“In trying to find the authentic voice of that younger Gordianus,” says mystery novelist Steven Saylor, “it’s almost as if I’ve gone back in time myself, to revisit my own youth.” The author of the popular series set in ancient Rome featuring Gordianus as one of the earliest iterations of a private eye—he’s known as a “finder” to his peers—Saylor recently branched out with a series of prequels exploring the early exploits of his protagonist, beginning with 2012’s The Seven Wonders. In this year’s third installment, Wrath of the Furies, young Gordianus, now living in Alexandria, travels to Ephesus after receiving a cryptic message from his old tutor, Antipater, whom we learn is actually a spy for the recently anointed “King of Kings,” Mithridates, whose hatred for the Romans is legendary. An elaborate scheme puts Gordianus, along with his slave (and lover), Bethesda, behind enemy lines, in an attempt to save Antipater, a great poet of the ancient world.
While Gordianus is Saylor’s creation, Mithridates is a real historical figure and the plan that Gordianus uncovers—Mithridates’s plot to kill every Roman in Asia minor—is historical fact, one that bears unsettling resemblance to the ethnic cleansing that’s taking place in parts of the world today. For Saylor, “with Gordianus as my eyes and ears, I wanted to be right there at ground zero, in the city of Ephesus, as the countdown [to the massacre] began. The Romans were despised as interlopers and exploiters by many of the Greek-speaking natives. Mithridates was seen as a liberator, and when he fired them up with the chance to be “ethnically cleansed” of the Romans, they took it.” Easily the most disturbing scene in Furies, a book that includes a man being forced to ingest molten gold, the slaughter of the Romans in Ephesus, which Gordianus witnesses but cannot stop, is made all the more powerful when Saylor reminds us of the true scope of Mithridates’ plan: “we’re talking about 80,000 men, women and children in dozens of cities.”
There’s as much political—and palace—intrigue in Furies and Saylor’s previous entries, going back to his debut in 1990’s Roman Blood, as in any good episode of House of Cards. Despite the millennia that separate them, Saylor says that we’re “fascinated by the people, and the games of power and sex they play with each other. The history handed me a readymade cast of larger-than-life characters.” In place of Cards’ power-hungry Frank Underwood, there’s “Mithridates, the monarch who waged a world war against Rome and almost won”—of course, it’s yet to be seen if Underwood will ultimately triumph in Washington—and there are certain similarities, as well as stark differences, between Claire Underwood and “Mithridates’ new bride, the very beautiful but very dangerous Monime.” Added to the mix are the characters that come from Saylor’s imagination—from a Jew Gordianus meets on the passage to Ephesus who may or may not be a spy, to his first love, a Persian slave girl—and “every one of them has a secret agenda. For Gordianus, treading among them is like walking through a minefield.”
For Saylor, the allure of the ancient world started young—“watching gladiator movies on TV, sword-fighting with my brother, playing with the battery-powered Roman galley I got for Christmas one year (which I still own)”—and only grew after he saw the real-life setting of all those epic childhood battles. After finally visiting Rome, he “came back wanting to be there always in my imagination” and then, after reading Cicero’s first oration—in defense of a man accused of murdering his father—Saylor thought, “here’s a murder mystery waiting to be written.” His love of crime fiction and ancient Rome are combined in the Gordianus tales and “the historical research makes me a sort of detective myself,” he says, “tracking down obscure clues and cold cases to be solved, and the murder mystery plot is an endlessly flexible way to reveal all the secrets being held by all the people in the book.” The secrets of a man like Gordianus would certainly be the most juicy of all, a sentiment Saylor shares: “That’s what the series is all about: a secret history of the world’s most fascinating era, as revealed by Gordianus himself.”