This debut “documentary novel” chronicles the first 100 years of the Roman Empire.
Steck’s detailed book opens with a brief explanation of Rome’s shift from republic to empire and rapidly moves toward discussing the reign of its first emperors, Augustus and Tiberius. The study charts the arc of the turbulent first century C.E., ending with the rise to power of Trajan, a “popular young general,” who would rule from 98 to 117. The century is punctuated by murder, deception, and intrigue and boasts a formidable cast, from Jesus to Emperor Nero. Careful to leave no stone unturned, the author scrupulously examines the new empire’s class system, geographic scope, wars, politics, and religion. Described as a work of “nonfiction with an overlay of speculation, story-telling and fictional elements,” Steck’s documentary novel uses imagination when factual evidence is lacking. Such a statement has the potential to set academic alarm bells ringing, but the author is always transparent when employing fictional embellishments in the narrative. For example, he draws a detailed sketch of Marcus Scaevus Ascanius, the owner of a pottery factory in Pompeii. Ascanius had a wealthy patron, “always made ends meet,” and was “as close to being ‘middle class’ as the empire could manifest.” The author clearly explains that the man’s “imaginary,” but the portrait is successful as it elucidates the daily life of a Roman free citizen. Steck’s narration of factual material is equally engaging and accessible. When describing a young Nero, he writes: “He was by temperament an artist, a writer and would-be singer and would-be actor, a youth who liked fast chariots and fast, none-too-refined company.” There is a breezy contemporaneity to the author’s narrative approach that breathes new life and vigor into Roman history. Furthermore, this is a well-researched volume that includes maps, charts of the great families, and an extensive bibliography. It is unusual that a history book skips along at the pace of a thriller, but that is certainly the case here; such is Steck’s refreshing approach.
An unconventional but captivating, multifaceted study of the Roman Empire.