In the winter of 304 c.e., the Roman Empire is divided by Emperor Diocletian into four separate parts. Individual power struggles and manipulations make the once-stable empire a breeding ground for corruption. In the midst of this, Aelius Spartianus, a high-ranking officer and Diocletian’s official historian, is sent to Trier with a sensitive message for Emperor Constantius. En route, he receives a letter from a former enemy telling him of a strange miracle worker named Agnus, a Christian preacher who works in Trier.
Agnus, known as the “fire waker,” has recently resurrected a man from absolute death. In the hiatus from the ongoing religious persecutions, Agnus’s wondrous act incites fury, awe, and speculation. Determined to uncover the truth behind this seeming miracle, Aelius looks for Agnus and his assistant, the deaconess Casta. Before his investigation begins, however, he discovers that the resurrected man has been murdered.
What ensues is a testament to Ben Pastor’s complex skill at interweaving the complicated plots of the Roman government and the treacherous social undercurrents that rise to the surface. Aelius, in pursuit of the truth behind the fire waker’s miraculous ability, finds himself getting closer to the heart of the Empire’s escalating problems: political deception, religious persecution, and whispers of a coup d’etat. As Aelius moves from the city to the battlegrounds, secrets of life and death---and resurrection---are uncovered and challenged, leaving everyone involved changed forever.
Power-hungry emperors, mysterious miracle workers, lovers, concubines, and religious radicals all play their part in this explosive, haunting historical saga. Readers hooked by The Water Thief will welcome internationally renowned and critically acclaimed author Ben Pastor’s newest epic, where she once again brings her thematic skill to bear.
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Baruch ben Matthias to Commander Aelius Spartianus, greetings.
If I didn’t know any better, this could be Vindobona or Intercisa rather than Confluentes: Army posts are all the same. By now I can find my way around with my eyes closed. One-third of a mile square, barracks right, command post left, officers’ quarters swarming with deadly bored orderlies who’d sell their mother for a transfer. Even commanding officers are beginning to resemble one another; they all look like middle-aged troopers thickening at the waist.
Speaking of which, Commander, I met your two brothers-in-law at Castra ad Herculem on the Danube: quarts of beef on legs, if you allow me. No wonder you do not go often to family reunions. Were you aware that you are now an uncle to seven nephews and nieces?
I will not bore you with the details of my travels and endeavors in the past month. Suffice to say that I left Egypt shortly before you, and here I am. Business is good, as I have widened my artistic and commercial scope to include sculpted epitaphs (in prose and in verses, with and without portrait of the defunct). Otherwise, aside from the economy, the situation on the northeastern border is what you probably already know. There’s no keeping aliens out, army or no army. For any three of them who are ferried back across the Danube, ten more sneak through by night. As long as an empire needs cheap labor, or ferry-men make a tidy living at the traffic, the matter of illegal settlement within the borders will stand.
But you are probably asking yourself the reason for my letter, so I come to the point. You may remember my daughter (the one whose cakes we ate at Antinoopolis when we met last year, and whose marriage was celebrated in Rome shortly thereafter). Her husband, Isaac, who is a German-born Jew, works as a supervisor in a brick factory south of here. Last week the owner of the brickworks, a man called Lupus, died of a malignant fever and, after all due ceremonies, was buried in the family plot. You may imagine my son-in-law’s astonishment, Commander, upon returning to work this morning and finding Lupus at his desk, looking none the worse for his illness, death, and apparent resurrection. A fairy tale, you will say, or else Jewish exaggeration. None of it! My relative does not drink, unlike me he is an observant Jew unlikely to tell a lie, and besides, awe and fear struck all employees at the Figlinae Marci Lupi, to the extent that a couple of them took sick and several ran away swearing not to resume their work ever.
Now, of you—other than having fought against you nearly ten years ago—I know these things: that despite your barbarian origins you are educated, courageous, respectful of your gods but no more than it befits a high-ranking officer, and exceedingly curious. As a historian, you might be interested in recording that at the close of Our Lord Diocletian’s reign (may he be preserved, etc., as the formula goes), a dead man was brought back to life in the province of Belgica Prima. As an investigator with imperial leeway to inquire, you might wish to discover just what took place at Noviomagus. All I can add to my report is—but you presume this surely—that Lupus is a Christian, prosecution against his kind not having progressed in this neck of the woods, according to our Caesar Constantius’s (may the gods, etc.) tolerant view of the sect.
Keep in mind that I shall divide my time along the Rhine between Confluentes and a charming spot called Bingum, south of here. Will I ever get used to such silly city names? In Confluentes you’ll find me one door down from the keg-maker Erminius. Best regards and farewell. P.S. I heard that Constantius’s repudiated “wife” is not thrilled that her favorite son, Constantine, has made her a grandmother through Minervina. At half a century of age, Dame Helena keeps up more than appearances, being still as attractive to junior officers today as she was to Aelius Spartianus (so goes the gossip in the army camp) a few years ago. Do not worry, this letter is being hand-delivered by a trusted friend.
Written at Confluentes, north of Augusta Treverorum, Province of Belgica Prima, on 4 Kislev, Sunday, 19 November, day XIII before the Kalends of December.
