Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Venus Throw

The Venus Throw
© 1995 Steven Saylor
308 pages

Back during the spring I began enjoying Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series, depicting life during Rome as it passes from republic to empire through the adventures of Gordianus the Finder, ancient Rome's private eye. This book is set some 20+ years after the last story in The House of the Vestals, which I read last: young Eco, who was once a teenager, is now a man in his thirties following in his father's footsteps. Gordianus' family has expanded in the meantime: he has another adopted son in the Roman army, serving as secretary to Julius Caesar in Gaul, and a daughter by his slave-turned-wife, Bethesda. Gordianus has retired from his detective work, although he takes the odd case now and then to keep himself busy.

The book begins with an old Alexandrian philosophy showing up at Gordianus' door: he wants Gordianus' help staying alive. He is the only survivor of a delegation once a hundred strong that sailed from Egypt to Rome to lobby on Egypt's behalf, hoping to keep it free from growing Roman domination. After barely surviving a massacre upon landfall, he and his compatriots have been picked off one by one -- even after arriving in Roma itself. Gordianus is in no shape to help him: he has no influence in the Senate beyond being on friendly terms with Cicero, and the philosopher's enemies are powerful indeed. Before the night is over, he will be dead. A scandalous patrician woman (Clodia Pulcher Tertia) comes to Gordianus and insists that she knows who the murderer was -- and she wants him to find the evidence that will convince the courts. Pressured by her feminine wiles, her silver, and -- more notably in Gordianus' case, since he is the epitome of Roman virtue -- his guilt at having turned the old philosopher away, Gordianus agrees. Thus begins the plot of our novel.

There is a strong theme in this book, that of the power of Venus -- love, or more specifically eros: passionate love that drives mortals and gods alike mad. With the exception of Gordianus and his family, every major character in this book is pushed into the plot through eros. It is not an accident that the plot is set during a religious festival about the same subject. Venus, not philosophic virtue, dominates the minds of these Romans: one of the main characters keeps a massive statue of Venus in her backyard -- the same that graces the cover of the book, which made the elderly librarian volunteer give it a double-take when he checked it out.

Gordianus keeps different statues in his yard, notably a beautiful statue of Minevera -- the goddess of wisdom, justice, and in Gordianus' case, truth. He is neither a patrician nor a philosopher, but he keeps himself true to his own sense of virtue -- one that is properly pious for his time, but admirable to 21st century readers. For all of the silver Clodia offers him, he seeks the truth of what happened -- even if what happened isn't what he or anyone else would have suspected. As usual, Saylor has delivered a very enjoyable narrative that makes ancient Rome live once more, blending historical details with a fascinating story.

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