Days of ’Empire’: Steven Saylor’s ’Big Gay Book’ Revisits Imperial Rome

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday August 4, 2010

Two years ago, Steven Saylor garnered rave reviews for Roma, his novel of Ancient Rome. In a few weeks' time, the sequel to Saylor's multi-generational saga will hit the shelves: Empire is scheduled for an August 31 release.

Like Roma, Empire follows the events of historic Rome through the eyes of a family lineage. In the new sequel, the action centers around several generations of the Pinarius family, a clan that can trace its roots back to the city's founding a thousand years previously. With the end of the Roman republic and the rise of the empire, a succession of larger-than-life leaders crosses Saylor's historical stage: Caligula, Nero, Agrippina, Hadrian: names that resound today.

But Saylor doesn't settle for the shallow depictions of those still-famous (and infamous) historical figures. The novelist gives us a more complete portrait of the ancient world's leaders: Caligula was insane and amoral, but he didn't start out that way; Nero, famed for having "fiddled while Rome burned," got a bad, and unfair, rap. To delve into the pages of Empire is to discover deep history and compelling stories that take the reader far beyond the familiar tales that everybody knows.

"As much as this ground has been covered by fiction in the past, I think I manage to shed new light into some dark corners." Saylor says. "Of course, readers get to see the burning of Rome and the slaughter of the Christians under Nero, the ash-cloud that fell on Rome after Vesuvius erupted, the spectacular opening games of the Colosseum--but we also meet Sporus, the eunuch-wife of Nero, whose story has never been told in fiction." Saylor explains that Sporus "was a ringer for Nero's dead wife, and Nero fell for him at first sight; eventually Sporus was castrated and led the rest of his life as a woman, making him one of history's first known transsexuals."

As in Roma, there are striking--and true--parallels between the ancient world and contemporary culture. Saylor says that in Empire, "I reveal the ironic twist on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' found in Trajan's policy toward that despised minority, the Christians." Adds Saylor, "Yes, a gay emperor decided it was best to tolerate the troublesome, gods-hating Christians, and even allowed them to serve in the military, as long as they weren't too flagrant with their perversity-I couldn't make up this sort of thing!"

Saylor goes on to promise, "Over the course of Empire's 600 pages there are many other surprises." Adds the best-selling novelist, who is also the author of the Roma Sub rosa mystery series, "This is my gayest novel in a long time... maybe ever... to the extent that I'd like to think Empire is a Big Gay Book."

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.