Swords! Sandals! Sex! Back to Ancient Rome One Last Time with Out Novelist Steven Saylor

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday July 1, 2021

When out author Steven Saylor — also known as Aaron Travis, his pen name for erotic fiction — concluded "Roma Sub Rosa," his decades-spanning mystery series set in Ancient Rome, he had one more task to complete: The third in a sweeping trilogy of historical novels that cover Rome's first one thousand years, from trading post backwater to shining bastion of democracy to, eventually, a crumbling empire riven by civil war and brutal political jockeying.

The first two novels in the series — "Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome," published in 2007, and "Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome," published in 2010 — followed the fortunes of the founding Pinarius and Potitius families, two aristocratic dynasties that are never far from Rome's nexus of power and intrigue. But only one of those clans wears the legendary fascinum, an amulet depicting Rome's most primal god, which takes the form of a winged phallus.

Yes, the fascinum really was a thing; it's from this root word, suitably, enough, that we get the word "fascination." Though Saylor weaves fictional characters into the historical narrative with great skill — as he also did in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series — the chronology and large-scale facts he builds his stories on are all historically accurate.

Saylor's insistence on historical accuracy was challenged when it came to completing the new novel, titled "Dominus: A Novel of the Roman Empire," because the period he sought to portray - the centuries between the reign of Rome's last great emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and the rise of Constantine (and, with him, Christianity) - were a time of bloodshed, political instability, plague, and rulers who sometimes added the erasure of their rivals and predecessors into their agendas of self-promotion.

In short: Rome then looked a lot like America today, with its deep divisions, cancel culture (on both the left and the right), erratic politics, fading influence, and pandemic-ravaged economy and populace.

"Dominus" feels more than a little like a mirror, and the parallels between the eras is something Saylor not only sees clearly, but makes into a feature of the book's wry and often hilarious historical references. Rich and vivid, "Dominus" brings the generational saga of the Pinarii to a gracious close. Remarkably, through diligence and effort, Saylor has managed to create an entertaining (and sometimes chilling) document that hews as closely to genuine history as the meager record of that time allows.

EDGE caught up one more time with Steven Saylor, to hear his thoughts on the ancient world, our modern times, and what it means to contemplate a thrilling, dangerous history that seems to be repeating.

EDGE: "Dominus" follows "Roma," which was published in 2007, and "Empire," which came out in 2010. The historical detail is impeccable as ever, and you're covering a very turbulent and chaotic time in the life of the Roman Empire. Is the eleven-year wait for this concluding volume a matter of how long it took to research as well as write the book?

Steven Saylor: The research was devilishly difficult and challenging. It made me realize why almost all novels, movies, and modern biographies set in Ancient Rome take place in earlier periods, when our sources are plentiful, reliable, and delightfully dishy. The sources from Marcus Aurelius to the rise of Christianity under Constantine are sparse, unreliable, and often nothing more than malicious gossip. But I knew there was a great story to be told, if I persevered.

I wrote other books in the meantime, and when I finally began to write "Dominus," I did so slowly. Knowing this was the last book of the trilogy, and maybe my last novel, I wanted to savor the creative process. Slow writing — sort of like slow cooking.

EDGE: You were writing your final installments in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series while also writing this trilogy. Did research for one series enrich your understanding - and your storytelling choices - for the other?

Steven Saylor: You never come upon any particular historical insight that doesn't impact your understanding of other historical figures or events. When I wrote "Raiders of the Nile" and needed to portray the outlaw communities of the Nile Delta in 88 B.C., I got insight from Robert Knapp's marvelous book "Invisible Romans." Knapp uses studies of outlaw communities from much later times to shed light on the psyche and behavior of ancient bandits and pirates. Studying history is all one big, organic, all-consuming meditation on time and humanity. Everything connects.

EDGE: "Dominus" is set as Rome really is unraveling, with civil strife and military coups and behind-the-scenes scheming around how to eliminate old emperors and install new ones. Looking at how Georgia and other states are changing their electoral systems, purging their election officials of people who stood up against attacks on President Biden's victory last year, and going so far as to try to implement panels that would be empowered to sweep aside the results of democratically held elections and appoint electrical college votes to a chosen, favored candidate, I can't help feeling that we have come to very similar political and historical terrain in the U.S. Were you writing with a sense of where things were headed?

