Review: 'Dominus' the Triumphant Conclusion to a 1,000-Year Historical Saga

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday June 29, 2021

Out novelist Steven Saylor has entertained readers - and educated the modern world about the ways of Ancient Rome - since the publication, in 1991, of "Roman Blood," the first in his long-running "Roma Sub Rosa" mystery series.

A more ambitious series by far, however, has been the three-volume family saga that started in 2007 with "Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome," continued in 2010 with "Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome," and now concludes with "Dominus: A Novel of the Roman Empire."

As with the earlier two novels, "Dominus" - the Latin honorific by which slaves addressed their masters, and early Christians their monotheistic god - follows the fortunes of the aristocratic Pinarius family, who had been involved in the fabric of Roman political and social life from the city's very first origins. The clan's patriarchs ascribe their good fortune, and the family's knack for survival, even in time of great upheaval, to the fascinum, an amulet passed down from father to son across the ages.

When Marcus Aurelius - Rome's last "good" emperor, who ruled for 19 years, from 161 - 180 CE (or, if you prefer, AD) - the Pinarii, having outlived Rome's other oldest clan, the Potitius family, are wealthy sculptors, renowned for their work in the creation of busts, statues, and towering monuments. Rome, having survived the insanity of emperors like Caligula and Nero, enjoys a period of peace and stability under Marcus Aurelius, but the great nation is riven from within and faces threats from outside. The death of Aurelius sees more civil strife, more political instability, and the chaos of child emperors, military coups, plagues, and attacks on the city itself. Throughout the decades, a new and powerful factions is growing: The Christian faith, whose rise to power culminates in the conversion of Emperor Constantine... the same ruler who left Rome behind to found a new capitol city, that of Constantinople - or, as it's know today, Istanbul.

The Pinarii, almost always kept close to those in power thanks to their skills as artisans, are privy to some of Rome's most dramatic moments, witnessing the hidden hands the guide the destiny of the empire and navigating sudden changes in power that could prove catastrophic - or even fatal - to the unwary. In nearly 500 pages, Saylor guides us through the historic sweep of pre-Christian Rome's final centuries... and, disconcertingly, holds a mirror up to our own fraying republic.

The author himself is well aware of the parallels between the ancient past and the current moment, and his wry manner of pointing up the crumbling institutions of Rome's power structures show a keen understanding of great nations fall. But LGBTQ readers will take note of Saylor's especially witty and piquant emphases on the ways in which early Christians were seen in much the same way that latter-day Christians now libelously characterize the queer community: As deviants; as immoral and destabilizing elements detrimental to society and liable to provoke the punitive wrath of the gods; and as undesirables whose presence in the military would no doubt erode discipline and morale.

Longtime readers will have come to expect Saylor's expertise in the everyday lives of the ancient Romans and their modes of thinking, but the book's vivid depictions exert the familiar pull of Saylor's talent for pulling us into that now-vanished world of profound, strange superstitions and intrigue. As the saga draws to its conclusion - ending in the year 326 CE - Saylor folds recent archaeological discoveries into his narrative, maintaining the same magic trick he perfected in the Roma Sub Rosa books and has used so well throughout this trilogy: Marrying history with his signature complex plotting, and setting personages both historical and fictitious into a literary sandbox so elegantly created and imaginatively detailed that it's impossible to tell where history and invention interface.

"Dominus" is the triumphant conclusion to a story encompassing more than one thousand years of ancient history.

"Dominus: A Novel of the Roman Empire" is available in hardcover on June 29 from St. Martin's Press. 496 pages/$29.99.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.