Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome

RomaSuggested by Brad Nelson • Spanning a thousand years, and following the shifting fortunes of two families though the ages, this is the epic saga of Rome, the city and its people. Roma weaves history, legend, and new archaeological discoveries into an interesting and informative narrative.
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24 Responses to Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    My Rome-a-thon continues. I’m 40% into “Roma” – certainly enough to get the gist of it.

    This is another march through history with sometimes little time to pause to attend to the small details of what it was to live a Roman life. But it is an effective way to teach the basics of Roman history.

    And this one reads more like a novel than did its sequel, “Empire.” This is facilitated by the need to try to make some sense out of the many legends surrounding the founding of Rome. Artistic license facilitates interesting story-telling. We get Romulus and Remus, but surely in a pragmatic speculation in regards to what might have actually occurred if those two figures did, in fact, exist.

    And this book playfully immerses you in some of the legends, stating as given fact the visit to Roma by Hercules and his slaying of the monster, Cacus. This occurs in the early part of the book and shows Saylor’s at his best in telling a good tale rather than just issuing names and dates.

    While “Empire’s” focus was on the Pinarii lineage, “Roma” focuses on both the Pinarii and the Potitii. Both families were the founding and official keepers of the Temple of Hercules which was apparently the first official “modern” Roman temple built to the Gods. Before that, the people observed a kind of pagan (more pagan?) idea of various types of spirits living in the various aspects of nature. And as this book makes clear, the division between the two wasn’t particularly obvious.

    Roma was founded first as a place of barter along the Tiber. The salt-traders below and the mountain people above would meet here, saving themselves a longer journey to exchange goods. Rome grew and then (which I don’t think the book explains very well…perhaps because nobody knows for sure how this occurred) the city becomes expansionist and militaristic. The novel treats this as being spurred under the decades-long reign of Romulus as king. Again, who knows?

    But Rome did change from a peaceful trading depot to a city based upon plunder. And this is obviously something she became very good at while seemingly always in the midst of terrible squabbles between the patricians and the plebeians. And that’s where it stands right now in the novel. The patricians and plebs have been at each other’s throats in the 5th and 4th century B.C. The office of tribune had already been established but relatively soon after all offices were suspended and a special council of ten were selected to totally revamp Rome’s laws, which they did. These laws were then put on copper or bronze plates and hung in the forum…the beginning of written law in Rome.

    But all hell will surely break lose again…and again…and again. The history of Rome is a history of violence surrounded by the erection of great temples to prove that the gods are on the side of Roman looting and expansionism. Rinse. Repeat.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I suspect there’s a simple answer why Rome (or any place) becomes good at war instead of relying on trade: You either conquer or you get conquered. Someone sufficiently isolated (such as the US, or to a lesser degree the British) can avoid this choice to a modest degree (but that doesn’t mean they necessarily will).

      Remember that Saylor is also the author of a fine mystery series set in the late Republic/early empire era (more or less contemporaneous with the equally fine Roberts series). These stories are set amid the leadership to varying degrees (as are those, set a century later, by Lindsey Davis), but they are actual stories (and generally good ones).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        No doubt “conquer or be conquered” put a Darwinian pressure on being the most aggressive. It’s not by coincidence that most big cities throughout history had strong walls.

        There have always been two ways to create wealth: make it or steal it.

        It’s interesting that this book says that everything in Rome had religious implications. So it was a military theocracy, of sorts, with kinda-sorta trappings of a republic. It all depended somewhat on who was in charge as to the flavor of the place.

        And you see in this book the plain and vibrant superstition of the Roman theology. It’s similar to Islam where nothing is said to happen without the will of the gods (or god). If there was a drought, you erected or enlarged the temple of the suitable god (whose origins these books to not delved into…at least yet). Then eventually when the drought ended, you could say, “See, it was our offerings to the gods that made all the difference.” Basically confirmation bias run amok.

        We joke about things such as “step on a crack, break your momma’s back.” But apparently this kind of superstition was deeply embedded into the Roman life (and probably was in no way unique to Roma). It makes you wonder about our religions of today. How are they different? Do the same impulses apply? Are people basically looking to do the same thing: bend nature to their will?

        I also found it interesting that the original name of Rome was supposedly “Ruma” which was (or could be) another word for a woman’s breasts (the hills of Roma being their distinguishing feature). Sometime in the 6th century BC or so it changed to “Roma.”

