Book Review: Gods and Legions ****
Gods and Legions is a historical novel about the Roman Emperor Julian, also known as the Apostate, who attempted during the second generation after Constantine to reverse the Christianization of the Empire. Julian’s story is told by his Christian doctor Caesarius (a historical character) to the doctor’s brother Gregory, bishop of Nazianaus, so we should assume from the start that his will be a biased account. However, he is also Julian’s friend, which exerts an influence in Julian’s favor, as well as giving him an insight into the Emperor’s thought processes and motivations.
Starting at the battle during which Julian receives the wound that will kill him (or is it the original wound that does the trick?), the narrative is an extended flashback tracing the path that has brought Julian, Caesarius and the Empire to this fateful moment. The only survivor of a purge by Constantine’s son Constantius that has eliminated all of his male relatives, Julian is in Athens studying philosophy when he is abruptly called to the Emperor’s court. Rather than being killed, which he half expects, the scholarly young man is thrust into the position of Constantius’ deputy in Gaul, which is riddled with corruption and menaced by barbarians. From the admiring point of view of Caesarius, we see Julian remake himself into a general and administrator and succeed where he was meant to fail, until the treachery of his uncle becomes too much for him and he takes up arms against the Emperor. Before their armies meet, however, Constantius dies, and Julian finds himself undisputed ruler of the Empire.
It is now that the friendship between the two men is stretched to its limits, when Julian announces to the devoutly Christian Caesarius that he has abandoned the beliefs with which he was raised and aims to restore the worship of the old gods. After a brief retirement from court, Caesarius is recalled to Julian’s side to accompany him in his attempt to fulfill the vain dream of previous emperors and conquer Persia, the campaign on which he is to be killed.
It is obvious that Ford has done painstaking research for this book, and I appreciate his historical note at the end suggesting further reading. The detail is impressive, particularly the battles and other military maneuvers, although it may be a little too graphic for some people’s taste. I suppose there is an argument to be made that these things were brutal and shouldn’t be sugarcoated, but the line between realism and gratuitous violence is a fine one, and I’m not sure that Ford always stays on the right side of it. Some parts of the novel dragged a little bit for me, particularly after the beginning of the Persian campaign, and the descriptions of Julian’s excesses in his observance of pagan religion sound suspiciously like Christian propaganda, of which I’m sure there was plenty. On the whole, however, I found Gods and Legions to be a well written and enjoyable book, and would consider reading other novels by the author. Readers interested in another fictional view of this fascinating character might want to check out Gore Vidal’s Julian.