Steven Saylor

Roman blood

New York : St. Martin's Press, 1991

- English version -

Translation by Richard M. Heli


Part 1 "High and Low"

Gordianus "the Finder" receives an early morning visit from Tiro, slave secretary to Cicero who needs his assistance in a case. Gordianus is surprised that Cicero, of whom he has never heard, has requested him. On the way to Cicero, Gordianus and Tiro witness the murder of a gladiator in the Subura.

At Cicero's house, Gordianus gets to know Tiro's freedman grandfather before Cicero himself greets him with the question of whether he ever considered murdering his own father.

Cicero and Gordianus discuss a hypothetical case of parricide. Later it becomes more concrete: it concerns Sextus Roscius of Ameria, charged with having his father murdered some months past. Gordianus has eight days to discover the true culprit.

Cicero, Gordianus and Tiro visit the house of Caecilia Metella, to whom Roscius has fled. She was a friend of his father. Also at Caecilia's is the youth Messalla Rufus, who is related by marriage to the Dictator Sulla. Cicero describes the horrible punishment for parricide. Caecilia Metella observes that the younger son of the old Roscius has died a few years ago in Ameria of food poisoning. Before this death, the elder was staying with Metella and was called away by a secret message; an Elena asked him to come to House of the Swans, a brothel, which Roscius regularly frequented. On the way there, he was murdered.

The accused Roscius, who with his wife and two daughters lives in a wing of the Metella house, proves only a little cooperative. He is entirely paralyzed by his fear of horrible punishment - or does he have something else to hide? Gordianus accidentally also learns that Tiro has a secret relationship with one of Roscius' daughters. In the evening, Gordianus recounts this for his slave Bethesda.

The next day Gordianus and Tiro make their way to the scene of the crime. There, in a narrow alley, they find not only a still visible bloodstain on the street, but also a bloody handprint made by Roscius on the door of a shop, whose owner can offer little information.

On the other side of the street there live a young widow and her mute son Eco, who allegedly has seen the murder. She doesn't want to say anything. However, Eco explains in pantomime how the murder occurred and describes the perpetrators, who later raped his mother, for purposes of intimidation.

Gordianus und Eco pause for food and drink during the midday heat. Then they seek out Elena at the House of the Swans. They are told by the old whore Electra that she was sold to an unknown shortly after the murder. The pregnant Elena had hoped that it would be Roscius. Gordianus leaves Tiro to lie with Electra, noticing afterward how guilty Tiro feels for thus betraying Roscia.

On the way back, Gordianus and Tiro witness how the infamous speculator Crassus buys up a fire-threatened house at a dirt cheap price.

Returning home, Gordianus finds his house attacked: two men have broken in, intimidated Bethesda and killed her cat [translators note: very daring for Saylor to kill a cat in his first mystery novel!], using its blood to write a warning on the wall.

Gordianus leaves early the next morning for Ameria. He brings Bethesda to a stablemaster who will take her in during the time of his absence.

Part 2 "Portents"

By the afternoon Gordianus reaches Narnia near Ameria. Here in a tavern he learns that in the night, after the murder of Roscius, Mallius Glaucia, freedman to Roscius Magnus, who with Roscius Capito of Ameria were cousins to Sextus Roscius, had brought the news to Ameria. In the description of Glaucia and Magnus, Gordianus recognizes once again the men who killed Roscius; it was Glaucia who has attacked his house. But one also tells Gordianus that the dead Roscius was subsequently placed on the proscription list and that the younger Sextus Roscius hated his father and very probably could be behind the murder.

Gordianus has a look at the former family estate of Sextus Roscius, where Capito now resides. He learns from a slave that in addition to Capito, Chrysogonus, the favorite of Sulla, has bought up the rest of the confiscated property of Sextus Roscius. He sees two men from Rome riding to Capito, undoubtedly Magnus and Glaucia.

From the neighbor Titus Megarus, Gordianus learns the course of events played out in Ameria between the murder and the flight of the younger Roscius to Rome . After the alleged proscription became known, the town council sent a delegation to Sulla, but they were put off by promises from Chrysogonous.

The next day Gordianus receives a copy of the petition of the delegation and before his return journey tries once more to get information from the slaves. From one of them he learns that after Roscius' death the prostitute Elena had been brought back here and abused by Magnus and Glaucia. She brought her child into the world and then disappeared. Presumably she and/or the child were hidden nearby in an unmarked grave.

Back in Rome, Gordianus reports his news to the overjoyed Cicero. With Rufus and Tiro, he once again visits Caecilia Metella and Sextus Roscius, in order to ask why he has hidden information as important as the proscription of his father. Roscius remains only slightly cooperative. While Gordianus gives Tiro an opportunity to meet Roscia, he realizes that Rufus is unhappily in love with Cicero.