        Criticisms of this book are more than justified in regards to glossing over large swaths of history in this 592-page book. One reviewer at Amazon notes:

        The fact is, people in real life do not just happen to review the past fifty years of history with each other every so often, and yet this is what happens again … and again … and again. I’d say that there is five times as much historical exposition in dialogue as there is in the narration itself, and it really cries out to be the other way round. Ugh. But the real problem here is that a novel of this length is biting off more than it can chew if it tries to cover a time period of this length and complexity. Saylor would have done better to write three six-hundred-page novels to cover Rome’s first thousand years. Compare this with Colleen McCullough’s superb Masters of Rome series, for example, each of which in eight hundred pages covers about twenty years of the late Republic, and conveys a real sense of the changes the society of Rome and the lives of the Romans change in that period.

        If I retain my interest in Roma, I may investigate one of McCullough’s books. And yet the positive aspect of Saylor’s books are that they are light, breezy, read fairly well, and don’t bog down. And remembering that my initial purpose was to drain the swamp, so to speak (to get an overview of Roman history), Saylor’s books do that well. Still, a bit more immersion into what it was like to live a Roman life would have been appreciated. Much of the narrative is merely linking from one time period to another rather than standing still, as it were, and steeping you in any given time.

        I’ll keep in mind Saylor’s mysteries as well.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          “this book says that everything in Rome had religious implications. So it was a military theocracy, of sorts,”

          Interestingly, inhabitants of the early empire were allowed to keep their own religions, but they were required to make homage of some sort to the divine emperor. The Jews and Christians would not do this, thus they were in constant friction with the authorities.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I was speaking of inside the city limits of Rome. But, yes, you’re right. After a region was conquered, as long as the people made perfunctory offerings to the Roman gods (and I’m not sure which ones), they could also follow their own religions.

            That was part of the genius of Rome. They were extremely brutal. But when a new territory was captured, it was Romanized along certain lines (roads, baths, Roman temples, laws, etc.). It was, of a sort, what today we would call “multiculturalism.” It is said, for example, that if Hitler had taken this same attitude toward the conquered territories of eastern Europe during WWII (requiring certain perfunctory acts, but otherwise respecting the local culture), he would have beaten Russia. The Germans had to expend an enormous amount of energy suppressing people who it is said were jubilant about having Stalin’s ass kicked out of their lands.

            I have no idea how Romanized people in the provinces became. But clearly some did become accustomed to the higher culture and modern conveniences. And in an age where the power and legitimacy of one’s gods was determined by who kicked whose ass, there must have been an impetus for many peoples to Romanize themselves, their own local gods having shown to be inferior.

            This book doesn’t get into that aspect. It’s strictly about the city of Rome itself.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              One might note that the Greeks/Macedonians did much the same thing in the Hellenistic era. There were limits, which is what led to the revolt of the Macabee. But in addition to the need to protect the Holy of Holies and other aspects of Judaism, they also undoubtedly were angry at the Hellenizing Jews.

              As for Hitler and Russia, I wonder sometimes what would have happened if the Nazis had used the actual British methods in India (with local rajahs serving under British guidance). But, fortunately, Hitler’s own demons made such an approach impossible.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m now 60% into this book. Rome has been sacked by the Gauls, another Vestal Virgin (the virgin part, at least) has bit the dust, and the latest incarnation of our Fascinus-wearing decedent (the fruit of yet another Vestal Virgin) has just poisoned all the remaining male relatives in one branch of his true family tree so that they can’t reveal that he is the grandchild of a slave. And this poisoning of the male relatives was a gratuitous and mostly unbelievable plot point.

    But maybe something like that happened in Roma’s history. This novel is markedly more interesting to read than “Empire.” But one is never sure what is based on history and what is just made up. I would suppose that is the bane of all historical novels to some extent.

    Our main-focus decedent (I forget his name at the moment, but it really doesn’t matter, no one person stays around for long) is now helping Appius Claudius Caecus build the Appian Way and the Appian Aqueduct. The engineering details are extremely superficial. More on this aspect would have been better because if anything defines Roma it is its engineering (much of which it may have borrowed from the Etruscans…again, there is little to no background on any of this kind of stuff).

    Perhaps the most interesting sequence so far was the sacking of Roma by the Gauls. At one point, a number of citizens (again, how many, the book does not make clear) are surviving at the top of the Capitoline hill which is a natural fortress enhanced by further reinforcement. One supposes this really happened but, again, I have no idea. But in the book at least a few dozen people spent months up there and waited out the Gauls who eventually moved along (prompted by the paying of tribute from the Romans).

    One of the running themes is the ongoing conflict between patricians and plebeians. At one point, it was required that one of the two consuls be a plebeian, so the plebs made inroads but strife remained and seemed to be ongoing. As for the actual workings of the republic, this book gives little hint of that. In contrast, in “Empire,” you got a much better feel for how the emperors ran things.

