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Review Steven Saylor's "Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome"

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"Empire," by Steven Saylor


The Bottom Line

Strongly recommended for any adult interested in the first century and a half of Roman emperors. For those who don't have prior background, Saylor deftly weaves his comprehensive knowledge of Roman culture and history throughout the story, and for those who do know all the discrete bits, Saylor melds them into a chronological whole.
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  • Much better than the NY Times best-selling first volume ("Roma").
  • Apollonius of Tyana is fascinating.
  • Descriptions (e.g. Mt. Vesuvius fallout in Rome) vivid.
  • Expert Saylor-type care taken with details.
  • Sympathetic, flawed complex characters whose motives sometimes remain mysterious (could be a con).


  • It came to an end.


  • Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome
    Steven Saylor
    St. Martin's Press (August 31, 2010)
    608 pages
  • Instead of Cornell as inspiration for the history, as in Roma, Saylor credits Michael Grant in Empire.
  • Very vivid descriptions that might make it R-rated if a movie -- arena violence and sexual attraction.
  • Sequel to Roma in the Novels of Ancient Rome series that takes places during the Imperial period of Rome.
  • Leaves some threads hanging and questions unanswered, but feels complete, anyway.

Guide Review - Review Steven Saylor's "Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome"

Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome, Steven Saylor's sequel to Roma, covers the city of Rome from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, as seen through contact with successive generations of a very ancient, but small, patrician family known as the Pinarii.

Although the Pinarius family's ancestry is known to go back to the legendary period of Rome, there are gaps in the record. One from Roma was caused by the cover-up of a Vestal Virgin's illicit baby, gestated during the sack of Gaul. It took the sleuthing of the future Emperor Claudius, boyhood friend of one of Empire's generations of the family, to deduce, but not prove this. The sequel has a comparable genealogical nightmare event and successful cover-up. Other blotches on the Pinarius escutcheon include conversion to Christianity by one of the early Pinarii in Empire. This, too, was not bruited about. Even by the end of the period covered, A.D. 141, being a Christian could be hazardous to one's health. Earlier, under Nero, the Christian Pinarius, Kaeso, becomes a human torch.

Since Empire covers part of the period known as the principate, there are excessively powerful monarchs in control of Rome, almost all with a dangerous side. Skirting death challenges Romans in contact with the emperors, including the novel's central family, but the phallic talisman that was presented at the start of Roma, known as a fascinum (it turned into a cross-like pendant at the end of Roma), continues to protect its wearers.

Sometimes the reader may have doubts about whether the Pinarius in question deserves his luck: They aren't uniformly noble. They commit adultery and violate sacred offices, but the reader can't help rooting for them. When Domitian sends Lucius Pinarius into the arena, instead of dying, Lucius -- doing Androcles one better (there is also an Androcles-tame lion earlier in the book) -- terrifies the fierce lion. It is only one of multiple instances of Domitian's aborted attempts to kill Lucius.

Besides fascinating, multi-faceted pictures of the emperors, the cast includes many of the illuminaries of the first century and a half of the common era.

Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome is not a short book, but it is fast moving, easy to follow, and a worthy successor of the Roma sub rosa series so many of us miss. It is much more fun to read than Roma, which started well, but then suffered from disjointedness.

See Ancient/Classical History forum Co-host Irene Hahn's review of Empire.

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Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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