The Most Depressing Story I’ve Ever Read

I read Steven Saylor’s Roma the summer after my freshman year in college. This novel tells the story of the Roman Republic through a series of chapters where each follows a new descendant of the Potitius-Pinarius family line, witnessing major historical events. It’s not the best written book in the world, unfortunately, though I did enjoy reading it. There’s a lot of continuous exposition, skipping over major events it sets up (Scipio Africanus’ military campaigns for one), and sometimes the writing is so unsubtle it hurts. As an example, in one chapter, Scipio Aemilianus remarks that with the destruction of Corinth and Carthage, Rome is the new supreme power on the Mediterranean. He expresses hope that Rome will serve well as the new masters of the known world, just as his little brother tries on a crown brought back from Carthage and it doesn’t fit. There’s several moments like that which felt like hamfisted foreshadowing or symbolism and they often took me out of the story.

The Least Fortunate of the Pinarii Descendants

There’s one particular chapter (“Heads in the Forum”) that always stuck with me though, because it was just so viscerally and unrelentingly horrifying. In the generation which endured Sulla’s dictatorship, we meet Lucius Pinarius, husband to Julia and brother-in-law to the young Gaius Julius Caesar. Lucius has a new baby, dearly loves his wife, and takes a huge risk sheltering his obnoxious brother-in-law. (The reason young Julius Caesar is a fugitive is due to his familial relationship to Sulla’s old enemy, Gaius Marius.) It’s clear in the text that Lucius doesn’t think too highly of Julius, due to the latter man’s high-mindedness and seemingly impossible ambitions. However, Lucius tolerates him for Julia’s sake; she is fiercely protective of her little brother, and at times seems almost dismissive of Lucius himself in comparison.

Eventually, Sulla decides to pardon Julius Caesar if he will agree to meet the dictator face to face. At their meeting (with Lucius present), Sulla demands young Julius divorce his new wife Cornelia, as she herself is related to the dictator’s other ex-enemy, Cinna. Caesar refuses outright, and does not break eye contact from Sulla’s glowering stare. The dictator is impressed by this unexpected show of defiance and relents out of respect for Caesar’s moxie. However, rather than allow himself to look weak, Sulla instead forces Lucius to divorce his own wife Julia so he (Sulla) can leave the room still feeling dominant over somebody. If that were not bad enough, Sulla also forces Julia and their new baby to go with one of his supporters, Quintus Pedius, a man she doesn’t even know. In one stroke, one impulsive, egotistical decree, the dictator has completely destroyed a family and ruined a man’s life. To add insult to injury, it probably wouldn’t have occurred at all if Lucius had not happened to be in the room, and certainly if he had not been related to Caesar by marriage in the first place.

But where the story really twists the knife is in how quickly Julia adapts to life without Lucius, and even comes to prefer her new husband as time goes by. Their son doesn’t know or care about his biological father, but idolizes his cool Uncle Gaius, slayer of pirates. Lucius is allowed to visit them but it just reopens the wound and makes Julia herself feel uncomfortable. Seeing her reminds Lucius of his impotency, that another man is enjoying the life he should have had, yet he can do nothing to take back his own family. Lucius comes to blame himself for what happened, ruminating over how it would have been better to let Sulla kill him than to endure this loneliness, coupled with the daily humiliation of watching his ex-wife be happier with another man. He postulates that a man without dignity (really dignitas, which is somewhat different and has no direct translation) is not worthy to be a Roman at all.

We get to see their final visit together, and it’s one of the very few written passages to ever give me such a second-hand gut punch. Lucius comes to offer whatever comfort or aid he can after hearing that Julius Caesar has been captured by pirates. Instead, he finds Julia pregnant with Quintus’ baby and visibly annoyed to see him. She’s polite, but dismissive. It’s pretty clear she never pined for Lucius, or worried constantly over his well-being the way she does for her little brother now. Conveniently for the plot, Julia immediately receives word that Julius is not only alive and well, but went on to hunt down and crucify his former captors. Julius rectified the slight done to him and proved his manhood many times over, while Lucius allowed himself to be cuckolded without paying back the insult. Julia’s elated, their son rushes in to hear the latest about his beloved Uncle Gaius, and Lucius himself has no place in this happy picture. Everyone else is oblivious to his emotional anguish, they could care less about the seven years of pain he has endured. There’s nothing he can offer here, even to his own family. He’s completely useless, and he knows it.

This poor guy can’t catch a break.