    Still, the thread of story that this book creates/pulls from history is an interesting one so far.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Romans holding a fortress on one of the hills during the Gauls’ occupation of Rome (and being rescued from an attempt to scale the fortress because the sacred geese honked and alerted the garrison in time to fend the Gauls off) is recorded history/legend (take your pick). As for knowing what’s history and what’s invented by the novelist (as opposed to the historians), one can always cover this in author’s notes (usually at the end of the book). Sharon Kay Penman is very good at doing this. (C. S. Forester did the equivalent with his Hornblower Companion.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        is recorded history/legend (take your pick)

        I’m going with legend. Much like Obama, the Romans typically re-wrote the past to make themselves (their ideology) look good. It’s quite possible, for example (as Saylor points out many times), that the “she-wolf” who nursed Romulus and Remus (assuming that they were real people) was a prostitute, for “she-wolf” was another term for purveyors of that profession.

        The Romans were constantly spinning their history (and their own desires) through the “Gods” and self-made mythology. I suppose one can understand the persistence of the global warming myth in this light. Yes, it’s highly ironic that the supposed science-based “Progressives” are little more than just another cult with their own set of idols. But people have this deep need to mythologize.

        The Romans used their gods and their religion to give sanctity to their overarching principle which was to bend people to the will of Rome. Obama and his socialist fiends mean to bend us all to their will as well. And we’ve seen quite a few myths (including global warming, and the cult of the anti-rich) that has risen up to try to sanctify his bullshit.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished “Roma” last night. I found that the about the first two-thirds of the book was fairly interesting. The plot flowed and the characters came to life. But then in about the last third it began to revert to the somewhat plain and dull style that predominated in the sequel, “Empire.”

    As a light sort of Dick-and-Jane read that gives you a somewhat disjointed and incomplete ride through 1000 years of Roman, pre-empire, history, I can recommend this book. But it has holes. For example, when you encounter Sulla in the late republic, he might as well be a force of nature. You learn nothing about why he become dictator. You learn nothing of the reasons that lead up to this or why he resigned his post after a couple years.

    I think the way the first part of the book is written (including the myth of Hercules), you begin to get into the mindset of Romans. But these are mostly fleeting glimpses. But of the two books, I preferred this one. They are light reads that might prompt one to read a more in-depth history. But I was hoping for something a bit more substantial and creative.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It’s tempting to draws parallels between the disintegration of Rome and the disintegration of the West. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the nitty-gritty details of the fall of Rome (or the Roman republic) to give much of an authoritative opinion.

    But first we should probably define “Roman Republic.” It would seem that such a thing was an ever-changing entity. It was a “republic” (literally a “thing” of “the people”) in that the ruling class was at least not limited to a king. It was self-government of a sort, but mostly it was ruled by the patrician class.

    And this class eventually denuded Rome to the point that the patricians apparently owned or controlled most of the public lands in Italy. The Roman ideal was that small farmers would engender fecundity, both in the soil and in their families. The sons would provide the strength of the legions because military service was required.

    But Rome devolved into an oligarchy…assuming it wasn’t always one. There were very few small farms. Most land was owned by the patricians and they used disposable and cheap slave labor to cultivate the land. This caused an influx of a dependent, sort of dirt bag “mob” class in and around Rome.

    At some point the plebeians (through threatening to or actually leaving Rome altogether) gained leverage and the new office of Tribune was established. And some land reform was eventually done. But given the history that I’ve read, the Roman Republic was not a particularly stable thing. More than once they had to rely on dictators to take control. And in this regard, it is said that only Cincinnatus (their General Washington, of sorts) actually used that role well. It is said that he went from tilling his field, to taking command of Roma and repelling invaders, to returning to the same furrow he was tilling just a few months earlier.

    But my general impression is that it seems a near miracle (the favor of the Gods?) that Rome didn’t implode. And my general impression is that it was inevitable, and perhaps even a step up, when Rome became an empire. After all, with Augustus at the helm, civil war and strife was behind them. But, unfortunately, benevolent dictators can’t always be guaranteed. But even in the best of times, there didn’t appear to be much that was benevolent regarding the consuls and Senators. But for a time, and in places, they did more or less give a semblance of being guided by the rule of law.

    Given the rumbling chaos that always seemed to define Rome, what unique quality was it that not only kept that city together but allowed it to conquer much of the known world? One thing for sure, it was their solid self-image of themselves as eventual masters of the world that fueled their empire. Had Hitler not made so many blunders, and had America not existed, it’s easy to imagine a new Nazi type of Rome that would exist even today. Whether it would have been a thousand year Reich is anyone’s guess. But the Romans were no less brutal, no less self-confident, and no less expansionist. Truly, in the ancient world, the meek did not inherit the earth.

