A retired doctor examines the medicine and politics of ancient Rome

‘s Kirkus Review Cy Steinthe latest book, Caligula and me, calls the images in the book of Roman medicine “bloody,” but that’s not a criticism. The review also calls the book “a gripping, multifaceted story of an emperor and his time.” Stein thinks the reviewer got it just right. “It’s bloody, because it was bloody and stayed bloody until the 1800s when anesthetics were first developed,” he says.

Caligula and me is the story of the Roman Emperor Caligula and his childhood friend, Publius Decimus Silvanus, a medic or physician. Gaius Romulus Saccius, a later physician, unravels the Emperor’s story when he discovers a series of scrolls left behind by Silvanus.

A doctor himself, now retired, Stein says his medical experience has allowed him to give an authentic voice to his fiction. “There are scenes where I’ve used what I’ve learned from working in this industry for nearly 40 years,” he says. But Stein knows that Silvanus’s medical practice has little in common with his. “The Romans, given the resources they had, did an incredible job of tackling certain issues, especially military medicine,” he says. “But in the field of internal medicine, [they] were usually worse than useless.”

Roman medicine, for Stein, is a historical curiosity best left to the past or to fiction, such as this treatment for fever mentioned in the book:

“Does the patient have a dry tongue?”

“I believe so, Doctor.”

“Then mix rose oil with honey and cover his tongue with it. For his trembling shivers, force him to vomit. Then proceed with an enema. The chills come from something pushing bile onto the stomach. But if this treatment fails, let him eat garlic and drink warm water with pepper. Both increase its internal heat, which will repel the chills.”

It is, however, a past that Stein knows well, thanks to an abiding interest in Rome dating back to his childhood. “I remember reading the story of Antony and Cleopatra,” he says. “I just thought it was the coolest stuff I’d ever read. Of course I hadn’t read much by then.” And he remembers an argument in elementary school with a classmate about Julius Caesar’s date of birth. Thanks to his already extensive reading about the Roman Empire, young Stein was convinced his classmate was wrong. As an adult, he learned that history was a bit more complicated: “Apparently no one really knows when Julius Caesar was born, so we were both right.”

Stein’s passion for Rome continued into adulthood – “I read all of Gibbon, all three thousand pages” – and he enjoyed learning about the broader context, as well as names and dates. “For some reason I was always very interested in the fall of the Roman Empire, how a huge civilization managed to completely collapse.” He sees resonances between the Roman Empire and the present, and in addition to reimagining primitive medical techniques, Stein . sees Caligula and me as a topical exploration of interpersonal relationships. “It’s about how a person is stuck dealing with a malignant narcissist when they don’t have a choice,” he says.

About ten years ago, Stein began devoting more of his time to writing thanks to a new job that took him across the country. When he became the chairman of oncology at City of Hope, a Southern California hospital, his wife joined him, but made regular visits back to their East Coast home. “When she was going to travel back to New York, I really didn’t have much to do, and I just sat down and started writing,” he says. “I have this interest in writing, I have this interest in the Roman Empire. So let’s make up some stories.”

He spent several years refining his craft—his unpublished “exercise book,” he says, “will never see the light of day”—before publishing his first book, The Medicus Codex, in 2016. He describes himself as a largely self-taught writer with his last formal writing lesson dating back to his high school days. Instead, he learned through practice, by sharing his work with trusted critics, and by seriously and thoughtfully embracing their reviews. “I’ve learned how to make a lot of mistakes and I’ve learned how to take people’s criticism very seriously when… [they] were well-intentioned,” he says. “I learned a lot just by going back and reading my own stuff and developing my own style.”

Caligula and me is the second book in Stein’s Vox Populi trilogy, next: The Medicus Codex† “They are prequel and sequel to each other, but they stand as independent books,” he says, written as separate stories with characters who appear in both books. The third part of the trilogy is now in the works, and Stein says it will tell the story of Marco, Gaius Romulus’ cousin. “He’s a very important person at the Mint, and the Mint is in serious trouble in third-century Rome.”

The physician Gaius Romulus is not, as Stein wants everyone to know, intended as a substitute for the physician/author. “Many people have said to me, ‘Oh, Gaius Romulus, that’s you!’ That’s not true….Gaius Romulus works under a whole host of different constraints than I work under.” Stein says that of all the characters he’s created, he has the most in common with Benny Peskin, the protagonist of A time for lies, the book he is currently working on. The second installment in Stein’s other historical fiction series, the book is set in the McCarthy era, allowing Stein to continue his exploration of authoritarians throughout history.

When Stein isn’t writing, he either spends time with his family, which includes two daughters and four grandchildren, or reads. He has always considered reading for pleasure as essential, even during the busiest times of his career. “Every day, whatever I was doing, I was reading a little bit,” he says, recording his habits in a reading journal he started in 1973. It now contains more than a thousand titles from a wide range of genres. History is one of his favorite subjects, he says, but “I read everything, as long as it’s not clutter. I’m not going to read junk.”

Sarah Rettger is a Massachusetts author and bookseller.