Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Murder on the Appian Way

A Murder on the Appian Way
© 1997 Steven Saylor
413 pages


"Oh, the times! Oh, the morals!" - Cicero

"Ah, judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason!" - Mark Antony, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. (Act 3, scene 2)

A Murder on the Appian Way starts out in chaos. Publius Clodius, the darling of the plebs, has been murdered on the highway south of Rome. Clodius has been deeply involved in Rome's political wranglings between the populares (populists) and Optimates (aristocrats). His own personal rival is Milo, a man who has been threatening to have Clodius done away with for some time. Clodius was loved by the mob for many reasons, chiefly his support of the grain dole, and when his stabbed and strangled body appears in Rome they want blood. The city is dark, but alive with hatred as people gather torches and march on the Senate, then on Milo's home.

The setting here at the beginning is well done: I really felt as though I was in Rome, hiding behind locked doors staring out into a dark city and hearing the voices of the mob. I could feel Gordianus' fear and anxiety about what the next hours would bring. They brought nothing good, as the Senate house burns. The Republic hasn't held elections in a year, and the rioting mob results in a period of anarchy where homes larger than huts are sacked and people are murdered. Gordianus' own home is similarly plundered when he and his son Eco are attempting to glean information at a political gathering, and the statue of Minerva in his garden is pushed off of its pedestal, breaking in half. It is very appropriate that the goddess of wisdom, justice, and civilization would be broken in two in a book such as this, where men "lose their reason".

Although Milo is commonly thought of as the man who killed Clodius, many people aren't quite certain -- among them, Clodius's widow and the general-politician Pompey the Great. Both approach Gordianus and ask him to find the truth of the matter, leading him to the countryside surrounding the Appian way where he will conduct interviews and try to find the truth of the matter. Gordianus' attachment to the truth, which Saylor's Cicero will thumb his nose at as being foolishness (he being of the opinion that "Truth" is whatever oratory that helps the Republic), serves him well in gathering the respect of many people in Rome, but also makes him dangerous to those who don't want the real story being told.

Saylor has delivered an incredible read here. History is no longer the setting but is now actively driving the plot -- think of a story set on the Titanic before and after the ship hits the iceberg and begins to sink. The fall of the Republic is similar to the sinking of the Titanic, and it may be here in this book that the Republic hits its iceberg. Historical fiction must be both good history and good fiction, and I'm reasonably sure A Murder on the Appian Way is both -- its setting is compelling, its characters believable, its drama gripping. Saylor combines historical fact with an examination of moral ambiguity, both in interpersonal affairs and in politics.

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