With Cicero's approval, Gordianus hires a gladiator to guard his house. He must first establish however, that Cicero has apparently also sent him a guard. When Gordianus awakes in the night, he sees that the guard that he thought had been sent by Cicero means actually to kill Gordianus. Gordianus struggles with him; with Bethesda they eventually bring him down.

While it it still dark, Gordianus goes to Cicero wanting to know how someone could know that Cicero wanted Gordianus' house guarded. It comes out that Tiro had leaked information to Roscia. She wants to meet with him every day to pump him for information.

While Cicero practices his oration, Rufus has discovered that Chrysogonus bought up the property of Roscius, valued at millions of sesterces, for only 2000. Gordianus and Tiro meet with Roscia, who is working against her father who has abused her for years. She gives information to another man who briefly appears, but is able to escape.

Cicero is unable to begin with the new information about Roscius. In the evening Gordianus and Tiro go to Chrysogonus' house where they find Sulla in the midst of a feast, to which Rufus has also been invited. With the help of a female slave who at the behest of Rufus lets them into the house, they are almost surprised by Chrysogonus who is put off by Rufus' pretext of a liaison with the slave.

In the slave quarters, Gordianus, Tiro and Rufus find both slaves who witnessed Sextus Roscius' murder. They describe the assault by Magnus, Glaucia and the brawler who the night before had been killed at Gordianus'. In addition, they explain how Elena died soon after the birth of her child, and how the child was killed immediately.

On the way out of the house, Gordianus and Tiro experience firsthand how the Dictator amuses himself with ridiculous singing. Both are discovered by Magnus and Glaucia. Gordianus and Tiro are able to escape by jumping from a balcony.

Part 3 "Justice"

Gordianus and the now-injured Tiro are able to escape their pursuers and reach Caecilia's, being safely conveyed away from there by Cicero. He will now not permit Gordianus to leave his house until the trial is over, but Gordianus escapes via the roof.

He visits once again the last route of Sextus Roscius and discovers that the young widow and her son Eco are gone. He informs the prostitute Electra of the death of Elena. During a visit to the baths, Gordianus for a moment believes his pursuers have caught up to him and heads back to Cicero.

With great publicity, the trial begins at the Forum. The prosecutor Erucius brings up heavy, if not more provable accusations against Roscius and threatens the judges with Sulla's revenge if the opinion does not comply. Cicero's defense makes a great sensation as he immediately implicates Chrysogonus. Hastily, Erucius calls him over. When Gordianus leaves his place in order to relieve his bladder, he encounters Glaucia in the latrine. After a struggle, Gordianus with the help of Tiro, manages to kill him.

Roscius is acquitted. The victory celebration at Caecilia Metella's is somewhat clouded by an emotional outburst between Roscia and her father. When Cicero returns to his house with Gordianus, they find there the Dictator Sulla. He had taken a personal interest in the events of the day and now confirms what Cicero and Gordianus already suspected. Sextus Roscius, who had already poisoned his brother Gaius, had had his father killed by Magnus and Glaucia because the elder had threatened to have him disinherited. He and his two cousins intended to divide up his property, however when Sextus tried to backstab the others, they returned the favor with the help of Chrysogonus by having the property put under proscription. Out of fear of Sextus' revenge, they permitted him to live at the family estate, but when he killed Elena's child, they threw him out. Sulla explained that his aristocratic adversaries such as the Metelli with Cicero's help wanted to deal him a setback over Chrysogonus. He promises to protect Cicero and Gordianus from further reprisals and to procure property for Sextus Roscius as compensation if Cicero will renounce further efforts against Magnus, Capito and Chrysogonous. As he is ready to go, Rufus arrives with news that Sextus Roscius is dead.

He was thrown off a balcony at the house of Caecilia. Gordianus, Rufus and Tiro visit the scene. It was not suicide, but by the same token, Roscia was not responsible, as Tiro had suspected. On the contrary, it was Caecilia Metella, who had discovered that in the case of his father's death, in no way was Roscius innocent. Gordianus and Bethesda return to their home. Eco, found wandering the streets alone, is taken in by Gordianus.


Saylor has used Cicero's famous first speech in a criminal procedure to provide richly-detailed material, which he only needed to augment in many various ways. He has done this with considerable skill and the book is without a doubt one of the better examples of the "historical mystery fiction" genre.

