Book review: Empire by Steven Saylor

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There can be no better way to enter the colourful, thrilling and brutal world of ancient Rome than through the magnificent portals of a Steven Saylor novel.

Empire, a fast-paced and fact-filled journey through the insanity, perversions and persecutions of a succession of emperors, is the enthralling follow-up to his best-selling Roma and presents a multi- faceted portrait of the Roman Empire at its height.

Saylor uses one patrician family, the Pinarii, as a zoom lens through which to view the machinations of Tiberius, the madness of Caligula, the cruel escapades of Nero and the chaos of the notorious Year of Four Emperors in 69AD.

Not since Robert Graves’ I Claudius novels have we been so spectacularly up close and personal with the charismatic and cruel rulers who held the power over life and death.

Empire spans the period from AD14 to 141 during which we see five generations of Pinarii as they serve successive emperors as soothsayers, senators and artisans and work skilfully and sometimes desperately to avoid becoming victims of a whole raft of political conspiracies.

The family has its own flaws and foibles and along the way they will suffer the cruelty of Tiberius, the madness of Caligula, the depravity of Nero and the deadly paranoia of Domitian but they are survivors and act as a mirror onto all the beauty and bestiality and heroism and hedonism of Rome.

Empire is strewn with epic scenes, including the Great Fire of 64AD which ravaged the city, Nero’s terrifying persecution of the Christians and the mind-blowing opening games of the Colosseum.

The patriarch, Lucius Pinarius, grooms his son, also named Lucius, to be a member of an ancient priesthood of soothsayers who interpret natural phenomenon to divine the future, and the young Lucius proves to be particularly skilful, earning the emperor’s praise and confidence.

But at the novel’s heart are the wrenching choices and seductive temptations faced by each new generation of the Pinarii.

One unwittingly becomes the sexual plaything of the notorious Messalina, one enters into a clandestine affair with a Vestal virgin, one falls under the charismatic spell of Nero while another is drawn into a strange new cult whose followers deny the gods and call themselves Christians.

However diverse their destinies and desires, all the Pinarii are united by one thing – the mysterious golden talisman called the fascinum handed down from a time before Rome existed.

As it passes from generation to generation, the fascinum seems to exercise a power not only over those who wear it, but over the very fate of the empire...

Empire is a brilliant blockbuster. Packed with history, adventure and excitement, this is a fun and fascinating way to get to the heart of the Roman Empire.

(Corsair, paperback, £7.99)