The Acts of the Apostles meets The Satyricon--with surprisingly leaden results. Burgess' subject is the clash between the early Christians and Imperial Rome in the years between the resurrection of Christ and the destruction of Pompeii; but the pacing is as sluggish as it was in the gaudy but empty TV mini-series A.D. (also written by Burgess), of which this is essentially the novelization. Burgess' narrator is a retired Roman bureaucrat, equally skeptical about the claims of the Christians to eternal life and the claims of the Roman emperors to divinity. This detachment, which is undoubtedly the author's method for avoiding De Millean, non-Biblical sentimentality, nonetheless prevents the novel from ever catching fire--except in the literal sense, when Vesuvius erupts. In fact, the novel's one solid virtue may be its quirky learning--Burgess' conception of the relationship between Roman eros and Christian agape (spiritual love) is often fascinating. Beyond occasional nuggets of scholarship, however, such as the confusion of "Christus" (annointed) with "Chrestus" (cheerful, dutiful--a popular name for a slave, which led the Romans to assume that Christianity was a slave-cult), the novel offers little that rings true--especially in the area of characterization. Burgess' post-Augustan Romans are reminiscent--too reminiscent--of those in Graves' Claudius the God; and his Christians are either crudely stereotyped (doubting Thomas is rendered with a Scottish accent; Peter shudders every time he hears a cock crowing) or downright unpleasant (fanatical St. Paul is the major Christian character). All in all, Burgess has his eye on too many sources this time, some divine and some from pulpier realms--some Bulwer-Lytton here, some Suetonius there, then add a dash of Ben Hur (one central character is a Jewish radical who becomes a gladiator) and perhaps a touch of another mini-series, Masada. Repetition of central ideas and intercutting of Roman and Christian scenes technically pull the novel together, but, if learned, it's lifeless.