Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review: The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor

The Triumph of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Roma Sub Rosa)I first "met" Gordianus the Finder in 72 BCE investigating the murder of a cousin of Marcus Licinius Crassus in "Arms of Nemesis".  Although "Arms" was not the first of Gordianus' adventures written by author Steven Saylor, it was the first of Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series of mystery novels that I found in audiobook form among the offerings of a local book seller.  My sister had just turned me onto the pleasure of listening to books on my daily commute so I was constantly on the lookout for audiobooks about the ancient world when I made the discovery.

I enjoyed "Arms of Nemesis" so much I immediately elevated Steven Saylor to the top of my favorite authors list and thereafter searched diligently for more of his work.  Over the years I managed to "read" all of his books detailing Gordianus' sleuthing activities in the late Roman Republic, or at least thought I had until I noticed the publication date of "The Triumph of Caesar".  I had confused it with "The Judgment of Caesar" so thought I had already read it until I took the time to read a synopsis of the plot and realized it was the most recent release in the series that had escaped me.

Like Gordianus, I, too, have grown gray over the years and identified with his desire in this latest episode to finally retire and simply enjoy reading in the quiet of his peristyle garden.  But, the rich and famous are still jockeying for positions of power as the Roman Republic crumbles around them and no one is safe, even the mighty Caesar, who has finally emerged victorious from the Civil War with Pompey the Great and the optimates, placed Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt after defeating her brother and his generals and quelled an uprising in the east led by the King of Pontus. 

As Caesar prepares to celebrate an unprecedented four triumphs, his wife Calpurnia has been told by her Etruscan haruspex (soothsayer) that there is yet another plot afoot to kill her husband.  So, she summons Gordianus to discover the latest villain before the assassin can succeed and throw the Republic back into bloody turmoil.

Little is known about Calpurnia other than the fact that she was the daughter of  Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a wealthy patrician who is thought to have owned the sprawling complex of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.  Saylor portrays her as a politically savvy woman at the center of a huge web of spies who keep her informed about anything that could threaten her husband and thereby her position as the First Lady of Rome.  If we look at the political machinations of her father, this portrayal seems to be quite probable rather than the image of a modest Roman matron painted by what few sketchy references we have in the ancient sources.

In 58 BC, when the consul, he [Piso] and his colleague, Aulus Gabinius, entered into a compact with Publius Clodius, with the object of getting Marcus Tullius Cicero out of the way. Piso's reward was the province of Macedonia, which he administered from 57 BC to the beginning of 55 BC, when he was recalled. Piso's recall was perhaps in consequence of the violent attack made upon him by Cicero in the Senate in his speech, De provinciis consularibus.

On his return, Piso addressed the Senate in his defence, and Cicero replied with the coarse and exaggerated invective known as In Pisonem. Piso issued a pamphlet by way of rejoinder, and there the matter ended. Cicero may have been afraid to bring the father-in-law of Julius Caesar to trial. At the outbreak of the civil war, Piso offered his services as mediator. However, when Caesar marched upon Rome, he left the city by way of protest. Piso did not openly declare for Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus but remained neutral and did not forfeit the respect of Caesar.

After the murder of Caesar, Piso insisted on the provisions of Caesar's will being strictly carried out and, for a time, he opposed Marcus Antonius. Subsequently, he became one of Anthony's supporters and is mentioned as taking part in an embassy to Antony's camp at Mutina with the object of bringing about a reconciliation with Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. - NationMaster
The maxim "fiat justitia, ruat coelum" ("Let justice be done, though the heavens fall") is attributed to Piso.

Piso clearly engaged in power brokering at the highest levels and his daughter would surely have learned many valuable lessons about politics growing up in his household. 

We also know from the ancient sources that Calpurnia believed in prophetic dreams so it would not be surprising if Calpurnia clandestinely relied on the services of an Etruscan haruspex. 

Although haruspicy was considered by the Romans so important at one time, that the senate decreed that a certain number of young Etruscans, belonging to the principal families in the state, should always be instructed in it, by the late Republic the art had fallen into disrepute.

In de Divinatione, "Cicero (de Div. II.24) relates a saying of Cato, that he wondered that one haruspex did not laugh when he saw another." - Haruspices by William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.
But Calpurnia was not about to reject any tool at her disposal.  Furthermore, the Pisones are thought to have had Etruscan origins themselves.  Scholars think this explains their military service in Etruria during the Hannibalic War and consequent introduction into Roman political life.

Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of
Julius Caesar (1899) by Lionel-Noël Royer
She also would not be intimidated by the opinions of pompous men.  Years ago I remember finding an article about Calpurnia that pointed out she resisted the efforts of her domineering father to remarry after Caesar's assassination and actually became a successful businesswoman, much like Caesar's mother Aurelia, evidenced by a grave marker of a young man referring to Calpurnia's business patronage that was recently discovered . 

