The first of a planned historical trilogy is set in the last days of the Roman Empire as Massie (Tiberius, 1993, etc.) follows the wanderings of a young nobleman in service to the Emperor.
The fifth century was not the best time to be a Roman: the new state religion of Christianity was riven with squabbling factions, the Empire overextended, the state treasury constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, the barbarian hordes invading with a vengeance. Our hero Marcus, like most noblemen of the period, was caught between two worlds in his attempts to serve the precepts of the Church while preserving the ancient Roman imperium. A descendent of Mark Antony on his mother’s side and St. Michael the Archangel on his father’s, Marcus was an embodiment of the new order as well as the old: proud, chaste, loyal, and God-fearing. Sent by the Emperor Honorius to deliver an ultimatum to the invading King Alaric of the Visigoths, Marcus fails as an ambassador (the Visigoths capture Rome, though they leave it unscathed) and sets off on a quest for adventure and enlightenment in the company of his chaplain Father Bernardo, his groom Chiron, and his page Gito. His wanderings take him across the length of the known world, through monasteries, taverns, palaces, and brothels. In Greece, he acquires a wife, Artemisia, whom he promptly leaves behind. In a remote mountain kingdom he is nearly captured by a fierce tribe of female warriors who keep men in prison to serve their every desire. He also becomes the compatriot for a time of a Sir Gavin, and helps him fight off a Green Knight and find the Holy Grail. Does Marcus find what he is looking for? Don’t forget that there are two more books to come.
A good portrait of an often-overlooked period, Massie’s account takes a you-are-there approach that ends up feeling more like Forrest Gump than I, Claudius.