GODS AND LEGIONS
Michael Curtis Ford

 
St. Martin's Press, Nov 2002
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Roman Empire, Fourth Century

The key to GODS AND LEGIONS is its narrator. Caesarion, physician to two emperors, begins as a bright scientist who likes to push the boundaries of reseach. Contradictorily, he is also a fourth century Christian, and in Caesarion Christianity is winning. As a Christian's twisted view of Emperor Julian, GODS AND LEGIONS is a cultural study of the Roman Empire.

Caesarion begins as a friend of young student Julian, the only surviving male cousin of Emperor Constantius. Julian survives because his love of books seems to make him harmlessly unambitious. But Constantius needs a figurehead to represent Roman power in the West. Placed in Gaul, Julian flowers into a brilliant general and administrator. His sense of justice and his sympathy for Rome's subjects make him immensely popular. As so often happened in the Roman Empire, Julian is acclaimed Emperor by his people.

While Julian comes into his own, Caesarion's disenchantment grows. For most of the book there is a strict correlation between their attitudes: Julian's headed up, Caesarion's headed down. Like all good Christians of the time, to Caesarion religious tolerance would be a sin, and Caesarion will eventually be declared a saint. Trapped by his sense of duty in a grossly uncongenial position, he becomes grim and disapproving. From the moment Julian declares that he follows the Hellenistic gods, Caesarion believes him mad; it is very clear in the text that all of Caesarion's later accounts of Julian are colored by the Christian view of Julian as the Antichrist.

Was Julian murdered in Persia by someone among his own troops? We have no evidence of that, and Julian was stabbed in battle. He didn't stand behind with his generals, observing; he fought. Author Ford says that either army might have been using the type of spear that killed him. Julian did the same thing as Napoleon did led his troops beyond their supply lines. Napoleon's troops didn't kill him. Maybe the murder theory is just another case of the victors rewriting history.

Gore Vidal's JULIAN has a delicious, satirical approach that hurts the powerfully dramatic GODS AND LEGIONS by comparison, but agrees with Ford that the murder theory makes a better story. I'm going to have to track down the writings of Julian and Ammianus Marcellinus, and see for myself if I agree with either novel.

May 2007

 

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