Librarything Early Reviewer book: Roma

Currently Stephen Saylor’s Roma, the Early Reviewer book I received a couple of weeks ago from Librarything, is my “work” book, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is my “home” book; saves having to schlep one volume back and forth and up and down.  This is the only way I can be happy about reading the former, if I have something extraordinary to look forward to.  Roma is certainly not bad … but if I didn’t feel the obligation to finish it I think I would have quit a couple of centuries ago.

Roma is, as the title indicates, a history of the city following the tangled thread of two families’ stories through (usually) the eldest male child of the clan(s): the possessor of the amulet known as Fascinus, of which I can’t post a picture without being reported.  The book begins in 1000 BC (not BCE; huh), when what is now Rome was simply a campsite among the used by salt traders and other migratory groups on their trade routes, follows the amulet and the families, united in marriage now and then, as they have the brainstorm of creating a settlement on the campsite, as the settlement grows and the name Roma becomes more permanent, as Romulus and Remus rise and fall and Roma becomes a city, as the city expands – all the way up through the first century BC and the murder of Julius Caesar and the reign of Octavius/Augustus.  I find it a bit odd, some of the things that the rocks skip over – Caesar’s entire reign, for example… 

The Potitii and Pinarii are never the largest figures in their stories, moving in the shadows of such as Scipio, Coriolanus, the twins … Hercules… The chapters are like stones skipped across a lake (or the Tiber), touching down every few years before they drop out of sight and the next one launches out, starting a few dozen or score years later than the last.

I’m learning a great deal, I have to say.  Assuming that I can take information about the city as fact, that is, and I believe I can based on the writer’s bent for research.  Rome, Roma, derives from an ancient word meaning, basically, “teats” – because of the seven hills the city grew around, resembling breasts or the teats of an animal.  Romulus and Remus weren’t literally raised by a wolf (something which is fairly obvious to a modern reader, but which was a point of debate Before the Common Era); “wolf” was a derogatory term for a loose woman or prostitute, and the wife of the man who found them and adopted them had that reputation – but even in their own lifetime the debate began.  I now know their story better than I ever have, even after having taken Latin for a couple of years.  And now I know the story of Coriolanus, which I’m afraid has only been a name to me before now, and that the name of a play by Shakespeare.  I’ll stick a bookmark in that chapter for when I get to Coriolanus in my Shakespeare posts (years from now at this rate).  I learned about a Gallic invasion of Rome I’d never heard of, a bit more about Pyrrhus (of the pyrrhic victory) and Hannibal… The last chapter I knew pretty well already, thanks to HBO’s Rome.  I can’t help wishing Saylor had taken a few pages from HBO’s book.
I’ve also learned about a weird and wild poisoning ring in the (500’s) in which a rather large number of respectable Roman women knocked off husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, all by various types of poison and all for various motives, and went undetected (everyone believing the gods were visiting the men of the city with some terrible plague, though no one knew why) until, after nearly 200 men had died, a slave from one household involved couldn’t take it any more and went to the authorities.  Over 100 women were implicated, and ended up dying by drinking their own potions (“Well, if it really is a medicinal potion, prove it: you drink it”).  Amazing as this story was – I wonder if it’s unique in history – I found myself wondering as the current Potitius lad studied the facts of it whether this, a strange little flashback to a time between chapter jumps, was included merely as something strange and fascinating or whether it was relevant.  In a book of 500+ pages, it could be either. 

Depite the fact that Roma spans centuries and takes in not only wars and mass poisonings and invasions, and the formation of a city from a handful of huts to a thing of concrete and marble, and the rise and fall and rise of a blended clan with rape and battle and incest and monsters and all … still, at one point it seemed like more happened in thirty pages of Lions than in the couple of hundred pages of Roma I had read at that point.  It’s one of the reasons I generally steer clear of “prehistorical” historicals, which is the manner of storytelling that dominates the sub-genre.  It’s stilted, as the writer struggles to avoid words that didn’t yet exist and simultaneously works to delineate a setting most readers are least familiar with.  The other aspect I dislike about books set hundreds of years BC is that I always find myself distanced by a skepticism that isn’t there with any other time or place setting: “Oh, yeah?  And you base that on what?”  Case in point: the second stone to be skipped across the pond involves a liaison between the young lady of the clan and a stranger who defeats a monster … The young lady of the clan having been raped first by the monster, which was actually a badly deformed young man who had been sent out from his village as a sacrifice, and then (almost willingly) by the stranger, whom the clan decided was Heracles.  Which name evolved into Hercules. 

Which makes it slightly hilarious to me that for the rest of the book the family proudly claims relation to Hercules, as Romulus and Remus did to Jupiter with no firmer basis.  That guy could have been Hercules – or he could have been just some ridiculously strong fellow passing through.  By the end of the book, no one remembers why they do most of what they do, even to the wearing of the Fascinus … It’s kind of sad.  As well as slightly hilarious.

I also found it funny that the story is told straight in that chapter, rather than via word of mouth of someone whose uncle was there; the deeds attributed to “Hercules” are absurd.

Prehistory’s a peculiar area between fantasy and history; there usually isn’t enough solid data to do more than speculate about the setting, given the fact that it’s called prehistory because it occurred before any of it could be written down … Five scholars could look at the same evidence from digs and later written sources and such and come up with five very different conclusions.  This is speculative fiction at its, for me, least attractive.  (I guess I’m just not a huge fan of stone knives and bearskins.)

Gladii and togas (togae?) aren’t my favorite, either, but fascinating when done well.  And this isn’t done badly at all.  The book is necessarily choppy as the stones skip over decades and centuries over 555 pages and 999 years, with the only constants being the place and Fascinus.  The writing is stiff and sometimes redundant – almost unconfident, in the effort that is taken to make sure some points get across, which is strange in that a volume like this had to have taken a lot of sheer dogged confidence.  “Show, don’t tell” is largely nonexistent here.  The dialogue is fairly natural, but also fairly homogenous.  I don’t think there’s much difference to be found between the dialogue of the early Potitii and the later ones, except in what they talk about.  The characters … I don’t so much enjoy a book in which I can’t warm up to the characters, and I couldn’t here, between the brief rock-skips in which they appear and the fact that they mostly just (whether it’s the different mores and such of ancient Rome or simply a reader-writer disconnect) aren’t very likeable.  Which in a way I suppose is just as well; it would be awful to love one set of characters only to be wrenched away to another set, and another, and another … So it’s not a bad thing that I just simply do not like these people. 

The main thing I can’t enjoy is the sheer bloodthirstiness of the times.  It’s easy to lose track of just how civilized we are now, until immersed in something like this.  Two thousand years ago, apparently, it was perfectly fine to reassure a child by telling him that his uncle had escaped from the nasty pirates and then hunted them down and crucified them.  It was also considered unfortunate but pretty much okay that three hundred men were executed here, a couple hundred men, women, and children there, heads placed on spikes and thousands enslaved.  That’s the thing – it’s not only the blood and slavery and rape and mutilation – it’s the attitude toward all of this.  It’s all normal. 

The format of the book is much like Peter Ackroyd’s London, which I’ve heard of (I think I owned it once and never read it, because I really do prefer the history of a person to the history of a place in a novel) and Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, which I read last year and … felt very much the same about as I do Roma.  I have a hard time looking at a book like this as a novel; but it isn’t a history either, despite what I’m learning.  It’s an instructive time-travelogue.

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