Roman Blood by Steven Saylor

Roman Blood80 BC and the Roman Republic (not an Empire just yet) is ruled by the dictator Sulla. Cicero (yes, that one) is defending Sextus Roscius who has been accused of murdering his own father. Enter Gordianus, nicknamed “The Finder”, an investigator hired to find the truth. But there are people who don’t want the truth coming out. People who are more than happy to get their hands dirty… again.

An obvious stop on my “Original Sins” tour of mysteries set in the Ancient World is the work of Steven Saylor, a writer for whom this is my first encounter, but whose name I’ve been familiar with for  a while. He’s written thirteen books to date in this series, and from what I can see, he makes a point of weaving his stories around actual historical events, which sounds exactly like my sort of thing. So, is this another author to add to my list of obsessions?

Um… no. Afraid not.

Let’s start with the good – and there is a lot of it. Based on an actual case, the historical content just oozes out of this book. Saylor clearly knows his stuff and the book is littered with snapshots of life in Rome. From the background detail to the actual historical content, this is one of the most effective pictures of life in a long-lost era that I’ve read. So what’s the problem?

To be fair, the cover of the book does not refer to the book as a mystery. But the series has been described as a mystery series in a number of places, and that to me is the problem. It’s not a mystery at all – it’s closer to being a thriller, albeit a pretty slow-moving one. There are twists, although not particularly surprising ones.

Can I criticise it for this? The book itself never claims to be anything more than an historical novel, so probably not. But the structure seems to imply a thriller at least, but by sticking to the historical fact of Cicero’s case, Saylor is rather constrained by what developments he can use. There is a point where he can take his own path, but it’s very late in the book, and was too late (and not clever enough) to catch my attention.

If someone was to tell me that the later books actually are mysteries, then I’d give the series another chance, but otherwise, I’ll be giving it a miss. Recommended as an historical novel, but not, alas, as a mystery.


  1. I reviewed this book at my site a while ago, and I read it an even longer while ago, so I don’t remember it terribly well. But I think that my verdict on it wasn’t much different from yours. On the one hand, Saylor writes well, and he ably draws you into the milieu of ancient Rome. On the other hand, he’s a rather weak plotter, and he hardly even tries to present much of a puzzle. Although I liked “Roman Blood,” I haven’t felt much of an urge to delve into the Gordianus series again.

    Here’s a link to my review:

    (P.S.: I liked the short stories about Gordianus a bit more than the debut novel:


  2. Saylor is a big fan of Holmes and Hildegarde Withers and he does write much better detective novels later in the series. He is, however, first and foremost a historian and academic. The historical aspects of his novels are top notch and he makes it interesting. I learned more about ancient history from his novels than I ever learned in classroom decades ago when I first studied ancient Rome and Greece.

    I prefer these books to those written by Lindsey Davis whose Marcus Falco is too much of an anachronistic wise guy for me. Gordius and his family show a sense of humor but it’s never out of period context. I think I’m a historical mystery purist. I never managed to finish Silver Pigs, the only book by Davis I ever tried, and I never returned. I suggest you try again with Saylor, Steve. Like Mike says above Saylor’s short stories in THE HOUSE OF VESTALS are better. You will see how he does know how to consturct a true detective story. My favorite book in the series is also the longest novel — Catilina’s Riddle. In addition to the fascianting history of the title character it has an excellent puzzle, real detection and a couple of surprises.


  3. I’m a big fan of Saylor, I agree that his novels are first historical novel, the mystery is always second but not bad.
    His books are very lively, erudite and instructive, I love the Roman period too so there are a lot of fun to read.
    I’ve read the whole series up to “Mist of prophecies”. It is translated again in French (after a long pause) so I will be able to continue the adventures of Gordian.
    I also like very much the series “SPQR” by John Maddox Roberts (unfortunately only the first 5 have been translated), the investigations of the Senator Publius Aurélius Statius by Danila Comastri Montanari (only the first 7 have been translated) and the 5 novels (complete saga) of the French Anne de Leseleuc devoted to the Latin gallop speaker Marcus Aper.
    I still have the series of Cristina Rodriguez on my reading list.

    All are more historical novels than enigmas, but they are of quality and very interesting in my humble opinion 😉


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