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Truth, Eternity, and Mere Facts

The Magician's Twin http://bit.ly/magictwin

On my way back from a recent meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group, I caught a snippet of Al Kresta’s interview with John G. West, editor of a new book called The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.  West was discussing the philosophical shortcomings of scientism, an ideology that reduces all truth to that which can be verified empirically. Coincidentally, at our writers’ meeting, I’d just had a conversation with a writer working on a short story that explores a similar theme.

This coincidence points to a problem that plagues the modern mind, i.e., the bad habit of confusing mere facts with truth, of conflating knowledge and wisdom. The world we live in today is obsessed with facts, yet has little understanding of (or appreciation for) truth; when scientists claim they know something to be true, we too often take them at their word, never questioning the relationship between particular empirical facts and universal truths. Few scientists are willing to admit the inability of the scientific method to arrive at universal truth (although it can, I believe — if properly employed — inexorably approach absolute truth). Anyhow, if you don’t believe me, watch this TED talk (since banned from the TED channel for daring to question the dogmas of scientism)by biologist Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge University. (If you like the video, you might like his book as well: The Science Delusion — recently re-published under the title Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.)

Christians know – or should know – that the most important truths cannot be verified by science. These are immaterial, spiritual, and transcendent, metaphysical, literally beyond the realm of science. (Let us not forget that science can observe, and pronounce judgments on, only material and contingent (physical) reality. If it claims to be able to do more, it lies.) Sadly, the modern age has seen a schism introduced between physics and metaphysics, which at times appears to be more of an all-out war.

‘Twas not ever so, however. Earlier ages (one might say wiser ones) understood that there is more to the cosmos than meets the eye, and until the modern era people had no trouble grasping the idea that the immaterial and transcendent is greater than (i.e. truer and more important than) the merely material, because the former is eternal while the latter is contingent and ephemeral. In ancient times, the imagination was often of more help than the naked intellect in grasping such immutable truths. This is why, at the dawn of western culture, poets were considered something akin to prophets; it’s why Homer and Hesiod invoked the immortal Muse to inspire their writings, so that they could adequately convey the truth about their poetic subjects.

Conversely, even fields that today we would regard as matters of fact – history, for instance – had something in common with poetry, in that the facts of the matter were important chiefly because of the universal truths that they bring to light. (Remember that Aristotle acknowledged that history was “philosophical,” but poetry was even more so.) When Livy sat down to compose his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, he acknowledged that there was scant documentary evidence for many of the legendary figures and events about which he wrote, but he didn’t necessarily see that as a stumbling block. In the preface to that massive work, he wrote:

I do not intend to either affirm or refute those traditions, more suitable to poetic fables than to authentic historical records, which are handed down from times before the founding of the city or from times just before it was founded. …

The traditions he referred to were the legends surrounding the birth and upbringing of Romulus and Remus, who were reputed to be demi-gods fathered by the war god, Mars. After being stolen from their mother and exposed in the wilderness (the “after birth abortion” common in the pagan world), they supposedly were suckled by a mother wolf who heard the

Sons of War God + Suckled by She-Wolf=
The founders of Rome were bellicose and savage,
like modern scientific dogmatists.

pitiful cries of the newborn twins. Livy did not wish to dispute pious legend, because his purpose was not to critique his source material but to expose the moral lessons contained therein, his overall aim in writing the history being the edification of the Roman people, who were greatly demoralized and disillusioned after generations of civil strife. Waving aside the question of whether Rome was literally or only figuratively born from the god of war, Livy goes on to say:

But, however those and similar myths are considered and judged, I myself will give them no importance. In my opinion each reader should focus attentively on these points: what were the life and customs? Through the actions of which men and by means of what skills, at home and in war, was dominion brought forth and increased? Thereafter the reader may follow mentally how morals collapsed, as is characteristic of a thing sitting idle, little by little when discipline was first slipping, then more and more, then began to plummet, until these times arrived in which we can tolerate neither our faults nor the remedies.

