If you are not familiar with the name Steven Saylor, you need to know two facts about his work: meticulous research and brilliant storytelling.
This historical novel is rich in detail: sometimes shocking, often fascinating, always interesting. Vivid description captures the spirit of ancient Rome, highlighting its sights, sounds and smells, while colourful characters abound, not only emperors like Caligula, Nero and Domitian but also citizens, women and slaves. If you need to be convinced that fact is stranger than fiction, read the sources, Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch; even better, read Steven Saylor's Empire: The Epic Novel of Imperial Rome.
Here we meet a Roman family, the Pinarii, and follow the destinies of five generations. Through their eyes we see Rome in all its splendour and squalor; we see the emperors from their perspective and suddenly history comes alive. In AD 141, at the height of Hadrian's empire, young Lucius Pinarius has cause to feel optimism; the world is stable, contented and truly civilised. However, the world was not always like this. In AD 14 another young Lucius Pinarius hears the news of the death of Augustus, the first emperor; he dreads the future and the cruelty of the new emperor, Tiberius.
In the intervening years some of the Pinarii family enjoy favour but others suffer: exile, torture, execution. Characterisation is strong; every family member is credible and worthy of sympathy. No emperor is perfect and no emperor is thoroughly evil (although a few come close). What impressed me most was the novel's powerful emotional impact: the pain of unrequited love, hopes disappointed or friendship betrayed as well as the joy of a love returned, spiritual enlightenment or simply being alive.
This is a great book by a great writer. I also recommend Roma: The Epic Novel of Ancient Rome.