As a matter of fact, Saylor follows Cicero's explanations amazingly exactly. Both of the turns that he offers at the end, namely the fact of Roscius' culpability in the death of his father and his murder by Caecilia Metella, do not gainsay the evidence, which Saylor has gathered together and integrated into this novel (based probably not on the original text, but rather on the translation by Michael Grant as mentioned in the afterword). As a matter of fact, the events could have played out in just this way; interesting in the afterword is the hint that in Cicero's De Officiis he appears to indicate Roscius' guilt.

This procedure means that someone acquainted with Cicero's speech knows much of the evidence already. Until the closing twists the evildoers are in fact those upon whom suspicion readily falls and if I have described the treatment as very detailed , it is however not as tangled as it is with many another author (instead of the obligatory Chandler one could here mention Lindsey Davis' Venus in Copper, probably the most snaky novel of the Falco series). Sulla's appearance at the end is strongly reminiscent of a bit of deus ex machina, and at this point, Saylor commits the dishonesty of abandoning the heretofore first person narrator.

Characterizations are in general very much drawn to life, for example, that of Cicero. The first person narrator Gordianus seems a little too modern; in novels of this type, it is probably almost unavoidable (it does not get any better with Davis' Falco). Roscius' incest with his daughter is a bit unusual and serves for the most part to bring Tiro into a difficult position. The murder of the gladiator early in the plot is not further treated, for all practical purposes, a "red herring". Also the meeting with Crassus is an historical arabesque; certainly he was ready for the idea of proscriptions and he is an important figure in volume 2 of the Gordianus series.

Proceeding from the literary to the historical merits of the book, the picture shifts somewhat, but not substantially. Like his colleagues Davis and Roberts, Saylor has done recognizably thorough research which he has used to add in numerous Antique items to the novel. Inspite of the helpers which Saylor thanks in the Afterword, there are a few mistakes and misunderstandings remaining which should be set right (see appendix of the German version, since many of them are not in the original English but were inserted in the German translation).

The historical overall picture left is a two-pronged impression. First, Sulla's Rome is certainly well depicted; it was as a matter of fact a time which had suffered years of bloodshed and great uncertainty. Frankly I have certain reservations about Saylor's claim of an aristocratic plot against Sulla (an idea which seems to stem from the rather obscure The Education of Julius Caesar by A. D. Kahn). Also, Rome is seen as perhaps too much of an established great city. I would suspect that in Sulla's time, around the old core of the city, would lie provisional camps, not dissimilar from those of populous third world cities of our own time. All the same, Saylor's picture of Rome is not as ahistorically modernized as that of Davis or worse, Stöver.

Other opinions

James J. O'Donnell, Bryn Mawr classical review 3.3.24:

"This volume fell into my hands in the local public library a few weeks ago and turned out to be a pleasure. The author studied classics at UT Austin and is now a journalist in San Francisco. He has taken Cicero's Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino and turned it into a very serviceable murder mystery. The narrator is one Gordianus, 'the Finder', i.e., a private detective who lives over on the Esquiline in a rundown house and sleeps with his Egyptian slave girl. He knows Roman low life inside and out and is hired by the young Cicero (who sends his even younger slave Tiro to summon Gordianus) to find out the dirt on Chrysogonus and all the Roscii. The quality of the mystery as sustained is above average (there are one or two twists at the end that aren't in the surviving historical record), as is the depiction of the nasty, brutish, and short life of the city in the last days of Sulla. You would have to know a fair bit more than I do about Rome of 80 B.C. to be offput by any of it. It gave me an excuse to reread the speech in tandem, which gave the added pleasure of watching the author pick and choose his material."

Fred Mench, Classical world 86 (1992/93), 77-78:

"Background is well-handled, nicely detailed, and well-researched, with a few minor slips ... The good mystery, fast-paced action, and snappy presentation, including some frank sexual scenes, make this an excellent background novel for a Roman history or Cicero class."

Joyce Park,

" Rating 4 (Very good) ...
The plot is well-planned and reasonably fair to those who are familiar with the milieu. The author is plainly fascinated with the era and has done a lot of homework; but this book is uneasily balanced between the genres of historical fiction and crime fiction. I hesitate to mention genre boundaries because in general I don't believe in them; but in this case the reader should be aware that the book is extremely slow-paced for a mystery, and rather clumsy for a historical novel.
In sum, Mr. Saylor's work is intelligent, well researched, deliberate, and written in thoughtful prose. However, it made my spine itch with impatience throughout -- I kept skipping ahead to find some action, and then forcing myself to go back (but only because I was obligated to review the book; otherwise, I would just have skimmed the whole thing). This book is like creamed spinach: it's unclear whether it's really good, or whether you convince yourself it's good because it's so patently good for you."

Other reviews

Book Review Digest 88 (1991), 496

Kirkus Reviews 59 (1991), 1186

Publishers Weekly 238, 4. Oktober 1991, 80