In other words, there were moral and civic lessons to be gleaned from this history that transcended mere fact or legend. If Livy had insisted (as a modern historian might) on recording only those public figures and events that could be pinned down with documentary certainty, his history would have been much shorter and of much less value either to his contemporaries or to his posterity.

Mere facts will get lost in the dust of time, but truth will endure.

©2014 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Recent Reading: Dynamics of World History

I’ve been wanting for a long time to read more of the work of historian Christopher Dawson, having read one or two of his essays on the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. Dawkins wrote through the middle of the twentieth century, and was widely held in high esteem until about the late 1960s, when a rigidly secularist view became de rigueur in academic circles and any historian who acknowledged religion as a force in the shaping of history became persona non grata.

That, at least, is the explanation that Dermot Quinn offers for Dawson’s disappearance from the canon of important historical scholars taught to history students in American universities these days. I refer to Quinn’s introduction to the third edition of Dynamics of World History (ISI Books, 2002), a compendium of Dawson’s essays compiled and edited by John J. Mulloy. Mulloy has arranged the essays into five sections grouped in two parts: Part One — Toward a Sociology of History and Part Two — Conceptions of World History. Part One has three sections: “The Sociological Foundations of History,” “The Movement of World History,” and “Urbanism and the Nature of Culture”; Part Two consists of two sections: “Christianity and the Meaning of History,” and “The Vision of the Historians.” The book begins and ends with a preface and an afterword by John Mulloy.

I’ve never studied historiography in an academic setting, although I have wanted to. But I’ve been interested in history ever since I began to realize that “history” is not just the boring series of dates and wars that it seemed to be in high school classes. One of the works that helped convert me from that juvenile concept of history was an essay by political philosopher Hannah Arendt. This essay, The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern, (which you can read online by clicking the link) turned me on to the idea that history is not merely a series of historical facts but a way of understanding those facts. That is, “history” is never simply objective and factual, but always involves interpretation. This seems rather self-evident to me now, but at the time it was an important new insight.


Arendt describes three different general views of the nature of history, which spring from the ancient pagan, the (chiefly medieval) Christian, and the modern views. The pagan view, based on observation of the seasonal changes of nature, saw history as cyclical. The Christian view, based on the Bible, sees history as being guided by God’s purpose, a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all of which are written according to God’s plan. The “modern” view also sees human history as an ongoing story, but it differs from the Christian view in that it sees the story being written by human achievement — not the achievement of individual heroes, as in pagan history and legend, but the achievement of the human race in the abstract; this story is one of gradual, but continual progress, expected to culminate someday in the perfection of human society and Man’s control of his environment.

To the three worldviews that Arendt identifies, we might add a fourth, the Marxist view. Marxists agree with Dawson and Arendt that history is not merely a collection of facts but a particular interpretation of selective facts, but they would deny the modern view that the human race has made inexorable progress through history. The Marxist materialist dialectic is essentially a repudiation of the progressive dialectic described by the German philosopher Hegel, insisting that human history consistently witnesses a huge underclass of workers constantly being subjugated by a tiny overclass of the rich and powerful. The identities of these two classes may shift over time (those who had composed the worker class gain the ascendancy and become the new overlords), but the basic situation of rulers and the ruled never changes.

Che Guevara cultural marxism propaganda poster
Americans students
are encouraged to undermine
their own culture.

That is why Marxist ideology rejects the notion of progress as a natural development of human history, and insists that for anything to change fundamentally the entire existing culture must be utterly destroyed, razed to the ground and the ground salted, even more thoroughly than Rome once did to Carthage. So the Marxist Manifesto, which still governs Marxist influence throughout the world, insisted that all aspects of the existing culture — religion, history, ideas, art — must be obliterated, the slate wiped clean. Once this is achieved, the world can be “re-educated” to believe in a world where all are equal, no one is subjugated, and class strife is no more, because there are no separate classes to struggle against one another. Marxist will go beyond acknowledging that history is a particular interpretation of the facts (i.e., the propaganda of the ruling class), to insist that “facts” themselves are meaningless and so may be erased from the history books when they don’t support the ruling ideology. Whatever is not erased is rigorously edited to serve as propaganda for the “classless” society that is the aim of the Marxist project.