Steven Saylor: When Trump was elected, I told my husband: "This will be a stress-test for the Republic." But I never dreamed just how stressful it would be! The no-holds-barred, in-your-face fascism whipped up by Trump over the course of four years has undermined and will continue to undermine our democratic institutions. Those institutions aren't perfect, but Trump has given us a glimpse of the horror show that may lie ahead of us.

I use the word fascism advisedly, because the hallmark of fascism is blind obedience to the Leader, or Führer. The Führer can say one thing in the morning and the opposite thing in the afternoon, and his followers agree with him both times. Fascists are essentially mindless, but very aggressive, perpetually aggrieved, and very, very dangerous.

EDGE: LGBTQ readers are sure to note - and get a smile from - the ways in which you point out ancient Romans viewed Christians with skepticism and alarm, regarding them as "atheists" who would prompt punishment from the gods, blaming them for pandemics, passing laws intended to persecute them, and, of course, seeing Christians as unfit for military service. Everything you write is rooted in research and accurate historical detail, but I wondered if you were perhaps phrasing these passages in a way that would highlight the irony of how Christians were seen then and how they talk about others, especially LGBTQ people, now.

Steven Saylor: Christians began as outsiders and scapegoats, then worked their way up to top dogs — and proceeded to scapegoat others, including any Christians who weren't pure enough.

When I was young, queer people of all types were universally shunned and scapegoated; in my lifetime that that situation has changed dramatically in America, to a greater degree than I would ever have imagined possible. But the vast majority of humanity lives outside the West, where queers are still criminalized and persecuted — the Moslem world, most of Africa, much of Asia, and of course Russia, where Putin exalts the Orthodox Church and scorns the "decadence" of gay marriage when he mocks Europe and America.

So yes, it's rather delightful to cast my mind back to a time when it was the Christians who were seen as a menace to common sense and decency.

EDGE: Especially striking in "Dominus" is the way Emperor Commodus, who succeeded Marcus Aurelius, seems like a Trump of his time, although a more accomplished Trump. (No bone spurs for him!) Commodus was full of fantasies and happy to denounce facts for his own purposes... and he was endlessly enamored with his own supposed talents, intellect, and personal superiority in a way that now seems entirely too familiar. Were you rolling your eyes as you wrote about Commodus and his reign?

Steven Saylor: At some point I realized that Trump was not really unpredictable, or even erratic. In every instance he seemed instinctively to ask himself, "What would Obama do?" — and then he would do the exact opposite. Trump never had any sort of ideology, nor did he need one; he just cast himself as the anti-Obama, which was exactly what his supporters craved.

Commodus was the same; he did the opposite of whatever his all-wise dad, Marcus Aurelius, would have done — pulling troops from the German frontier, celebrating gladiators, and indeed, even becoming a gladiator. And the crowd loved it.

Constantine the Great also made me think of Trump. Constantine was likewise a game-changer, moving swiftly to overthrow the "pagans" (an insult meaning "bumpkins") and elevate Christians, who became slavishly loyal to him. I think Constantine was completely cynical. In Christianity he saw a new tool for expanding the control of the totalitarian state: Not just one empire and one dictator, but only one god, and only one way of living allowed. So he created laws to punish deviant sexual behavior, which included adultery and eloping, or even helping a couple elope. You could be burned alive for that.

Trump is equally cynical, I think, but Constantine was vastly more ruthless and bloodthirsty, and more successful.

EDGE: You mention in your afterword that the Emperor Commodus - who was a hunter, a soldier, and pretty much a poster boy for what we think of now as masculinity - has been portrayed in popular fiction as "effeminate." How did that strange and ahistorical trend get started? Is it really just another example of the Western World of the past few centuries exhibiting irrational homophobia?

Steven Saylor: Hollywood long ago settled on a formula for portraying "evil" kings and emperors as effeminate fops — the fag villain, as Gore Vidal called it. If not literally fags, they act faggy. So the Commodus of the movie "Gladiator" is a weak-willed, simpering, wanna-be gladiator. He's not gay, but he's sexually twisted — incestuously obsessed with his sister. Caligula and Nero are likewise portrayed as mincing, pouty sissies. It's very lazy of screenwriters to fall back on these homophobic stereotypes, and equally lazy of audiences to put up with such drivel.

