A Journalist's Archive

A Gladiator Dies Only Once
Steven Saylor
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Steven Saylor has created a series of historic mystery novels set in the late Roman Republic and featuring a cunning detective named Gordianus the Finder.  Saylor gave Gordianus a lifespan that coincides with some of the most interesting people in Roman history including: Cicero, Sulla, Pompey, Catilina, and Julius Caesar. 

          While the mysteries Gordianus solves are pure fiction, historic events and even the personalities attributed to famous characters are based on Saylor's studies of classical literature.   His attention to detail brings the world of Ancient Rome to life in a manner that is both entertaining and educational, a factor often lacking in other novels of the same genre.

          "A Gladiator Dies Only Once," is a collection of nine short stories based on research or ideas Saylor had while writing earlier portions of his "Roma Sub Rosa Series."  A few stories are parts of other novels that were eliminated during the editing process.  But that does not make them any less interesting; authors often are forced to cut sub-plots that just don't fit into a particular novel.  The book is a great introduction for first-time Saylor readers, while also providing new material for long-time fans to devour.

          The novel opens with Lucius Cladius pouring over his personal copy of the "Daily Acts," in a story entitled "The Consul's Wife."   This is an example of Saylor's attention to historic detail.  The "Daily Acts," published on billboards in the Roman Forum, was the equivalent of a modern newspaper.  It offered news from battlefronts around the world, local politics, gossip, and even had a sports section.    

          Roman citizens started their day by walking down to the Forum to catch up on the latest news.  Debates often followed that could last until noon, making the "Daily Acts" an important part of the social fabric of Rome.

           But the anti-social Lucius is wealthy enough to have his slaves transcribe the news onto parchment so he can read it in the comfort of his own home.  When Gordianus scolds Lucius for his profligate use of parchment, a costly commodity in ancient Rome, Lucius retorts, "I tell you Gordianus, there's no more civilized way to start the day."

          Buried inside the sports news is a cryptic message placed there by Sempronia, a Roman woman known for her beauty and brains.  The message is the center of a mystery laced with deceit, infidelity, and murder, all capped off with a spectacular chariot race.

          In "Archimedes's Tomb," readers are transported to ancient Sicily, known for its rampant corruption even then.  Saylor gives readers a good look into the political and social life of Cicero, who is intertwined into many of Gordianus' adventures.  No doubt Saylor relies on Cicero's extensive writings as a reliable resource for his novels.

          In "The White Fawn," Saylor describes the superstitious nature of the ancient world when Gordianus travels to a Spanish battlefield and encounters Sertorius, a rebellious Roman general.  The local Celtic tribes believe the general derives his power to lead from a white fawn that he owns.  In fact, Celtic tribes would switch sides in the middle of a battle based on any number of "signs."

          Unfortunately for Sertorius, the fawn disappears on the eve of a great battle.  Gordianus manages to save the general by discovering who took the fawn, but the story ends with an interesting twist of fate, something Saylor is a master at providing.

          The actual account of Setorius and his rebellion against Rome was written by Plutarch, a fact Saylor lists at the end of the novel for readers who are interested in the historic account of the battle.

          In the short story used for the title of this book, "A Gladiator Dies Only Once," Saylor gives readers an accurate account of the Roman obsession for "blood sports."  At the height of the Empire, pitting man against animals and man against man became such a culturally accepted practice that whole troops of gladiators were needed to entertain the masses.  

          Funeral games also became an important part of burial rituals for rich or important dignitaries.  Gladiator troops performed in any number of "events" for the ceremony.  Anything short of three different gladiator matches during the funeral, and the family would be ridiculed.  Gossip would spread claiming the family was too poor to properly honor their "loved ones."  Consequently, families went into debt to pay for more and more elaborate funeral games.

            Of course, this cultural phenomenon also created the need for more and more gladiators, especially since half of them were expected to die during any given performance.  Or did they?   This mystery adds a different perspective to what we know about the life and "death" of gladiators.

          Collections of short stories are great to take on vacation because individual stories can be read while waiting for a plane or after a day of sightseeing, so this book was a "perfect fit" to accompany me on a recent trip to Rome.  But I'm sure "A Gladiator Dies Only Once" will hook any reader, and you will find yourself returning to the bookstore for more of Saylor's interesting historic mysteries.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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