Bizarro cartoon
Christianity reduced to
just another tall tale.

This helps to explain why Christopher Dawkson, a preeminent historian in the twentieth century, has disappeared from the curricula of American universities; the success of the Frankfurt School’s infiltration of American academia has successfully obliterated (or at least undermined and marginalized) all competing ideologies, of which the Christian view is the most feared and reviled. All the more reason for Catholics concerned about the present culture wars to become familiar with the work of Christopher Dawson, who is famous for emphasizing the important role that religion plays in shaping our idea of history and, particularly, for showing that one cannot really understand Western history without adequately acknowledging the role Christianity has played in shaping Western culture.

By the way, you can find an attractive and affordable edition of Christopher Dawson’s Dynamics of World History, as well as a number of articles and lectures about him, on the web site of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.

Mysteries

Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I’ve been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
  • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
  • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
  • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

Other literature

  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers — a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury’s writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve not yet started this, so I’m not sure if it should go in the “mystery” category, along with Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
  • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll’s analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

Literary Criticism

  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]

History

  • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson’s essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson’s work as an historian. I’m reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

Other non-fiction

  • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) “[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory” for “insights into the human condition.” Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I’m looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Reader’s Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
  • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life — individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. — Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  “the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed” and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
  • The Apocalypse–Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]

I have a feeling I’m leaving out one or two things, but that’s the gist of it. So many books, so little time!

Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

Character matters …

Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

… unless you’re Macchiavellian

Livy and Sallust
Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 3 (Marcus Didius Falco mysteries)

The Silver Pigs (Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries)The third series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome with which I am most familiar are those of Lindsey Davis, the investigations of fictional detective Marcus Didius Falco, who lives and snoops during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (father of succeeding Emperors Titus and Domitian, who all together constitute the Flavian Dynasty). Unlike the Roberts and Saylor novels, this series gives insight into the popular culture of the early Imperial Rome, rather than the historical events that contributed to the collapse of the Republic. Falco’s escapades are also considerably more lighthearted and deliberately comedic than those of the other two fictional detectives, which may be why they are so popular.