EDGE: Ancient Romans, of course, were much less worried about who was sleeping with whom, and less apt to make a "moral" judgment about same-sex erotic contact. Still, when you describe Emperor Antoninus having a male husband and being perfectly open about it, it seems like there was a bit of scandal there... where did Romans draw the line?

Steven Saylor: That emperor is better known to history as Elagabalus — the name of the Syrian sun god he wanted to make top god in Rome, even above Jupiter. His exotic religious mania was the main reason that his reign was cut short. He was also just a teenager when he took the throne, much too young for the job. The sources are so unreliable and viciously hostile to him that it's hard to get a true picture of Elagabalus. The evidence that he was effeminately gay, or perhaps transsexual, complicates the picture. I've wanted to tell my version of his story ever since I read a very trashy paperback novel called "Child of the Sun" when I was a teenager, and I finally got to do so in "Dominus."

EDGE: Your description of the bloody military coups that took place, and the way the populace could turn on a dime (or a sestertius) against a ruler, literally gave me a flashback to the traumatic events of Jan. 6. We like to say, in my house, that if the mob had actually hanged Mike Pence, America might have been shocked back to its senses, but reading "Dominus" I'm no longer so sure about that.

Steven Saylor: Hanging Pence would have given the fascists a sense of potency — or agency, as we now say. Instead, they came off as scary but ineffectual bumblers. I don't know which outcome would have been the worse in the long run, because actually achieving one of their goals (like hanging Pence, or raping Pelosi) might only have emboldened these people. Like their Führer, they have no shame.

EDGE: You say that "Dominus" might very well be your final novel, and in an essay you wrote for Mystery Readers International you say you are looking forward to retiring. Has finishing up with the "Roma Sub Rosa" series reconfirmed that for you?

Steven Saylor: I have been told that writers never retire, indeed, cannot retire. But having no deadline feels so... relaxing! All through my career, from writing gay erotica to writing historical epics, I've had a pretty free rein as a writer. I was allowed by my publisher and by readers to finish not one but two long-running series to my own satisfaction, so I'm ready to take a rest.

My pastime nowadays is researching obscure French Academic painters from the 1800s. I find a painter with an interesting life and career, I do exhaustive research, and I write a long Wikipedia entry about him. A lot of the sources are in French, and that engages my language skills. See the Wikipedia articles about Louis Émile Benassit or Jean-Baptiste Goyet, for example. This field of interest is just a hobby — at least for now.

EDGE: If you really are done with novels, do you expect you might continue writing short stories? Or would you want to try your hand at writing for television or movies?

Steven Saylor: I'd rather spend my time pitching the books I've already written to filmmakers. "The Seven Wonders" would make a fantastic mini-series, I think, and so would the other two novels about the adventures and travels of young Gordianus. And I think my little-known 1880s Texas novel "A Twist at the End" would have something to say to a wide audience in this time of Black Life Matters.

EDGE: Beyond all the questions for this interview, I wanted to say thank you! - for so many years of compelling reading, so many highly realistic, scrupulously fact-based works of historical fiction, and for making it possible for readers of our time to feel like they have talked the streets of Ancient Rome.

Steven Saylor: The pleasure and the privilege have been mine. I feel so lucky to have lived out my childhood dream of becoming a novelist. When I was a college student back in the 1970s, majoring in History at UT Austin, it seemed to me that the ideal life was be the one I was enjoying at that very moment—a mix of serious study, sexual freedom, and relaxing at swimming pools. And that's the life I've led ever since. I sometimes describe myself a perpetual graduate student without portfolio, haunting college libraries, crashing lectures, and scouring the historical record for prurient details and fascinating people — and then getting paid to write books about them. That dream-life would never have been possible without readers like you, people who wanted to read my work.

That's why the dedication page in "Dominus" reads, "To all the readers over the years who have chosen one of my books to read, including this one." Thank you!

"Dominus" is available now from St. Martin's Press.

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.