A talk with 'Roma' author Steven Saylor
Steven Saylor explains the link between Austin and Rome
Sunday, April 08, 2007
"My childhood fascination with ancient Rome began in Goldthwaite, Texas — literally," says Stephen Saylor, author of the new, wide-screen historical novel, "Roma." "In the 1960s, the movies at the drive-in theater on the highway outside of town were saturated with ancient world subjects, from 'Hercules' and 'Jason and the Argonauts' to 'Spartacus' and 'Ben-Hur.' All the 'sword and sandal' movies fascinated me. The jewel in the crown was 'Cleopatra,' with Liz Taylor. The unprecedented worldwide publicity even filtered down to Goldthwaite, but when the movie finally showed at the drive-in, the projectionist manually censored the famous nude scene. I suffered lack of closure with Cleopatra and have been trying to uncover her ever since."
Saylor, who splits his time between Austin and Berkeley, Calif., isn't the only one fascinated with these ancient ancestors. From Romans on the tube (HBO's "Rome") to Spartans at the cinema (the box-office smash "300"), ancient people are hot. "They're the jet-setters," Saylor says, the Brads and Angelinas of their day.
What: Reading and signing
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12
Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
What's more, they're sociopathic jet-setters who meet horrifically gory ends, adding a prurient element for history buffs and fans of human misery. When Cicero was killed, his head and hands were chopped off and displayed in the Forum: good stuff for supermarket tabloids. As a result, Saylor says, "There's a reptilian fascination about them."
No one's more fascinated than Saylor, whose own writing life is steeped in the blood of antiquity. He is the author of 13 previous books, 11 of them in his popular Roma Sub Rosa series of detective novels — set in the final decades before the Christian era and narrated by a shrewd Roman gumshoe named Gordianus the Finder.
"Roma" goes back almost a whole millennium further than the Gordianus novels, offering an epic portrait of a hilly stop on the salt-trade route that became a city, then a republic, then an empire.
Over the course of more than 555 pages and 999 years, it tracks members of two families as they wend through a landscape crowded with war, political intrigue, sex, murder and religious practice. There are vestal virgins, slaves, plebeians, patricians, senators and soldiers. Famous figures make appearances (Cleopatra, the dictator Sulla), and famous episodes in Roman history: the rape of Lucretia, the defection of Coriolanus, the Gauls' siege of Rome.
The effort that led to this multigenerational saga involved about two years of study and legwork.
"Boy, I learned a lot, lemme tell ya. A lot of it was new research for me," said Saylor, who studied history and classics at the University of Texas as an undergraduate in the 1970s. "It's been one of the joys of my life that I was able to come back years later and show my history profs that I managed to do something with what they taught me."
The creation of "Roma" has another UT connection: The book's editor, Keith Kala, graduated from the university's Plan II program. "Keith was the trade book buyer for the UT Co-op on the Drag when Michener's 'Texas' came out, and he never forgot the way people lined up to buy that book, so I think he grasped my concept for 'Roma' right away," says Saylor. "We happened to meet up here in Austin, and I remember sounding ideas off him during a walk along Barton Creek — unifying the narrative by following a single family line, having a talisman handed down through the generations, showing characters from all social classes, from slaves to senators, and so forth."
Though Saylor spends most of the year in Berkeley, he's never really left Austin. "I have a condo in Travis Heights where I come to escape and totally chill out about six times a year," he says. "When I'm in Austin, mostly I swim, run, drink beer and eat Tex-Mex with old friends. I am a lifelong Barton Springs-Deep Eddy-Hippie Hollow-Town Lake Trail junkie. And I love the restaurants: Maudie's, Hula Hut, Chuy's, Green Mesquite, Shady Grove. You can't get good Tex-Mex or BBQ or go swimming much in Berkeley — too cold! — so Austin is like a resort to me. I just love it here."
In fact, Texas figures into another book he'd like to write: a fictional account of Mirabeau B. Lamar's dream to expand the Republic of Texas. It would be his third book set in Texas, after "Have You Seen Dawn?" and "A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry."
Inevitably, Saylor is asked what he thinks of HBO's recently completed historical drama, "Rome." "I still haven't seen all of Season Two, but the producers' attention to costumes, houses and details of daily life was very impressive," he says. "Their approach to the storytelling was mostly legit, although their portrayal of Cleopatra as a nymphomaniac junkie was utterly inexcusable, and far less interesting than the truth. Cleopatra spoke multiple languages, ruled a vast kingdom and very nearly became queen of the world; she was not a lust-addled airhead! She may have been quite chaste, actually, since she seriously considered herself the incarnation of the goddess Isis. When your child is going to be a demigod, you don't procreate on impulse with the first soldier who passes your tent!"
This article contains additional reporting by Jeff Salamon.