  • Period: The first in the series, The Silver Pigs, takes place in A.D. 70, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Vespasian (also the year of the razing of Jerusalem), but the central events transpire in Roman Britain. The most recent (20th) addition to the series, Nemesis (only recently released in hard cover) takes place in A. D. 77., toward the end of Vespasian’s reign. The intervening novels take the protagonist to the far corners of the Roman Empire, which in this period was at its greatest expanse.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Marcus Didius Falco, a plebeian with a checkered family background, is a freelance “informer” who works on commission for the emperor, reporting to the emperor’s Chief Spy. Falco is also a free-wheeling scamp who is not afraid to be politically-incorrect: for instance, early in the series, he sets up housekeeping with Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who becomes the mother of his first child. The colorful commoners in Falco’s family and the more conventional and proper aristocrats in Helena’s provide a good overview of the social spectrum of Roman citizenry of the period, and serve to suggest that the early Empire’s pretense of preserving the social and civic mores that had given strength and resiliency to the Roman republic was just that — pretense. Davis seems to suggest that the real vitality of Rome, at this point, lies in the huge plebeian swathe of the population, whose interests, unlike those of the stiff, old Senatorial class, are varied, earthy, and definitely not stuffy. Think of Falco as the Roman equivalent of a modern East-Ender and Helena as the equivalent of the younger generation of the British aristocracy, who want to break out of the quaint anachronism of the social class into which they’ve been born.
  • What I Like: First, these stories are just plain laugh-out-loud funny. You just can’t not like that scamp, Falco, and you can’t help but sympathize with the women (well-bred girlfriend Helena Justina and his common but practical mother) who try to rein him in and keep him on the straight and narrow. To my mind, Davis does a better job than Saylor of showing the contrasting values and habits of the common and the aristocratic classes. Another attractive feature of these novels is the wide range of locales covered, with at least as much time spent in the provinces as in Rome itself.
  • What I Don’t Like: As with Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder stories, my chief quibble is the projection of modern social mores and political attitudes onto citizens of ancient Rome. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a woman like Helena Justina would choose (or be allowed) to take up the role of common-law wife to a low-life like Falco (if he were a member of the Roman nouveau riche, this might be a bit more plausible). Davis admits on her official website that she wanted to create characters and situations that suited her own feminist sensibilities. However, I am more inclined to make allowances for the charming and irrepressible Falco than I am for the dully self-righteous Gordianus. I frankly admit my personal bias in this matter, but would defend it by pointing out that, in the case of Saylor, modern sensibilities may distort our understanding of important historical events, whereas in Davis’s novels they simply provide for a lively cast of characters, none of whom is closely involved with events of historical moment.
There are many other novels, or even novel series, that use Republican or Imperial Rome as their background, but these three series are the ones I know best. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, both as mystery novels and as windows into ancient culture. I’ll summarize my assessments of the three:
  • John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries: Best overall, because it ably balances historic and cultural accuracy with entertainment. Although not as much of a scamp as Davis’s Falco, Decius Caecilius Metellus manages to give us an insider’s view of the ruling class without being stuffily pious about it; he has plenty of youthful adventures, including a long and spirited rivalry with Clodius Pulcher and an on-going friendship with ex-galley slave Milo, who becomes a gang leader in the Roman underworld and chief (eventually deadly) rival of Clodius.
  • Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mysteries: Gives an interesting contrasting view of many of the same events covered in the SPQR novels. While I believe Gordianus’s viewpoint reflects that of some modern historical revisionists more than it does one typical of any Roman of Gordianus’s day, these novels are well-crafted mysteries that can provide many hours of satisfying entertainment. They also, if read in tandem with Robert’s SPQR stories, can provide a glimpse of the spectrum of modern evaluations of important milestones in Roman history.
  • Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mysteries: Probably the most lighthearted of the three, the Falco novels give a glimpse of ancient popular culture that pleasingly complements the more seriously historical focus of the other two series. These novels, set a couple of generations later than the other series, show how the concerns of the Empire differed from those of the waning Republic.
If you have read any of these novels and would like to throw in your own two cents, please do so using the Comments function. Or if you are familiar with other novels that take place in this general period, please leave a comment and say why you would or would not recommend them.

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 2 (Roma Sub Rosa)

The mystery novels that got me started on this topic are those by Steven Saylor, a series called Roma Sub Rosa (a Latin term for something done secretly). Paradoxically, one of the things I like about Saylor’s series is also the thing that most sets my teeth on edge: it covers the same period and the same historical events as those dealt with in Roberts’ SPQR series, but from a distinct outsider’s point of view, which contrasts rather strongly with that of John Maddox Roberts’ aristocratic insider, Decius Caecilius Metellus. The titles chosen for the two series indicates the essential differences between them: SPQR (the motto of Republic: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome) seeks to acquaint the reader with the values that made the Roman republic great and whose collapse led to the Republic’s demise and the rise of the military dictatorship we call the Roman Empire, while Roma Sub Rosa presents the post-Machiavellian view that Rome’s government was always the private club of a powerful elite who arranged things to their own satisfaction and mutual benefit through secret and often unsavory insider deals.

