By Colin Thubron
Why this book?
There are a great many novels about Roman emperors, and even a few about the rulers of the later age – Gore Vidal’s Julian, for example – but this one stands out for its originality. The emperor of the title is Constantine, one of the towering figures of Roman history, and incidentally quite important in my own books too. The novel covers the two months leading up to the battle of Milvian Bridge in AD312, but rather than giving us a panoramic view of the military campaign in Italy, Thubron chooses to tell the story as a collection of letters and diary entries. So we get the internal thoughts and reflections, ambitions and fears of a range of protagonists: Constantine himself, his wife Fausta, a Christian bishop, and several competing imperial ministers and servants. The central dilemma is the emperor’s own crisis of faith, which will lead up to his famous Christian vision before the battle. Thubron leaves the vision itself ambiguous, and the story breaks off at this point; only history tells us what happens next. But despite a few anachronisms this short novel is packed with vivid detail and startling insights, and has the feel of genuine experience. If historical fiction is about bringing the past imaginatively to life, this unjustly-neglected work does just that.
When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.