Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series first saw print with the story “A Will Is a Way,” published in EQMM twenty-six years ago, in March 1992. A spellbinding historical set in Ancient Rome, that first Gordianus tale went on to win the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Dozens of short stories (many in EQMM) and fourteen novels in the series followed, including the latest, The Throne of Caesar, which Steven calls the “capstone” of the series. But how does an author write a mystery about the most famous murder in history—and do so without alluding to current events? If anyone can pull it off, it’s Steven Saylor, whom the Sunday Times (London) says “evokes the ancient world more convincingly than any other writer of his generation.”—Janet Hutchings
The Ides of March, 44 B.C.—the date of history’s most famous assassination—loomed ahead of me for years. Soon or later, in the sequence of my Roma Sub Rosa series about a sleuth called Gordianus the Finder, I would arrive chronologically at the murder of Julius Caesar. But how could I fashion a mystery around this murder when (thanks to that Shakespeare fellow) just about every literate person in the world already knows who done it?
I wasn’t the first to confront this challenge. Back in 1935 a writer named Wallace Irwin concocted The Julius Caesar Murder Case. It’s not a spoiler if I tell you that Irwin has the real Caesar, desperate for retirement, arrange for a double to take his place. What could possibly go wrong? The Julius Caesar Murder Case is a rollicking read, deliberately and hilariously anachronistic, with the ancient Romans wise-cracking like Depression-era gangsters. But be warned: The novel is rife with casual racism, one reason, I suspect, why it doesn’t figure more prominently in the murder-mystery canon.
I eventually found my own way to create a mystery set in March, 44 B.C., thanks to a single word whispered in my ear by a Classics professor at a cocktail party in, of all places, Waco, Texas. I reveal more about that serendipitous encounter in the Author’s Note at the end of The Throne of Caesar, but as for the plot device itself—well, that’s the one thing I can’t talk about. This is one of the greatest frustrations for writers (and reviewers) of mystery novels: If you think something rather clever has been pulled off, you can’t say a word about it, or give even a hint, or else readers will be very cross.
The Julius Caesar Murder Case seems dated now because it very much reflects the time in which it was written, but so does every historical novel, no matter how hard the author tries to avoid anachronisms. So I was gratified to read this comment in a review of The Throne of Caesar at the web site of my fellow historical novelist Richard Blake:
“Imagine—you are an American liberal. You broadly like your country’s institutions as they have evolved since about 1990. You approve of the Clinton and Obama Presidencies. You may be ambivalent about the uses of American power in the world, but are probably glad that no other country comes close to its leading role. You are disturbed by the country’s recent polarisation. You then write a novel, during 2016 and 2017, about the murder of Julius Caesar. Would you avoid making at least an oblique comment on certain political events in that time? Could you avoid doing so? I looked hard for any little hint. If there is one, I missed it . . . there is no attempt to force the story into some passing allegory.”
How exactly Blake presumes to divine the politics of Yours Truly I’m not sure, since we’ve never discussed the subject, and I very rarely mention politics on Facebook or at public appearances. Ancient Rome is of interest across the political spectrum, and over the years I’ve been happy to count among my readers persons on both the left and the right. Once I received a very gracious letter from Ruth Bader Ginsburg (on the thickest, heaviest stationery I’ve ever held in my hands), and once Grover Norquist kindly plugged my books for summer reading on “Meet the Press.”
Politics aside, the point Blake makes is, I hope, valid—that The Throne of Caesar avoids the trap of seeming “relevant” or “timely” by drawing easy (and dubious) parallels between past and present. When an interviewer asked me if the portrayal of political strife in the novel was in any way inspired by “our own nation’s postelection anxieties,” and “whether the U.S. is following in Rome’s footsteps, only at a much faster clip,” I did my best to duck the questions, since an outright “No!” might seem a bit terse, even rude.
Not all creative artists wish to avoid political parallels. A 2017 production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Central Park drew considerable attention, favorable and unfavorable, including disruptions by angry protestors, for staging the play in modern dress with a Caesar who was a ringer for the current president of the United States. This made the bloody assassination scene amusing to some, an outrage to others. Any similarities between then and now were not just coincidental, but actively highlighted by the production.
That is the opposite of my intention. And yet, the never-ceasing news cycle has a way of running roughshod over the novelist’s best intentions.
One of the prime causes for the discontent of the senators who plotted and carried out the assassination on the Ides of March was the fact that Caesar had pressured them into making him Dictator for Life. “Dictator” was not a dirty word to the Romans, for whom the office of dictator actually had a long and proud tradition. Rome was a republic, and never again must a king rule over Rome, but every now and then a crisis occurred that justified the appointment of a dictator who wielded absolute power, but for no more than a year. The famous Cincinnatus had been called out of his happy retirement on a farm to lead Rome as a dictator during a perilous invasion, but as soon as he could, Cincinnatus put aside his sword and went back to his plow—a model of Roman virtue and restraint.
When Julius Caesar was quite young, a civil war in Rome ended with the victory of Sulla, who was made dictator for not one but two years—a precedent that stirred considerable controversy and not a little anxiety. Caesar himself, having won another civil war, packed the senate with handpicked supporters who named him dictator not for a year, not for two years, but Dictator for Life—a death knell for the Roman Republic and its oligarchic elite. Caesar’s soldiers and populist supporters were ecstatic, confident that the strongman would lead them to a brighter future, but many in the senate were so appalled that a covert movement was born to get rid of this dictator for good.
As the Ides of March 2018 approached, I was feeling rather confident that no one could possibly think my novel about a Dictator for Life in any way satirized or reflected current events. But what did I behold when I woke my computer this morning? This headline at Fox News: “’President for life’ not a bad idea, Trump says of China proposal.” And this headline at USA Today: “President for life? Trump says ‘maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.’”
Oh dear. Like so many before me, I have been Trumped!
Pay no attention to the news cycle. The Throne of Caesar is about the Ides of March, 44 B.C., and no other Ides before or since or yet to be.