A review of The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor (New York, 2004)
A novelist’s fresh contribution to historical truth?
Steven Saylor is one of the best novelists of ancient Rome, and this tenth book of his narrated by the fictitious Gordianus the Finder, is his best yet. Its setting of Egypt in the latter months of 48 BC between Pompey’s murder there and Caesar’s departure is intoxicatingly exotic and the contrasts between Roman and Egyptian society help the author to shed brilliant light on both.
The recorded events are so dramatic on their own that Saylor lets his usual detective story play second fiddle to them and Gordianus’s main role this time is simply to be a witness. This mostly works well, though his presence is occasionally a little implausible. The drama is considerably enrichened by acute psychological insights which pepper the narrative and reveal the author as a sharp observer of humanity.
I crave authenticity in historical novels, both in terms of not contradicting the known course of events and in depiction of attitudes and beliefs. With his obviously meticulous research and broad knowledge of the ancient world, Saylor delivers the first and enough of the second, though Gordianus is somewhat spoiled as an authentic Roman by his most unancient disdain for the pursuit of greatness and his improbably frank discourse with the great.
Countless novels have been written capitalising on the richly promising story of a ravishing young Cleopatra inventively seducing the all-powerful Caesar to her side in her struggle for the Egyptian throne with her younger brother Ptolemy, but none of the others I have come across have been fuelled by an imagination rich enough to do it justice. And even if their imaginations had been up it, none much before now would have dared represent the story as a love triangle, with the boy contending with his sister for the love of a tormentedly undecided Caesar.
Saylor had already made effective use of a love triangle involving an attractive young brother and sister in his short story Death by Eros. One of his gifts as a historical novelist is to open the door of the ancient world to the reader and invite the reader in rather than explain it and thus risk imposing modern values on it. The triangular love device with its presentation of heterosexual and pederastic feeling as both matter-of-course in classical eyes is a good illustration of how he illuminates the very different mores of the ancients without explanation. However, in this novel it is much more: it is also radically fresh insight into what really may well have happened.
Scepticism is an understandable if uncharitable reaction to a homosexual novelist giving a hitherto-unheard-of homosexual spin to an old story, but the other side of the coin is that such a novelist may have been the first able to read the original evidence as to what happened unclouded by the anti-homosexual prejudice that has unquestionably for many centuries distorted modern views of the ancient world. Hence Saylor’s assertion in his author’s note that this bias, together with historians’ fascination with Cleopatra, have led them to ignore an untold story, at least deserves consideration.
Surprising as it may be to many, his case is strong. In Caesar’s own words (Alexandrian War XXIV), when he sent Ptolemy away, leading unexpectedly to the outbreak of war which brought him irrevocably onto Cleopatra’s side, the boy “with tears proceeded to beseech Caesar to the opposite effect not to send him away; his very kingdom, he declared, was not more pleasing to him than the sight of Caesar. Checking the lad's tears, albeit not unmoved himself, Caesar declared that, if that was the way he felt, they would speedily be reunited, and so sent him back to his people.” As Saylor points out, why is Ptolemy likely to have been any less attractive than his sister to a man whose culture and personal history both evince sexual fluidity? And if Cleopatra’s erotic appeal was as influential with Caesar as recorded, isn’t her brother’s likely to have been its most effective counter in keeping Caesar so long undecided?
Saylor has not only made a pederastic bonding central to his story, but even more daringly explains realistically the emotional dynamics of such a relationship, which would have been readily understandable to the ancients, but is bound to challenge many of his readers. Eros underpins and defines this kind of love, but is inseparable from other powerful emotions. His Ptolemy, far from being the spoiled cipher often depicted in film, is an autonomous adolescent, “intelligent, passionate, willful, convinced of his divine destiny,” and understandably drawn to the world’s greatest man as a role model as much as for affection. It is because of this that his attention flatters Caesar “in a way that his sister’s attentions do not.” Today it is generally misunderstood that being older and looked up to in a love relationship necessarily means having controlling power over it, though it is really when one party has less need of the relationship that serious imbalance of power occurs. Caesar illustrates this, saying of himself in relation to both the boy and his sister that he is “the master strategist, the consummate politician … stumped by two children.”
Saylor says “we are not even certain of his age at the time of Caesar’s arrival; I have made him fifteen, the oldest age postulated by historians.” But why? And why have the narrator describe him as unusually mature, a “young man” “no longer a boy”, etc., rather than as the more typically boyish 15-year-old most Roman men were attracted to? Is it that Saylor deems the 21st-century perspective on pederasty to be so unassailably jaundiced that even he had better concede some historical authenticity to modern prejudice? For the sake of truth, I would point out that he has missed a source here, and in fact we can be sure Ptolemy really was still a boy: Appian (Civil Wars II 84) is clear that he was thirteen and no ancient source gives cause to doubt this.
The last chapters are a little disappointing for both the scarcely-believable ending to Ptolemy and Caesar’s affair and the excessively happy ending for Gordianus. Nevertheless, recommended as a well-written, gripping and broadly authentic depiction of the ancient world with convincing portraits of some fascinating real historical characters.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 28 Jan. 2016