Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Constantine Novels of Paul Doherty

Without question Paul Doherty is one of the best British historical novelists in recent memory. On top of that, he is polymath, by which I mean he is capable of writing convincingly about various historical periods and subjects. His Hugh Corbett medieval novels are equally as gripping as his ancient Egyptian novels and his Constantine novels. Doherty writes well and often, mixing mystery and history in a compelling way. Unlike the humorous novels of a historical novelist like Lindsey Davies, or the rather sweet and elegant tales told about medieival monks by Ellis Peters, Doherty takes a different tact, which the author himself calls an approach involving real Politik. This means, in the case of Constantine and his mother, whatever their actual Christian faith, or lack thereof they were politicians and rulers to the core, and their faith was only sometimes a controlling factor in their decision making. We get to see the underbelly of raw power politics at work, and often it is far from pretty.

This fall I decided to read the two novels thus far extant in the Constantine series-- Murder Imperial which came out in 2003 and The Song of the Gladiator in 2004. They are both published by a British press called Headline Press. When you begin looking at the list of novels Doherty has published one wonders how he has time for his teaching or adminstering at Trinity School in the U.K., but then people regularly ask me the same question.

Despite the fact that the major known figures in the two novels listed above are Constantine and his mother Helena, Doherty takes a different angle of incidence into their lives and times. He creates a character named Claudia who is one of the 'Agentes in Rebus' that is the secret agents of the monarch. In this case Claudia is the personal agent of Helena. She is a winsome character in many regards-- bright, clever, a sort of female Sherlock Holmes when it comes to deduction, and yet she is vulnerable, has lost her brother and was raped by some horrible brute of a man and seeks revenge (think of someone about the size and aptitude of Jodie Foster). She also, quite surprisingly even to herself falls in love with another ox of a man-- the gladiator Murranus (picture Arnold Swartznegger without the Austrian accent). Claudia as a secret agent lives in the shadows of power and this means she gives up much of her freedom and friends except those who frequent her Uncle Polybius's taberna or tavern. And what a motley crew they are ranging from worn out gladiators and their hangers on to worn out Stoic philosophers, to various other sorts of ne'er do wells, low lifes, and lushes. Doherty paints no rosey pictures of life in Roma in A.D. 313.

From a Christian point of view, what is interesting about these novels is not just their realism or the fun of solving the mystery, but we learn about what happens when Christians gain power. We are privy to the debates between rival Christian factions in the presence of the Emperor, and we learn about the role of rhetoric in persuading emperors about things. The first of the two novels Murder Imperial focuses on the murdering of prostitutes, some of whom the Emperor frequented wo were part of the Guild of Aphrodite. Doherty is absolutely correct in portraying Constantine as far from what we would call a born again Christian. Rather he was someone who saw the rising tide of Christianity and with the prodding of his domineering mother (she's not called Domina for nothing)sees an opportunity to use Christianity to bring more unity to the Empire. This is not to say that he was about to ban pagan cults. And furthermore, when we probe a little deeper, he was not likely to be the man who cared about banishing Gnostics either.

Claudia on the other hand, begins to become genuinely curious about Christianity and tries to at least understand it since she finds herself working with some Christian officials such as Sylvester the chief Christian priest in Rome. Yet always she is alone and lonely because of her trade, and not really able to trust much of anyone, except perhaps her uncle and gladiator friend. Doherty portrays this woman's life in an empathetic way and helps us to enter into her plight and her delight at solving things. She is called Helena's 'little mouse' scrurrying about in dark, dank, and dangerous places and looking for crucial crumbs and tidbits of information.

One gets a good feel for life in ancient Rome as it began to be Christianized, and also a feel for Christians beginning to emerge from the catacombs and entering the halls of power-- going from the outhouse to the Penthouse surprisingly quickly. If you want to learn about ancient life in the catacombs, taverns, corridors of power, and in the Roman arena, you will find these novels interesting as well as entertaining. If you can only choose one, choose the second one, The Song of the Gladiator which is a more full orbed tale with more focus on early Christianity.

If you like these novels then by all means try his Hugh Corbett tales. Some of them will really grip you and you won't be able to lay them aside.

1 comment:

samlcarr said...

Thanks for the tip. We have a group of 9 that love good historical novels. We have not read Goherty before...