Analyzing the Julii in the Story

Narratively, this Chapter mostly exists to build up Gaius Julius Caesar in preparation for the next segment when he’s superseded Sulla as the Dictator of Rome. That, and also to show an intimate picture at how inhumane Sulla’s reign of terror was for those who suffered through it. The book is too large in scope to allow its characters much time to breathe, but nevertheless, the tragedy of Lucius Pinarius has never left my mind in all these years. It’s such a great examination of why the real-life Caesar could not give in to Sulla’s demand for a divorce, even though modern audiences might assume that losing a wife would be a small price to pay for keeping your life. Caesar would make another risky gamble years later by marching on Rome rather than suffer a similar blow to his dignitas. According to our sources, Caesar considered loss of status as a fate worse than death. We may disagree with that morality, but it’s hard to argue after reading the plight of Lucius that there are indeed some fates worse than death itself.

No one will ever write an in-depth analysis for Saylor’s take on Julia, but I always wanted to see how someone else interpreted her actions in the story. Did she ever truly love Lucius, or was their marriage perhaps not quite as idealized from her perspective as from his? (At one point Lucius offers Julia a vial of poison in case their family falls into Sulla’s ill-favor, an admission of his own lack of confidence in his ability to keep her safe.) Did she resent or otherwise lose attraction towards Lucius for “allowing” Sulla to snatch her away? Did she and Quintus ever talk about Lucius, and if so was it cold, pitying or compassionate? We learn from the next Chapter that Lucius’ grandchildren know their grandfather died on the ice walking back from Quintus and Julia’s house. When Julia discovered this for herself, did she regret not being kinder towards Lucius during his visit, more concerned for his emotional well-being, over the last few lonely years of his life? Or was she maybe glad (though she’d probably never admit to such a thing), because it meant no more awkward visits with forced small talk which she couldn’t politely refuse? I hate not having anyone to discuss these questions with.

A Pagan Job

For me, that chapter of the novel really hit home on what is, I think, every man’s most primal fear–to be seen as useless and replaceable. To not live up to the domineering presence of other men (how could anyone measure up to the larger than life exploits of Julius Caesar and Sulla?). To realize the love of your life did not feel as strongly, and would have preferred someone else if only they’d met first. The idea that you could work hard all your life to try to raise a nice family only for one quick unforeseen tragedy (disease, freak accident, madmen like Sulla) to come in and take it all away. When you read the history books, with these great but ultimately egotistical tyrants constantly vying for power, never forget the Average Joes, the Lucius Pinarii of the world, just trying to scrape by under their heels.

I won’t waste space pointing out all the details therein, but if you read for yourself, Lucius is consistently made out to be a pretty weak and insecure man even before losing Julia. The best examples are how even he doesn’t think he’d have the courage to use his knife to defend Julius in that fateful meeting. And earlier, when bounty hunters come for Julius, Lucius is forced to kneel at their feet, beg them to leave, and pay a ransom for their amusement. He specifically checks to see if his wife is watching, and she averts her eyes out of second-hand embarrassment as they call him “little man.” When Lucius is present to hear how Julius has hunted down and crucified his past captors, it’s a slap in the face. It’s destiny teasing him: “Your sickly brother-in-law got sweet revenge on the men who took him, and you did nothing when your own wife and son were taken away?” It’s the final insult to his dignitas.

In my limited experience thus far, I don’t think women have those same problems and insecurities as represented by the sad tale of Lucius Pinarius. I think women’s greatest fear is getting stalked, abducted, raped or killed and being too physically weak to stop it from happening. Obviously that’s absolutely terrifying…but it’s a more acute, situational fear. Men’s, I believe, is more of a constant undercurrent, and if it should be provoked (through rejection, loss, cheating, not being able to provide) it becomes an overwhelming psychological nightmare that can destroy someone’s sense of self worth. I’m not saying either one is better or worse than the other, just that they’re different. Women in the ancient world worried about being enslaved, raped and subjugated by strange men if the city fell. Ancient men (at least in Rome) obsessed about preserving their sense of dignitas against any and all injuries. To suffer any kind of insult, failure or humiliation was to be seen as less of a man and without entitlement to status or respect.

There’s that maxim that it’s better to have known love and lost it than to never have loved at all. I call bullshit. I say tell that to the men who fell deeply in love with someone else and were left fundamentally broken when they were replaced. Or tell that to the women whose exes became stalkers and killed them. Sometimes love is the worst thing that can ever happen to a person. For me, the best art is that which explores this unspoken contradiction.

Unrelated Vertigo Screencap


  1. This was good to read after reading the story in Roma by Steve Saylor. We talked today about my slightly diofferent take on the story. But I really like the way you explain your view point here! Thanks again for lending me the book. You are great at reviewing literature. You always are able to point out things I miss. Once again Good job Cassandra!


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