What would it be like to have the best tour guide in Rome give you a guided tour through the city, giving you the history of every building, the cultural context, the events and emotions that transpired there? That's what Empire (and its predecessor Rome) is like. Saylor has lived his entire professional life in ancient Rome and knows it like the back of his hand. Rome & Empire are very different in format to his Roma Sub Rosa detective series; they are much more episodic "food tastings" from different periods. The history and context are wonderful. But they're not always a fictional "meal". Characters do not live for the entire novel, but come and go as the tapestry is woven. Almost all the characters die offstage, and so the novel rarely strikes deep emotionally. But it's wonderfully informative.
Covering the period from AD 14 to 141, Empire shows us the madness of Caligula and the architectural passion of Hadrian. The scenes with Caligula are salacious yet horrifying, and bring home the reality of an infamous period of history. Many familiar characters and stories make their appearance (Nero "fiddling" while Rome burns, the stammering Claudius first popularized by Robert Graves). The early rise of Christianity is present as well. There is an ironic and amusing nod to our current military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Apparently Emperor Trajan had an "Ask not, Tell not" policy towards Christians, who were viewed with suspicion by Roman society.
Empire is half fiction and half history lesson. As a history lesson, it goes down easily and is far more consumable, if less serious than, say, The Fall of the Roman Empire. As fiction, it's enjoyable, but doesn't truly strike deeply. And it is a tome - weighing in at 600+ pages. I think the novel could profitably have been edited down. Still, it's enjoyable, engaging history; but to my tastes not nearly as enjoyable as the Gordianus novels.
(Reviewed for the Early Reviewers Program)