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Emperor [Paperback]

Colin Thubron
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 July 2002
The Emperor Constantine crosses the Alps at the head of a great army from the Rhineland in AD 312, and marches south to take Rome from the tyrant Maxentius. As he lays siege to the city of Verona, Constantine waits for the arrival of his wife, Fausta - his enemy's sister - whose cool detachment torments him. Emperor is a superbly imaginative reconstruction of the dramatic weeks leading up to Constantine's triumph in Rome. Written in the form of extracts from his own journal and letters from his empress, her frivolous female companion, his cynical secretary and a Christian bishop who is travelling with the army, the novel records a train of events which will change the world. Constantine is plagued by spiritual doubts, tortured by his wife's coldness, but he defies the omens to win a great victory at Verona and to lead his army south. On the road to Rome, the conqueror becomes the conquered as a blinding vision strikes him from his horse in an astonishing conversion to Christianity. Emperor summons up the Roman world of two thousand years ago, the everyday life of soldiers on campaign and the intrigues at court. But it is also the many-faceted story of a man's loss of faith in God and in human love, told with uncanny brilliance.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (4 July 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099287293
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099287292
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 747,617 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A distinguished travel writer and novelist, Colin Thubron was named by the Times as one of the fifty greatest post-war writers. His books include Among the Russians, Behind the Wall, In Siberia and the New York Times bestseller Shadow of the Silk Road. He has won many awards.

Product Description


"Colin Thubron has chosen to present his vividly original concept of Constantine as a mosaic of fragments from letters, written orders, jottings from supposed journals of the emperor and his train and, most revealing of all, extracts from the correspondence of his lovely, tragic, inaccessible wife, Fausta" (Sunday Telegraph)

"It is a stylish, sensitive exploration of complex people in an era of complexities, and creates vividly the climate of an over-ripe civilisation falling into self-questioning" (Mary Renault)

"'Legionaries and their commanders, frigid empress and frivolous lady-in-waiting, and, above all, the ambitious, domineering, but also self-tormenting and restlessly questioning Constantine - all come vividly to life and persuade the reader that he is their contemporary.'" (The Listener)

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'An astonishingly imaginative recreation' Jan Morris, The Times

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emperor, Colin Thubron 20 Dec 2002
It is 312 AD. Constantine has crossed the Alps at the head of his Gallic army to overthrow the tyrant Maxentius in Rome. As the campaign proceeds, the aspiring emperor experiences a crisis of faith. Ritually cursed at Rome, unable to secure favourable omens from the pagan gods, sickened by his battle losses and shaken by the resentment his bid for power has aroused in Italy, he begins to lose his faith in the Unconquered Sun. His self-confidence is further undermined by the death in battle of a dear comrade, and the discovery that the empress Faustina does not return his love. He sees himself as surrounded by flatterers, with nobody left he can trust. In this crisis the Christian bishop Hosius offers a seductive alternative faith. As the decisive confrontation with Maxentius looms, Constantine stakes everything on a gamble with Christ.
Colin Thubron writes superbly, and his evocation of the fourth-century Roman world succeeds magnificently. Every detail rings true, and his descriptions of the Roman army on campaign and of the decisive battle for Verona are particularly fine. His interpretation of Constantine's crucial decision to accept Christianity is very persuasive. This is a brilliant reconstruction of one of the most decisive moments in history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An original idea evetually limited by its form 13 Feb 2008
Emperor by Colin Thubron is a mightily ambitious novel. It describes the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine the Great, the circumstances of which are unknown. But this was an event that changed human history. This single event elevated Christianity, previously a minority sect amongst many, to the status of official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus it became the religion of a continent, a status it has never lost.

What is so original about Colin Thubron's book, however, is its form. The novel is constructed as if it were a sheaf of documents by different authors. The entries are arranged by date, but are constructed as if assembled from a jumble of material stuffed at random by an incompetent clerk into a satchel that was then lost. The author thus assumes many voices, many forms, many perspectives.

Constantine has embarked upon the final phase of his conquest of Rome to establish himself the undisputed leader of the empire. He was in York when his father died and Maxentius, his wife's brother, usurped the throne. Constantine must therefore raise an army and conquer his way to power all the way from the north of England to the imperial capital. Emperor takes us from the boundaries of Verona to the outskirts of Rome, the progress described via the jottings of several characters.

Constantine's own journal is the centrepiece. In it the emperor muses on military tactics and the progress of war. But we also discover a sensitive, emotional character often preoccupied with significance deeper than the mundane. The letters and jottings of Fausta, Constantine's wife and sister of the pretender Maxentius, show how little those involved are able to express or trust their own feelings. Constantine is besotted with her, but she always demands a distance.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Angst on the road to Rome 10 July 2012
By N. Ross
It's strange that this novel is so little known - it almost never features on lists of fiction set in the Roman world, and in fact I only heard about it because Michael Grant includes a couple of quotes from it in his book 'The Emperor Constantine'; Grant rather slyly suggests that the quotes are from an original source, and it is testament to Thubron's writing that the ruse is almost convincing!

As stated before, this is an epistolary novel about Constantine's march on Rome in AD312. The central drama is Constantine's own descent into a gloomy and angstful crisis of faith, mirrored by the threatened breakdown of his marriage to Fausta. Told with less skill, this could have seemed absurd, but Thubron pulls it off - Constantine seems satisfyingly of his time, and his relations with Fausta are complex and believable. Voices from the margins - principally the dry and cynical rationalism of 'Master of the Sacred Memory' Synesius and the Christian enthusiasm of the unctuous bishop Hosius provide an intellectual counterpoint to Constantine's quandaries.

Most of the time the background and foreground mesh perfectly, and the descriptions of the Constantinian army progressing towards Rome have the feel of genuine military life. There are occasional slips - it's hard to see how Constantine could 'change to the Vegetian order of march' half a century or so before the birth of Vegetius, and the cross that Hosius wears and flourishes at sinful Rome was probably not a recognised Christian symbol at the time.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and some memorable characters 9 Aug 2009
A very well written fictional reconstruction in the form of letters and journal entries covering Constantine's march on Rome in AD 312 and, at the end, his conversion to Christianity. Of particular note are some of the religious debate and the bizarre relationship between Constantine and his wife Fausta.
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