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He crossed the ages just to kill the thing he loved
While living on Ibiza, a former classics scholar called Mark Compayne stumbles on a Roman tomb. It contains a skeleton of a woman called Veleda and three scrolls. The scrolls describe their author Satyrion’s first-century career in Alexandria, Britain during Boudicca’s revolt, and then Rome where he becomes secretary to Petronius, Nero’s Arbiter of Elegance, who he helps compose the erotic epic the Satyricon. Satyrion is involved in Nero’s conspiracy to burn down Rome but caught up in the persecution of the Christians he is exiled to Ibiza. The woman he lived with in Rome, Theodosia, visits and betrays him. He takes up with Veleda, a German slave. Theodosia tricks him into returning to Italy where he witnesses the elegant suicide of the now-disgraced Petronius. Back on Ibiza, Satyrion erects a secret tomb for Petronius. A mysterious intruder disturbs the burial.
Satyrion’s account contains numerous parallels to Compayne’s own life. Veleda resembles Monica his partner who is away detoxing in Sweden. Compayne goes on a cruise during which he takes a drug that induces time travel and witnesses Satyrion’s execution. The scrolls enable him to locate Petronius’ tomb, where taking the time-travel drug again he disturbs Satyrion in the act of burying Petronius. Then alone in the tomb he discovers the great secret Petronius has been buried with. The drug does not wear off as intended and Compayne is trapped in the past where he is taken to be Satyrion. In the local town, he meets some of the characters in the scrolls, amongst them Sporus, a slave married to Nero who recounts the emperor’s death. Finally, he encounters a Veleda with terrible consequences.
“I thought the book impeccably researched. In fact I was full of admiration for the way that details of the period were worked into the narrative with complete naturalness. Details of dress, custom, social and military organisation, were all handled extremely well. The prose itself is fluent and expressive and can go from ironic observation to a vein of poetry.”
Barry Unsworth (Booker Prize winner 1992)