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Angst on the road to Rome,
This review is from: Emperor (Paperback)
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. The portrayal of Maxentius as a ghoulish horror-monster probably owes too much to the calumnies of Constantinian propaganda: he almost certainly did not sacrifice babies or dig up corpses, and his 'black magic' was probably no more than the traditional religious rites of the Roman state he was so anxious to restore.
But the sense of life in the novel overcomes these quibbles: Fausta's silly companion Livilla Politta complaining that her carriage is being followed by 'a stone-throwing machine - a huge spoon on wheels', or the description of the superstitious legionaries throwing charms into the gorge before crossing the high bridge at Narni, or rushing into the sea in amazement at the waves... This sort of detail brings the novel to life and allows it to escape its sources.
My only other criticism is that it's too short - the narrative breaks off just before the climactic battle at Milvian Bridge. Thubron could easily have extended it much further, and shown us the new post-visionary Constantine, and the changed empire he created...