    One thing is for sure, when certain practices (however extraordinary) occur once, they set a precedent. Power becomes the principle. And we see that happening today with Obama and his ilk. Ruling by executive order pushes us away from being a republic and toward being a kingdom. And our Senate and House is about as corrupt and lecherous as anything the Roman’s might have imagined.

    We need our own version of Cato who will, after ever speech, remind us that “Big Government must be destroyed.”

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The dictator was an explicitly short-term role, basically for military command unity, and there were others who did well, though they probably didn’t live up to the standard you cite (e.g., Fabius the Delayer).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        If I recall correctly, the dictatorship was initially limited to 6 months and later 1 year.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Caesar was made dictator for life. In a pure formality, I’m sure, the Senate voted him this power. And yet, Caesar had already (I think) packed the courts, so to speak, with his hand-picked Senators (some of them from Gaul). So basically, much like Hitler, he manipulated the legal entities of the state to basically declare himself the one and only law. Nice work if you can get it.

          For quite some time, the Roman emperors kept up the pretense of the Senate. It gave, I guess, the hoopleheads the comfort of old forms. Much like today’s Senate, really, where the power is in the presidency and the bureaucracy. That branch of government is becoming almost irrelevant. They needn’t even pass a budget anymore. One wonders why they even bother with the formality of voting.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “Had Hitler not made so many blunders, and had America not existed, it’s easy to imagine a new Nazi type of Rome that would exist even today.”

    Hitler considered Sparta the first National Socialist State. For those who still claim that Nazism is not a socialist creed, they should think about that.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Sparta was the state, I’ve read, where soldier-on-soldier love was the norm…so much so that Spartan brides, in order to stimulate the affections of their husbands, would cut their hair short like a boy for their wedding night.

      Still…I wouldn’t say this to a Spartan’s face. They could kick some ass (and **** that ass as well, apparently).

      Jonah, in “Liberal Fascism,” writes about how a militarized society is what makes “Progressives” weak at the knees. They love the idea of mobilizing the state to meet some “crisis.” So, yeah, a mobilized Spartan state (with war as the object, in this case) is what would make a “Progressive’s” Evinrude crank. This is one of the reasons the whole global warming myth is attractive to them. It’s an excuse to enlarge the state.

      One fair criticism regarding the right in this regard is the “war on drugs.” Actually, I’m okay with that war to a certain extent just as we should have a war on murder, a war on arson, a war on organized crime, a war on rape, and a war on robbery. But because Republicans are now all statists (with one or two exceptions), they reflexively go for this stuff too.

  6. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “Sparta was the state, I’ve read, where soldier-on-soldier love was the norm”

    Not only Sparta. The Sacred Band of Thebes was much the same and equally deadly. It took Philip of Macedonia to annihilate them.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Is that right? Well, suffice it to say that a handshake is all that I typically require or need.

      Makes you realize just how powerful culture is in determining this stuff. I do believe that some people are born as queer as a three-dollar bill. But it also seems readily apparent that homosexual behavior is, in large part, a product of culture.

      Make such behavior acceptable and, instead of a society healthily producing the next generation, men will go around chasing each other. I don’t call that progress. But it must be said that the Spartans were awesome soldiers. One wonders if playing hide-the-sausage helped in that regard. I have no data on that at present. 😀

      • Timothy Lane says:

        The Spartiates devoted their lives to military training. This was probably the most important reason for their superior quality as hoplites. But they increasingly suffered from small numbers, so perhaps . . .

        Steven Pressfield has an interesting take on Spartan training and culture in his novel Gates of Fire. Of particular interest, he has Leonidas selected men whose wives could handle their inevitable sacrifice in a suitably stoical fashion. (The Oracle at Delphi had basically said that either Leonidas would be killed or Sparta would fall. They knew what to expect.)

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          “Gates of Fire” has monstrously good reviews at But I saw the movie (“300”) and it kind of put me off reading anything more about it. I was like one of the few males in this country who thought the movie was way over-rated.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Nevertheless, notice that none of the Greek states, despite their very favorable attitude toward homosexuality (a consequence of their low regard for women, at least in general — Aspasia and Phryne certainly were much admired), never had homosexual marriages.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Given that homosexuality is a highly cultural-induced behavior, and given the overbearing nature of feminism (and hostility toward men in all aspects of society), it wouldn’t surprise me if more men were rejecting women and trying something else.

        The barrier is, of course, that “gayness” is a heavy and intrusive identity spawned by, and forwarded by, various “gays.” Who wants to be gay? Everything about it is stupid, vulgar, and overbearing. Something tells me that Alexander the Great wouldn’t have considered himself “gay.”

        Therefore look for homosexuality to make a comeback. Perhaps it’s possible to play hide-the-sausage without the lisp or taking part in those inane “gay pride” parades.

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