South of Mogontiacum, 20 November 304 c.e., Monday
Aelius read ben Matthias’s letter last, after the concise, badly written one from his father, complaining of “my only son’s three years worth of absense from home,” and reporting his mother’s “anziety that you havent yet taken a wife as you should.” Despite having retired as a colonel of the Seniores Gentiliorum, the old man had felt no desire to educate himself beyond what was needed these days to build a career—although others had become emperor with less. As for Aelius’s mother, she made sure to propose every six months a marriage prospect: soldiers’ daughters, landowners’ widows, or little girls who’d have years of growing up before they could share a bed.
Dropping his parents’ letter in a box where others (each one practically identical to the rest) lay, Aelius was receiving a strange composite image of what his old enemy, the Jewish freedom fighter, had communicated. On one side was Helena, who’d seduced him when she was exactly twice his age and left him lovesick like a calf, and on the other, this absurd tale of a dead man reborn. True to the Christians’ fame as hard workers, Lupus was apparently unable to think of anything better than returning to the office after resurrection. It made him simper, certain that ben Matthias was pulling his leg for whatever reason, sarcastic atheist that he was. But the composite image had a third side, hazy and lopsided, a sting to the heart: because Anubina had borne him a daughter in Egypt seven years before and but for her unwillingness to marry him after her husband’s death, he could be writing to his mother to quit looking for a wife.
To be sure, the efficiency of the postal service never ceased to amaze him, yet couriers had been able to find him everywhere, even during the eastern campaigns. Therefore it was only logical that mail would reach him between Noviomagus and Mogontiacum (a few miles south of the latter, in fact), it being known that he’d left Diocletian’s summer capital of Aspalatum nearly two weeks earlier, headed for Tergeste, and from there, across four provinces, already come less than two days from Constantius’s capital city. He’d spent the night, ben Matthias was right, in a place like every other, a stop on the side of the military road, with its stable and tavern, salesmen of shoddy wares, and whatever small industry typified the region. Here it was glassworks; farther ahead it might be pottery, or leather.
The early morning filled with haze the spaces between hills beyond; the straight road led into that haziness, and one could imagine any landscape beneath it: surely Mogontiacum, where the road forked, and then cultivated fields, fallow land bristling with the yellow weeds of late autumn, interminable woods. The Other World, even, if what the poets wrote was true, and constant mist is where the shades are obliged to spend eternity.
The reason given by his parents for the letter was his upcoming birthday, the thirtieth; but his father was wrong in saying he had not been home in three years. It was four and a half, and as far as he was concerned, Aelius felt no great need to go back.
When he mounted on horseback and rode out, heading to the northwest, the haze had not yet lifted. It might be midday before the sun burned it enough to leave the river land, the mountains across the bank, and all details bare and exposed to view. For now, as he proceeded, the mist seemed to recede, yet if he glanced back he could see that it closed behind him, too. How many times had he ridden through the fog to battle, or back to camp, or away from camp. Fog seemed always the same, but he’d cut through it in anticipation, or mum fear, or exhaustion. The Other World had better not be like this, or else it was desirable to return from it, as Lupus the brick-maker had apparently done.
Carrying His Divinity’s messages for Constantius meant that everywhere doors opened to him, and he had precedence over others waiting to go past checkpoints or manned bridges. He had, in fact, made such comparatively good time from Aspalatum that he was a full day early. Given that the complex ceremonial did not allow for an early call any more than it tolerated lateness, there would be time to stop and see ben Matthias at the army town of Bingum, three or four hours north of Mogontiacum on the river road. It was where he headed now, expecting to reach it by noon.
Constantius he had met during a summer tour of duty at court in Diocletian’s eastern capital, Nicomedia, but not seen in the few intervening years. One of the two vice-emperors groomed to take power next May at Diocletian’s and Maximian’s expected resignation, he had impressed Aelius as a solid general who had asked that staff officers be presented to him after an army review. One by one he’d greeted them, a massive, pale, bulge-eyed man with crooked thumbs who had married his colleague Maximian’s daughter and put away not—as ben Matthias wrote—his first wife but his long-term concubine Helena.
It was a time, that summer, when Helena was as filled with hateful resentment as any ambitious woman snubbed after climbing from obscurity to privilege. That she had never been able to get Constantius to marry her was her principal regret, but there it was. Aelius recalled courtiers and priests taking turns at her side, at any one time seemingly convincing her to embrace one lifestyle or another. The first time she had let him into her ...
Pastor is one of several historical-mystery writers (Steven Saylor and Lindsay Davis are the most prominent) who mine the rich vein of material from ancient Rome. There were no PIs walking the mean streets of Rome in those days, so Pastor and the others must find a kind of I, Claudius narrator with access to high and low society. Pastor uses Diocletian’s official historian, Aelius Spartianus, who records happenings throughout Rome’s far-flung provinces for the emperor and his coemperor, Maximian. Aelius is shaken by the news that someone known as the Fire Waker has revived a man from death. This miracle could spell trouble for Diocletian’s campaign to suppress Christianity. Matters are further complicated when Aelius finds that the so-called resurrected man has been newly murdered. There is a great deal of historical interest here, though Pastor could take a few more pains to set context for the general reader. There are few anachronisms, too, as in the doctor who sounds like a modern pathologist. Still, solid entertainment for ancient history–mystery buffs, especially those who know their ancient Rome. --Connie Fletcher
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