started hanging around with Apollonius of Tyana.

        I don’t know much about this person. Nor do I know if the portrayal of him was accurate. But he appeared to be a cross between Christ and the Buddha. He was that sort of soft, namby-pampby, vegetarian, won’t-even-wear-leather-sandles fellow who can either be insufferable or interesting.

        Needless to say, I found him to be interesting. I’m well acquainted (via books, at the very least) with these types. Many of them (such as the late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen) are marvelous fellows who live their namby-pampby (err…I mean “compassionate”) lifestyles in good grace and positive effect. They’re not simply posers who equate George Bush with Satan while giving a pass to the Saddam types.

        Lucius seemed ready to meet this fellow because he had been heartbroken when (small spoiler alert) his Vestal Virgin squeeze had been executed. (Even I knew that Vestal Virgins were to remain virgins unless they wanted to court disaster.) He had been spared (once again) but his life lay barren, joyless, and without meaning. And then Apollonius of Tyana came along with a gentle word, a kind mind, and an wise eye.

        Whether the world can function if everyone turns into an Apollonius is a good question. I think it can’t. I think the world typically is divided into sheep and wolves. And thus we always need good shepherds to protect us. As compelling as kumbaya can be — and we ought to draw out and practice some of its lessons — never can we suppose that we will never have to defend ourselves in the face of treacherous men and women. Simply believing the best about everyone is not enough. In fact, it’s quite foolish.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Michael Z. Williamson wrote several books about a pair of snipers, and I believe it was in reviewing one of them that I noted that there are tigers out there, so we need tiger-hunters to deal with them. Of course, sometimes those hunters go rogue, but you still need the hunters to be there and to be able to hunt the tigers.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Good points.

            Another interesting part of this book was when Grandson Lucius’s son (via the Vestal Virgin), Marcus, was recovered by Lucius (for a while, he did not know that he had a son) and became a great artist favored by the Emperor (particularly Hadrian). And of all the emperors in the novel, Hadrian is the one who most comes to life.

            Hadrian had a bit of Nero in him, but without the sadism. Hadrian fancied himself a great architect. And, in fact, as an emperor, he was a great builder. And, if this book is any indication, he wasn’t half-bad as an architect as well. Some of his great projects are still standing such as the rebuilding of the Pantheon and his wall in Britain, of course.

            Marcus starts out as the prize pupil of (I forget his name) Trajan’s chief architect. But eventually this mentor-architect falls out of favor and Marcus takes his place, tasked with the enormous job of managing the building of the Temple of Venus and Roma. Hadrian (as glimpsed in this novel) is not the monster of Caligula, Nero, or Domitian. Much like Trajan, he was generally a reasonable fellow, at least toward his own citizens and Senators (both Trajan and Hadrian having taken vows to kill no Senators). I doubt that the Jews were very fond of him though.

            Marcus and Hadrian become somewhat buds, particularly because of their common interest in Hadrian’s boy-toy, Antinous who, after his death in mysterious circumstances on the Nile, was made a God. A Cult of Antinous arose, complete with shrines and statues which Marcus helped to crank out by the dozen.

            With the building of new temples and many other things, Hadrian becomes somewhat the central focus of the last part of the novel. And there’s an aspect of “Empire” that begins to resemble the novel, “The Pillars of the Earth,” which is centered around building a Middle Ages cathedral. And I found this aspect interesting.

            But all good things come to an end, including the Cult of Antinous.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Yes, Hadrian has a generally good reputation, at least from the Roman historians (who are our main source). And the Jews, after all, had revolted once too often against a culture that believed in what’s now known as a Carthaginian peace. The emperors from Nerva through Marcus Aurelius (with Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius in between and Lucius Verus initially sharing the imperium with Marcus Aurelius) were commonly referred to as the good emperors, representing as they did the calm before the storm of decline.

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