Although Gordianus does not want to become enmeshed in any more political intrigue, he is convinced to take on the case because he learns that Calpurnia had previously hired his old friend from Massilia, Hieronymous, who now lays dead from a single knife thrust to the chest in Caesar's study.  So, for the sake of his friend, Gordianus accepts the commission.

As Gordianus retraces his friend's steps, we get the opportunity to meet more people whose names crop up in the history of the period.  One of Gordianus' first appointments is to meet with Vercingetorix.  Whenever I read about Vercingetorix, I can't help but envision the noble warrior with flowing hair and mustach depicted in one of my favorite paintings, Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar (1899) by Lionel-Noël Royer.  But Gordianus finds a wretched man with matted hair, sunken cheeks and hollow eyes cowering in the depths of the notorious Tullianum, the prison that may have derived its name from the archaic Latin tullius "a jet of water" because the prison, constructed around 640-616 BC, by Ancus Marcius, was originally created as a cistern for a spring in the floor of the structure's lower level. (the prison consisted of two levels - the second of which contained prisoners lowered there through the floor of the upper room).  Eventually a passage between the cistern drain and the Cloaca Maxima was constructed, to not only carry away the waste from prisoners but their bodies as well after their ritual strangulation.
Drain to the Cloaca Maxima in the Tullianum
Drain  the Cloaca Maxima in the Tullianum,
renamed Mamertine Prison in medieval times

I have actually visited the chamber that modern Romans think served as the Tullianum and peered into the hole opening into the Cloaca Maxima.  I shudder to think what it would have been like to languish in that dank cavity awaiting execution.

Goridanus also visits the "House of the Beaks", the former home of Pompey the Great adorned with the ramming beaks of pirate ships captured in Pompey's campaigns.  There, he finds an embittered Antony sodden with wine and consoling himself with a female actress.  Antony is smarting from a public reprimand by Caesar for mismanaging Rome in Caesar's absence and has been placed on notice that Caesar expects him to auction Pompey's house and possessions since they were apparently not formally awarded to Antony for his services during the Civil War.  Pouting like a child, Antony refuses to participate in the upcoming triumphs, despite his own significant contribution to the victory at Alesia, and petulantly plans to hold a rummage sale of Pompey's old mismatched cast offs to give the appearance of complying with Caesar's auction order. I think this passage really nailed the impetuous personality of Antony and his almost child-like contrariness. It was definitely a sharp contrast with Cleopatra's calculated worldliness.

Gordianus also mused about the possibility that Cleopatra herself may be plotting against Caesar.  She certainly could have thought there was a possibility to wrest Egypt away from Roman domination if Caesar's death triggered yet another civil war.  Caesar and Cleopatra were obviously at odds over Caesar's refusal to acknowledge Caesarion as his son although Caesar himself did not seem to have made his mind up yet about what role Cleopatra would play in the future.  Like Gordianus, I too find it odd that he installed her statue in his new Temple of Venus.

Gordianus also interviews Cleopatra's sister, Arsinoe.  Knowing her eventual fate at the hands of Antony's assassins in the sanctuary of Artemis in Ephesus, I couldn't help but find her a tragic figure.  I have been particularly curious about Arsinoe after reading about the possibility that her remains may have been found in an Egyptian style tomb shaped like the Pharos lighthouse in Ephesus.  Although the age of the young woman found in the tomb seems a little too young to me (15 - 18 years of age), I still think the possibility that the skeleton could be Arsinoe is exciting.  (See my original blogpost about the discovery).

 I also felt sorry for Arsinoe's tutor, the eunuch, Ganymedes.  In this book he is portrayed as a somewhat effeminate creature although Ganymedes quite ably commanded Egyptian forces against Caesar after the death of the Egyptian general Achillas.  It was Ganymedes who engineered the pollution of Caesar's water supply when Caesar and his troops were surrounded in Alexandria.  Ganymedes marshalled the Egyptian navy to attack Caesar's fleet too.  Although Ganymedes' seamen lost the naval engagement, he fought Caesar's forces to a standstill in a subsequent bombardment.  But the Egyptian populace, like the Roman mob, were a fickle lot and eventually turned against Arsinoe and Ganymedes claiming they were tired of fighting under the leadership of a woman and her tyrant Ganymedes.  Ganymedes fate is not described in Caesar's Alexandrian Wars.  He simply disappears from the narrative after Caesar releases Ptolemy XIII who then took control of the Egyptian forces and was subsequently defeated by Caesar and drowned in the Nile.  It is unlikely Ganymedes survived the return of Ptolemy even though Arsinoe, still a teenager, was surrendered alive to Caesar.  But, it is such circumstances that invite the novelist's imagination so in this story Ganymedes is pitifully paraded in Saylor's version of Caesar's triumph .

I particularly enjoyed Saylor's descriptions of each triumph and the crowd interactions with the triumphator, Caesar.  I could easily envision the mob shouting in unison like unruly sports fans as they sought to implore Caesar to "Spare The Princess" and "Kill the Eunuch!"

