Son of Rome: Steven Saylor interviewed by Richard Foreman

The bestselling author sat down with fellow novelist Richard Foreman to chat his latest novel, Rome, and Marcus Aurelius.
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Steven Saylor is a bestselling novelist and author of the Roma series of novels. The latest is Dominus, which recounts the fortunes of the Pinarius family from the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the model of the philosopher-king, up to Constantine, who alters history forever by making Christianity the state religion of Rome.

Steven Saylor, can you first tell us about the idea behind the narrative of Dominus and its place in the series? And how did you come up with the device of the fascinum of the Pinarii?

First, the fascinum, since that’s where it all starts. Some of the very earliest myths of Rome involve what T.P. Wiseman calls “the phantom phallus” — a disembodied phallus floating in a hearthfire. This is the god Fascinus. Little replicas of this god — lucky charms — proliferate, until just about everyone owns a fascinum, as it’s called. The Vestal virgins have one, which they solemnly place out of sight underneath the chariot of any general celebrating a triumphal procession. Why? Because the fascinum (which often sports wings) wards off the Evil Eye of the envious in the crowd. Likewise, Roman mothers put a fascinum in the crib, to protect their baby from jealous (presumably infertile) women. The Pinarius family in Dominus happens to own the very earliest known fascinum, a talisman which seems to have kept their family going for more than a thousand years.

So, how did ancient Rome go from worshipping a floating phallus (and countless other gods and goddesses) to worshipping just one, the invisible god of the Christians? The Pinarius family witnesses that long process, from Roma and Empire to the final book of the trilogy, Dominus.

The name of the book comes from the title by which Roman slaves addressed their master, which then became a title for the Roman emperor, which then became the title used by Christians for their god: Dominus.

How representative do you think the family of the Pinarii are, in relation to the other noble families in Rome? 

The Pinarii actually existed; they are one of the earliest known Roman families. One was among the heirs of Julius Caesar. Then they fade out of history — and into my novels. Their ancient pedigree gives them access to most of the rulers of Rome, from Romulus the first king to Constantine, the first Christian emperor. They don’t make much of a mark as military men, but they do have an artistic bent and good business sense, so they end up building all sorts of famous things, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Trajan’s column. They’re a cagey bunch who evolve and adapt as Rome endures civil wars, plagues, mad emperors, and other catastrophes.

There is no shortage of Roman emperors in this novel who could be deemed barbaric, vain or worse. Who did you find the most interesting to write about? Did your research throw up any surprises or challenge your pre-conceptions about any historical figures?

I could hardly wait for the chance to portray the very young, very short-lived emperor Elagabalus, who might be thought of as a flamboyant drag queen, but nowadays is thought by some to have been transgendered. We also get to spend precious time with my hero Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher-emperor; one of the Pinarii is in the room when the famous physician Galen applies a poultice to Marcus’s anus. (Yes, that really happened.) Then there’s Constantine, who in fiction is invariably always shown in a good light, since he favoured the Christians — never mind that he murdered his wife and son, among countless other victims. As the great historian Ramsay MacMullen says, ‘The empire had never had on the throne a man given to such bloodthirsty violence as Constantine.’

Marcus Aurelius rightly looms large in Dominus. What are your thoughts on him, and do you remember the first time you read The Meditations?

I tried to read The Meditations when I was young and carefree, and it seemed like a collection of bland platitudes. Rereading it in my fifties and sixties was a totally different experience; it strikes home with me now. Marcus was the most cultivated man of his time. He wanted to stay in Rome talking about philosophy with his circle of mentors and proteges; instead, the empire is slammed with the worst plague in history, and then by an unprecedented onslaught of barbarians from the north. Poor Marcus has to spend year after year on the snowy, muddy, miserable Danube frontier, waging one bloody war after another. The Meditations are his private thoughts about getting by from day to day, stuck in the middle of nowhere, knee-deep in blood and gore.

Marcus Aurelius

You have now written novels set during both the Roman Republic and Empire. What do you consider the main similarities and differences between the two periods?

The sources for the Republic, beginning with Livy, are full of stories about heroes, generals, priests and politicians. There are so many fantastic tales of heroism, sacrifice, and bravery, about men and women from all walks of life, from farmers to philosophers. Then comes the Empire, and the sources are all about just one thing: the emperor — what he said at breakfast, what he wore at dinner, whom he slept with that night, and so on. The history of Rome becomes one big gossip tabloid.

Which historians or history books would you recommend to readers who wish to know more about the era and historical personages featured in Dominus?

You will never go wrong picking up anything written by the late, great Michael Grant. He was incredibly prolific, writing about every aspect of Greek and Roman life. I read his biographies of Cleopatra and of Jesus when I was a teenager, and I’ve been reading him ever since. Particularly relevant to Dominus are his books The World of Rome and The Climax of Rome.

If you could meet three historical figures included in any of your novels, who would they be and why? Also, who would you wish to avoid meeting?

Hadrian I would invite to the party, but only if he brings Antinous as his date. Cleopatra, of course. And Elagabalus, just to spice things up. I have a feeling these three might have a good time together, after a few cups of wine.

Not invited: Constantine (too scary). And Marcus Aurelius, who would just sit in a corner catching up on his paperwork, as he was said to do in the imperial box at the Colosseum and at the parties thrown by his fun-loving co-emperor, Lucius Verus. And Julian, the last pagan emperor, who would probably be a bit of a bore, I’m afraid.

Finally, can you tell us about what you are working on now?

Having finished up my long-running Roma Sub Rosa mystery series with The Throne of Caesar, and having written Dominus to complete the trilogy begun with Roma and Empire, I am content to rest on my laurels, at least for the time being. I would say I’m retired, but friends and family tell me that’s not possible for a writer. I just might try a work of non-fiction.

Steven Saylor is a bestselling novelist and author of the Roma series of novels, the latest of which is Dominus.

Richard Foreman is a bestelling writer and publisher.