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Mika Waltari

Roman, The (tr)
Putnam, 1966


Finnish author Mika Waltari is probably best known in the US and elsewhere as the author of The Egyptian, but he has written a number of similar books, such as The Etruscan and The Roman. They are novels centered on a fictional character that usually narrates his life in the first person. Rather than use his novel as a way to narrate history, Waltari's main concern as a novelist is his fictional character, but he does not consciously contradict known historical events. The Roman gives a mostly plausible portrait of Rome from Claudius to Vespasian, his narrative flows well and the characters are convincing. Minutus Lausus Manilianus (Waltari did not seem to grasp how Roman names were structured) is a member of a family rising in Roman society. As a teenager in the reign of Claudius he befriends Lucius Domitius (the future Emperor Nero), who is convincingly portrayed as a spoiled boy of artistic inclinations with considerable charm. He also has a romantic attachment to Claudius's first daughter Claudia, who later becomes a Christian. Waltari has Minutus do his first military duty in Britain with Vespasian as his commanding officer, thus not only introducing a later emperor but also giving a plausible (as far as I can tell) portrait of Britain at that time. Minutus - like other Waltari characters - is a sort of "loser", not very successful in his romantic relationships or as a soldier. His old friend Nero becomes emperor, but although Minutus enters the Senate the only post he gets from Nero is keeper of wild animals for the games - which leads to his being in charge of the Christians' tortures after the fire. He disapproves but, being a coward, goes ahead. Moved by remorse, anger and his affair with Claudius's daughter Antonia, Minutus has a peripheral involvement in the conspiracy of Piso, after which he thinks it wise to join Vespasian (by now related to Minutus due to his failed marriage to Sabina, Vespasian's niece) in Judaea. Minutus takes part in the fall of Jerusalem and, after Vespasian's accession, finally enjoys some measure of recognition, prosperity and quiet - but his conversion to Christianity will give him problems under Domitian. Minutus is basically an anti-hero who has more failures than successes in his life, but Waltari does not make him a figure of fun. He rather intends the reader to identify with Minutus, who does occasionally show some moral and physical courage. Waltari manages to make Minutus a central or at least peripheral participant in most major events of Nero's reign in a plausible way. Nero's transition from spoiled boy to tyrant is cleverly represented. Other historical characters, such as Seneca and Vespasian, are plausibly portrayed. Christianity is given a far more central role than was actually the case at the time, but that is a common feature of novels dealing with that period - the hero had to be or to become a Christian. Altogether, The Roman is an entertaining and informative novel, valuable as an introduction to the period. - Peter Bartl 10/99

- Peter Bartl, 10/1/1999

My students' favorite word is "fatuus," which we translate as "fathead." Minutus Manilianus, the protagonist of Waltari's book is "fatuissimus;" his conceit is boundless, his understanding of politics and religion, especially concerning Christians and Jews, is backwards, and his love affairs are disastrous. Minutus takes credit for introducing soap to Rome and the shepherd's crook and mitre cap to the Christians. He worked for peace among the Christian sects, which he viewed as an impossible task. He is, however, funny (without meaning to be, which is Waltari's best joke). Minutus describes his life, concentrating on the years Claudius and Nero were Emperors. While he didn't get along with Claudius, Nero was his "friend," and Minutus says things such as "It seemed to me evidence of Nero's sporting spirit that when he was offered the opportunity of being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries, he humbly declined the honor on the grounds of his reputation as a matricide. (568)" The book is good fun if you don't mind Minutus' pompous nature. - Ruth Breindel 10/99

- Ruth Breindel, 10/1/1999

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