Despite all of these high profile suspects, though, Gordianus discovers that Caesar's conquests may actually not be the ultimate motivation for murder.  The Roman Empire was built on centuries-old traditions and family pride was often tightly interwoven with ancestral contributions to historical tradition. Caesar's seemingly benign attempt to correct the Roman calendar appears to have ruffled important feathers too, including some of his own in-laws.

In the late Republic, the Roman calendar was based on a mish mash of solar and lunar calculations ordained by the second king of Rome, a Sabine statesman named Numa Pompilius. 

"In Romulus' time, the calendar had been fixed at 360 days to the year, but the number of days in a month varied from twenty or less to thirty-five or more. Numa estimated the solar year at 365 days and the lunar year at 354 days. He doubled the difference of eleven days and instituted a leap month of 22 days to come between February and March (which was originally the first month). Numa put January as the first month, and may indeed have added the months of January and February to the calendar." - Biography of Numa Pompilius the Second King of Rome, About.com

Unfortunately, in the 700 or so years since King Numa's calendar had replaced the original calendar, even the leap month could not prevent the calendar from slipping out of sync with the actual seasons.  Harvest festivals based on the calendar were being held before the harvest was even gathered.  So Caesar sought to correct the calendar once and for all with the help of Egyptian astronomers. But, the Calpurnii Pisones prided themselves on their descent from King Numa - so much so that their revered ancestor, the Roman annalist L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi who was consul in 133 BCE, censor in 120 BCE and author of the Annales Maximi, is credited with more citations about King Numa in his writings than any other Roman historiographer.1 

So Caesar's tampering with the calendar could be viewed as almost sacriligious by members of his wife's family.  Furthermore, Caesar's opponents, always on the lookout for something to use against him, were sowing unrest by claiming the involvement of Egyptian astronomers made it look like his new Egyptian subjects were superior to average Romans.


Gordianus eventually manages to thwart those that would put an end to Caesar prematurely but we all know destiny cannot be permanently denied.  Caesar would still find his at the end of dagger (or possibly 23 daggers) in the Theater of Pompey on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. I have yet to discover if Gordianus will be called upon to head that investigation!

Footnote 1: Gary Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994. Pp. xi + 552. ISBN 0-8191-9742-4.
 
The Judgment of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)   The Roman Triumph   Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of Time in the Classical World   The Religion of the Etruscans   Caesar's War in Alexandria: Bellum Civile Iii. 102-112 Bellum Alexandrinum 1-33 

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Review: Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Cleopatra's Daughter: A NovelI absolutely loved viewing the ancient world and the rich and famous of the late Republic through the eyes of a child, in this case Cleopatra Selene, one of Cleopatra's twins by Marc Antony.  I would especially recommend this book for young adults as Moran uses the fact that Selene was not familiar with many structures and rituals of the late Roman Republic as teaching opportunities by having Selene's Roman friend, Julia (Octavian's daughter), explain them to her.

Young people and those unfamiliar with Roman history of this period would have had the added surprise of discovering who would turn out to be selected for Selene's husband when she reaches the age of 15.  I already knew who she would end up with but found the information Moran provided about him and his special gifts quite interesting.


I also liked the way Moran wove real incidents that occurred during Octavian's rise to power into the narrative including the visit to the greedy merchant Pollio's villa where Octavian saved a hapless slave from being fed to a pool of eels and the trial in which a lecherous patrician attempted to claim a Centurion's daughter, who would not give him the time of day, was actually one of his own escaped slaves.  Although her fate is recorded in the ancient sources I don't want to take away some of the suspense from readers unfamiliar with the tale.

Unlike a rather critical reviewer from the Historical Novel Society, I appreciated the added drama of the hunt for the "Red Eagle", a secretive individual who opposed Roman slavery and engaged in subversive activities to free slaves and disrupt the daily activities of the aristocratic elite.  I also found Moran's portrayal of Octavian as cold, calculating and almost entirely without sensitivity to the needs of others to be quite as I had always envisioned him and her shrewish personification of Livia in concert with the view expressed by Robert Graves in "I, Claudius".  (Colleen McCullough was a little more forgiving in "Antony and Cleopatra")

I couldn't help but feel bittersweet about the relationship between Marcellus and Julia, knowing what would befall them in a few short years and think Moran's version of the fate of Selene's twin, Alexander, is certainly plausible, although the ancient sources are silent on that topic. Alexander and his younger brother Ptolemy simply disappear from the historical record.

The HNS reviewer also criticized Moran for giving Selene a talent for sketching and architecture but I think these gifts would have been well within the realm of a child of Cleopatra who had been educated in the Museion.  Selene probably had received a fairly high level of intelligence from her mother as well and I have read about gifted children who display uncanny talent as young as 10 or 12.

This was my first exposure to Michelle Moran's work and I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.  I also have her "Nefertiti" and "The Heretic Queen" in my Audible.com library so I am definitely looking forward to spending many more hours with her characters. 

Nefertiti: A Novel   The Heretic Queen: A Novel   The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome's African Frontier (Routledge Classical Monographs)