Having not studied Latin or ancient history at school or university, my knowledge of the ancient world has come from reading Gore Vidal's Creation and Robert Harris' Imperium. Oh, and Asterix the Gaul and it's various sequels. I've also gleaned a bit from Shakespeare, although I've never been that keen on Shakespeare's histories, and while I've spent time looking at Roman ruins and ancient Roman and Greek sculptures in various places, that has not led to the acquisition of any knowledge about the history those things represent.
All this means that I came to this particular novel - the first in a series set in ancient Rome and featuring Gordianus the Finder - with very little knowledge of the time in which it is set and with no particular expectations. The first factor put me at something of a a disadvantage. The second factor was probably a plus.
Gordianus the Finder is a private detective of sorts*. He is engaged by the young Cicero to assist him in preparing the defence of Sextus Roscius, who has been accused of murdering his father. It is Cicero's first major case. The crime, the litigation and Cicero's defence of the accused are all factual, as is the political situation: specifically, the dictatorship of Sulla and the corruption of Chrysogonus, Sulla's former slave who in 82BC was placed in charge of proscriptions (that is, the identification and condemnation of enemies of the state). Saylor's imagination fills in the rest of the tale.
About three quarters of the way through the novel there is a lengthy piece of exposition - okay, let's call it an awkward information dump - which covers Sulla's rise to the position of dictator. I found it reasonably interesting at the time - because it's a topic I know nothing about - but it did interrupt the plot. Not only that, but two pages further on I couldn't remember the details of the history lesson I'd only just been taught. That was the most significant weakness of the novel. Otherwise, it was a success. The narrative is interesting and while I guessed one of the twists in the plot, I didn't guess the final big twist. In addition, the characters are well-drawn and the portrayal of Cicero made me want to read some of his works (I had the same reaction when I read Imperium, but didn't do anything about it. This time I've downloaded an edition of his Selected Works).
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, made the more enjoyable by reading it with my friends Jemidar and Hayes. I plan to read more of the series. This one gets 3-1/2 stars.
*I find it hard not to think of Gordianus as a Private Roman Eye, which will only make sense to those who have seen or heard Wayne and Shuster's Rinse the Blood Off My Toga