The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

The Throne of Caesar
by Steven Saylor
Minotaur Books, 2018

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It's been 28 years since Steven Saylor's “Roma Sub Rosa” series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome first started, with 1991's Roman Blood. In that book, the up-and-coming Roman advocate and orator Cicero sends his trusted aide Tiro to the house of Gordianus the Finder, a Roman with a reputation for making discreet inquiries, solving thorny problems, and, as his informal title indicates, locating missing items or people – a private investigator operating at the heart of Republican Rome. Tiro comes to Gordianus on a mission from Cicero, and a tremendously enjoyable series of historical murder mysteries begins.

In Saylor's latest novel, The Throne of Caesar, history repeats itself: Tiro returns to the house of Gordianus on a mission from Cicero. But Saylor's novels very refreshingly unfold in something approaching real time, so this is a much older Gordianus, a different house, a much older Tiro, a much more famous Cicero, and a much different Rome, a Rome now in its fifth year of the dictatorship of Julius Caesar – a Rome that's Republican in name only.

As quickly becomes apparent, Cicero isn't seeking the help of Gordianus in solving a crime – he's hoping to enlist that help in preventing one: Cicero is worried about possible plots to assassinate Caesar on the eve of the Dictator's promised military campaign against Parthia. Senators might be conspiring; plans may be underway; soothsayers are telling Caesar to beware the Ides of March … and at first glance, none of it makes much sense, as Gordianus' whip-smart daughter Diana points out: “But at this point, who would want Caesar dead? The civil war is over at last, and from what I understand, Caesar has been far more merciful than those who fought the last civil war, men like Marius and Sulla.”

Such lines play loudly on the historical hindsight of readers; the whole of The Throne of Caesar is built on that manipulation of hindsight, because the centerpiece irony here is of course the fact that there isn't a scrap of mystery attached to the murder of Julius Caesar – we know the when, the where, the who, and the why. The killers have been shouting their motives and intentions from page and stage and screen for two thousand years. It's a tall order for any writer to draw even a modicum of suspense out of the Ides of March.

Saylor is such a deft hand that he manages it, mainly by concentrating on the cast rather than the case. Gordianus naturally agrees to look into the threats in the air against Caesar, but the very living Caesar is simultaneously offering to change his life drastically by elevating him to the Senate. Diana is more eager than ever to prove herself to her father. And Gordianus' son Meto has for many novels enjoyed a close, almost filial relationship with Caesar, accompanying him on campaign and even ghost-writing some of his memoirs.

Saylor plays on all of this so subtly and expertly that long before the novel has reached its mid-point and begun to accumulate real narrative momentum, the central figure of Caesar seems to be so firmly entwined in the lives of so many characters (and in the life of the City itself) that, somehow, impossibly, by some rhetorical magic, tension really does grow about whether or not he'll survive the Ides. This is no mean feat; it's akin to generating tension in a novel about the Titanic. The Throne of Caesar stands out even from the long line of “Roma Sub Rosa” novels and takes creditable place on the shelf of Ides of March novels.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is