Steven Saylor is the author of the highly successful Roma Sub Rosa series of historical fiction novels set in Republican Rome at the time of some of the largest figures in ancient history – Cicero, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The protagonist is Gordianus, who is a ‘Finder’ – someone who investigates crimes. He works with the great Cicero. We recently reviewed the latest in the series, Raiders of the Nile, so we invited the author onto the site to find out more about him and his brand of ancient historical crime fiction…
Can you tell us a little about yourself Steven?
I was born and raised in a small town in Texas, studied history at university in Austin, and then moved to San Francisco. Now I split my time between California and Texas, which is a bit like living in two different countries. But I spend most of my time, in my head anyway, in the ancient world, especially in Rome. Movies from my childhood like Ben Hur, Cleopatra, and Spartacus gave me a lifelong fascination for the ancient world. My love of Sherlock Holmes and crime fiction made me crave a mystery novel set in ancient Rome, and in 1991 the result was my first novel, Roman Blood, a fictional account of the famous lawyer Cicero’s first big trial in 80 BC, defending a man accused of murdering his father. Now the series is up to 15 volumes of novels and short stories.
We reviewed Raiders of the Nile recently on the site, but what do you as the author think crime fiction lovers will enjoy about it?
I really cut loose in this book. Gordianus is only 22 years old and living in the world’s most exciting city, Alexandria in Egypt. When his beautiful concubine, Bethesda, is kidnapped by mistake, Gordianus has to follow her into the wilds of the Nile Delta, facing danger and deception at every turn. He ends up having to join the Nile bandits, and finds himself involved in a plot to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great (which really did go missing at this time). So we’ve got kidnapping, murder, mistaken identity, a heist, a camel chase, a particularly nasty crocodile, a cowardly lion, and hopefully a whole series of surprises at the end of the story. This book isn’t as heavy as some of my novels, which are often about trials, political conspiracies, and battles. I hope CFL reader will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Gordianus was where it all started for you, what was the inspiration for his character?
In my first draft of Roman Book, Cicero was the main character, but I found I didn’t want to spend 24 hours a day with Cicero. So I decided to give him a private investigator, and thus Gordianus was born. It’s not unlikely, I think, that such detectives actually existed in Rome at this time, because all the great families and power players are using the courts to drag each other down, and they would have needed independent investigators to dig up the dirt on their enemies. But Gordianus has a certain noble streak that sets him apart. Cicero calls him the most honest man in Rome. Because of his special skill set, Gordianus rubs shoulders with the most intriguing people of the time, like Caesar, Pompey, and Cleopatra.
As well as the Gordianus books you also wrote A Twist at the End, about the first recorded serial murders in the US. Please tell us a little more about that?
Twist took me back to my Texas roots. It’s based on the horrific serial murders that took place in Austin starting in 1884, a bit before Jack the Ripper in London. The first victims were black servant girls, the last victims were prominent white women, and the trials erupted in scandals that shook the state government. Post-Civil War race relations, prostitution, sexual deviance, women’s rights, and political corruption are all in the mix. Twist is also a philosophical novel. More than any of my other books, I think it expresses my own deepest views about human existence.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in your long writing career?
Never say never, and listen to the readers. When I wrote Roman Blood, I told everyone it was a one-off. Then the publisher asked me to write a sequel, and I realised I was being offered a chance to write an open-ended series about the most fascinating period of human history, the collapse of the Roman Republic, with no end of murder and mayhem to draw on. Along the way, when I haven’t been quite sure how to proceed, feedback from readers has frequently inspired me to do what I really wanted, but hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to do. There’s a certain organic relationship between me, Gordianus, and the readers of the books, something I never dreamed would happen at the outset.
And what’s next from the pen of Steven Saylor?
I’ve just finished the next Gordianus novel, a direct sequel to Raiders of the Nile. Working title: Wrath of the Furies. King Mithridates, having liberated much of the Greek-speaking world from its Roman overlords, is planning a surprise massacre of every Roman left in Asia Minor in a single day. That’s 80,000 people. Relaxing on the beach in Egypt with the beautiful Bethesda, young Gordianus receives a message that lures him to the city of Ephesus, the epicenter of the looming massacre. Who’s behind this cryptic message? How will Gordianus survive the slaughter? And can he stop the human sacrifice in the Grove of the Furies that will launch the whole atrocity? This is a darker novel than Raiders, but the action is just as nonstop, and the stakes are even higher.
Read our review of Raiders of the Nile here.