Catilina's Riddle: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)The Catiline Conspiracy (SPQR II)So it might be best for anyone interested in gaining insight into the last generation of the Roman Republic, how and why it collapsed, to read both series, taking into account the different assessments of the state of Rome at that time which are implicit in each author’s treatment of the historical events. One might read, say, Roberts’ The Catiline Conspiracy and Saylor’s Catilina’s Riddle and see one of the most notorious and significant political intrigues of the late Roman Republic from two very distinct points of view, one sympathetic to the republican point of view (which saw Catilina and his co-conspirators as dangerous monsters) and the other from a more “modern” view that sympathizes with the young Roman patricians who were willing to pitch in with Catilina and conspire to murder their own fathers in their beds.
I have to admit that I find Saylor’s mysteries less congenial than Roberts’, mostly because he goes out of his way to present a “minority viewpoint” which, presumably, is intended to seem more “realistic” to modern readers (whom the author seems to expect to be cynical about political figures). However, Saylor’s novels are well-crafted and engaging as mysteries, regardless of what one may think about their political perspective, so I recommend them. Here is an overview of the series, using the same general categories as those I used to describe the SPQR series:
  • Period: This series covers roughly the same span as that of the SPQR series, with the first novel, Roman Blood, finding the detective protagonist assisting Cicero on one of his early career-enhancing legal successes, defending Sextus Roscius against a charge that he murdered his own father; the latest novel, The Triumph of Caesar, takes place during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship and the events leading up to Caesar’s assasination.
  • Detective/Protagonist: Unlike Roberts’ Decius Metellus, Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder is definitely not a representative of the political elite; a plebeian by birth, he takes on investigations that political bigwigs find necessary but beneath their dignity. This lead character seems to have little in with the common virtues, viewpoints, or values typical of Romans of that time, and thus strikes me as un-Roman and rather anachronistic: for example, he has a tendency to make slaves not only members of his household, but also of his family — he marries his half-Jewish/half-Egyptian concubine, adopts two boys he had previously purchased as slaves, and manumits a handsome household slave who has impregnated his daughter so that the two can be married. Annoyingly, Gordianus the Finder is presented as the kind of anti-establishment egalitarian multi-culturalist that politically-correct modern Americans are supposed to admire but, fortunately, he is also a cracking good investigator with a knack for getting involved in fascinating political subterfuge while somehow managing to remain morally detached from it.
  • What I Like: Gordianus, despite his attitude of moral detachment, manages to get himself and his family of apolitical commoners entangled in some of the most fascinating and complicated high-flown historical intrigues of the late Roman republic. And even Gordianus doesn’t get to keep his position on the moral high ground — in the eighth of the series, Rubicon, it is revealed that even Gordianus is not above a dastardly deed or two to preserve his own interests.
  • What I Don’t Like: The thing that always grates on me when I read these novels (and sometimes others with historical settings) is the anachronistic projection of modern attitudes onto characters intended to be sympathetic to modern readers, attitudes which would not have been typical of Romans of the period. For instance, even plebeians like Gordianus could be as class-conscious and snobbish as any patrician; most were contemptuous and suspicious of former slaves, who sometimes became quite rich and influential. Saylor seems to be bent on historical revisionism of a rather tendentious kind — Gordianus always seems to find sympathy for figures whom history has shown to be socially destructive, self-aggrandizing archvillains. For instance, his beloved elder adopted son, Meto, becomes an ardent follower of Catilina and later becomes the right-hand man of Julius Caesar, but Gordianus finds no fault with either choice, other than to rue the fact that his boy has embraced military life. In fact, while sharing a hot bath with Catilina, Gordianus himself is almost seduced (sexually and philosophically) by Catilina, a spoiled aristocrat who plotted to attack the city of Rome from within and without, using an army of escaped slaves to attack the city while within Rome’s walls young aristocrats won over to Catilina’s self-serving cause were to murder their own fathers in their beds and set fire to the city. Leading Romans who survived Catilina’s conspiracy (including the historian Sallust) regarded him as something like a cross between Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, but Saylor manages to portray him as a kind of 1960s American radical, a charismatic and sexually magnetic figure who may have been a sociopath, but who should be admired for trying to shake up the Privileged White Man’s Establishment. On the other hand, Saylor projects a much lower opinion of Cicero, who survived an attempt by Catilina to assasinate him as a political rival and who afterward, while consul, discovered and foiled Catilina’s plot against the Republic; Cicero is presented as a self-serving coward and an obnoxious blowhard who had the dumb luck to stumble upon Catilina’s plot, and then used it to inflate his own political ego for decades afterward. These novels would be better off without Saylor’s/Gordianus’s perverse moralizing.