Dominus by Steven Saylor
Starting in 165 AD, multiple generations of the legendary Pinarius family of sculptors lead us through 160 years of otherwise rather obscure Roman history. We follow the often very brief reigns of some thirty emperors – often called Dominus. We learn of their military exploits, family rivalries and sexual perversions. But we also become aware of a growing religious tension.
Dominus is a lengthy, scholarly work, obviously the result of extensive research. Although the Pinarii are largely fictional, the history is probably accurate. However, by covering such a long period of time, in some places the book drops into a laborious, step-by-step list of events. It comes to life toward the end with the controversial rise of Constantine in 312 AD and the surprising changes he introduces.
Guided by mysterious visions and his subsequent victory over the previous emperor Maxentius, Constantine promotes Christianity as the national religion. Much to the dismay of the mass of the population, he commissions Zenobius Pinarius to replace old temples and alter statues in honour of himself as emperor.
A recurring element throughout the book is the Pinarius family’s fascinum. This is an ancient talisman in the form of a winged phallus, which is passed from father to son and supposedly protects them from harm. Zenobius is proud to adhere to the Old Religion, derisively called ‘pagan’. He mocks the new Christian faith, which rejects its many deities and emphasises a single God. Its arcane theological disputes about divine ‘substances’, the glorification of suffering, and what happens after death baffle him.
At the end of the book, the family is commissioned to aid in designing a new capital city on the site of the razed Byzantium. Zenobius’ son Kaeso then makes a momentous decision; he conceals the fascinum in a secret vault and decides to become a Christian.
For all its erudition, both as a historical chronicle and as an exposition of conflicting religious perspectives, this book comes over as rather superficial.