Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Catilina's Riddle (by Steven Saylor)


As I’m sure I’ve said before, I love Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. I first read this one years ago, while on holiday in Sweden, and re-read it recently for a class I’m teaching. Although my very favourite Gordianus books tend to be the earlier ones, this is a long but excellent and entertaining entry to the series and features one of Saylor’s most complex and memorable portraits of historical figures, besides Cicero – his evocative characterisation of Catilina (Catiline).

This book falls right in the middle of the Roma sub Rosa series, which focuses on Gordianus, and it shows. There is only one instance in which an earlier book is actually referenced (footnote, publisher’s details and everything!) but the book is peppered with references to past events in Gordianus’ life and with more subtle references to the future. At the time of publication, only Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis had been published as books, and events from both are referred to so frequently I must admit I grew rather tired of reading Sextus Roscius’ name! There are also references to events covered in Saylor’s short stories, set during Gordianus’ early career (which is skipped over at alarming speed if one just reads the novels, as the first three novels cover nearly twenty years, the remaining seven just over ten years). At the time of this publication, these had only been published in a mystery magazine, but they are now available in two collections, The House of the Vestals and A Gladiator Dies Only Once. It is refreshing to see how full and real-seeming a character Gordianus is, a man who does not forget old friends or past events simply because his readers might not have read that book, and the plentiful explanations will prevent any new readers from being lost, while avoiding spoiling the central mysteries of these earlier publications. Events in Gordianus’ personal life however are, unavoidably, spoiled. Most successful are the few subtle hints of what is to come – Meto’s taking up of a career under Julius Caesar in the Epilogue, which, it’s not hard to guess even if you don’t know, will become significant in the future – and, even more pleasingly to anyone with knowledge of the history, Marcus Caelius’ passing reference to a widow with green eyes and Gordianus’ memory that Clodius’ sister was instrumental in Cicero’s feud with Clodius and eventual exile.

Catilina is one of the great villains of Roman republican history, and Saylor takes the always entertaining route of, to a great extent, rehabilitating him. I’ve a great soft spot for novels that do this, as it offers such a fresh perspective on the history and is nearly always possible to achieve reasonably plausibly (though I think the emperor Nero might be an exception). Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, a sympathetic biographical account of Richard III, is one of the best, and to some extent, I, Claudius could be said to be this sort of book as well.

However, unlike these others, Catilina’s Riddle is not written from Catilina’s perspective, and it is not a straight rehabilitation of the man. The novel as a whole, and it’s narrator, by and large, fall mostly on the side of Catilina, but the number of qualifying words in that sentence gives you an inkling of how effectively Saylor walks the line between presenting a balanced view and coming down hard on one side or the other. Saylor points out himself in his ‘Author’s Note’ that Gordianus is a deliberately unreliable narrator in this story, while his two sons, Eco and Meto, present the views of the opposing sides. This has the double effect of emphasising the differences between Cicero and Catilina (wily and cautious vs violently passionate) and of essentially introducing the reader to the characters of the grown-up Eco (last seen as a mute teenager, now a married adult) and Meto (last seen as a five-year-old slave boy, now turning sixteen). Meanwhile, Saylor’s view of Cicero continues to chime perfectly with my own, making me rather biased in his favour, while his depiction of Catilina is perhaps a little too kind, but thoroughly believable.

As always, Saylor expertly weaves his fictional characters into Roman history. There is, as always, the odd moment that might make the reader sit back and think ‘hang on – that’s a bit convenient’, most notably the climax, in which Gordianus and Meto are revealed to be the only two, unrecorded, survivors of an historical defeated army from which there were no survivors. Saylor has, however, set up his characters well to make them believably connected with the uppermost echelons of Roman society. By creating a connection and mutual obligation between the young Cicero and Gordianus in Roman Blood, from a time when Cicero was a young and unimportant New Man, Saylor has laid the groundwork for Gordianus to become plausibly and intimately connected with Roman politics at the highest level, and it is Cicero who drags him into the Catilinarian conspiracy. Gordianus’ connections therefore feel real and lack the feeling of obvious insertion of a fictional figure into the story that one often gets while watching Rome (‘How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic’, ‘Pharsalus’ and ‘Caesarion’ being particularly egregious examples).

Saylor is equally adept at weaving historical evidence into his narrative, though, as with several Gordianus novels, I found that the pace slackened and my attention wandered whenever he described actual speeches at length. No doubt this is partly, if not entirely, due to my own lack of enthusiasm for ancient oratory on an aesthetic level (though, of course, I use it frequently as evidence, and it’s very useful). Saylor’s summaries of real speeches certainly demonstrate the depth and breadth of his meticulous research, but I’m afraid, if I’m reading a novel, I want to read a novel, not a Ciceronian speech, even if it is rendered into modern English. However, given that I loved the excerpts from Catullus’ poetry included in Counting the Stars, I think my own bias is much more the problem than Saylor’s writing here.

The Gordianus novels are murder mysteries by genre though several of them, starting with Catilina’s Riddle and continuing with Rubicon, are more concerned with Late Republican politics than detective work. There is still a murder to be solved though, which Gordianus erroneously believes to be connected to Cicero and Catilina’s struggle but which turns out to have nothing to do with either of them. The murder, the clues and the solution book-end what is otherwise a rich recreation of the Catilinarian conspiracy. I was perhaps a little disappointed that the murder was so unrelated to the rest of the story; although it has an important position in the plot as the spark for Gordianus’ action, he could have come to the same decision without the murder and it shares only the broadest thematic links with the main story. However, as a mystery in itself, it was rather good, and would make a nice short mystery on its own.

I really enjoyed this book both times I read it (and was pleased to find that my vague memories of it were largely accurate). Eco and Meto have grown up into likeable, flawed, believable characters and Saylor presents an account of this particular bit of republican history that is equally enjoyable to readers who have little knowledge of the period (my knowledge of this area was pretty sketchy back when I first read it) and those with much more background knowledge (which I like to think is me now!). His decision to frame the story around Meto’s coming of age provides a particularly fruitful device for explaining the system to the reader, and Saylor continues to be one of the best authors when it comes to the difficult balance between ensuring that your reader understands what’s happening, and writing a history lecture rather than a novel. And this is, of course, essential reading for fans of Gordianus, providing a bridge between the much earlier novels and the complex tangle of mysteries surrounding Caesar, Pompey, Clodius and so on that is to come.

Funky photo I took of the Lutheran cathedral in Uppsala, Sweden. Because, well, that's where I was when I first read the book. Whadd'ya mean, 'pretty tenuous connection'?!

2 comments:

  1. This book represents something of a change in tone for the Gordianus novels, becoming a little darker and more introspective. Of course, that's a mood that also better fits those final years of the Republic.

    Saylor's handling of Catalina is also very well done. I came away with the feeling that he was slightly less radical than history has painted him, but there is still the matter of that army that "spontaneously" appeared in northern Italy. Gordianus obviously sympathizes somewhat with Catalina's stated goals, but even he seems a little perturbed by the chosen methods.

    It's also interesting to compare this book with the second of John Maddox Robert's second SPQR novel, The Cataline Conspiracy. Catalina is much more a villain there, but then Decius Caecilius Metellus is a patrician and member of the old guard, even if he is rather poor. Poor Catalina never had a chance with Rome's two greatest detectives of the day on his trail. It's a good thing Falco wouldn't be born for almost a hundred years or they'd have been tripping over each other.

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  2. I've read the SPQR series. I plan on reading the Gordianus novels when I have a chance.

    BTW, another pop-classic:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/historians-admit-to-inventing-ancient-greeks,18209/

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