A eunuch in the Eastern Roman Empire rises from slavery to power by devious means in this deeply researched historical novel.
Webb, a retired teacher, instructs readers on the oft-overlooked Eastern Roman Empire of late antiquity. She charts roughly 30 years in the harsh life of Eutropius Foot, including a confusingly large (but historically accurate) cast of emperors, generals, bishops and the two bears for whom the book is named. In a helpful appendix that lists historical facts as well as a glossary, Webb indicates that she based her main character on the real Eutropius, immortalized by the poet Claudian in a scathing diatribe. Webb’s Eutropius is born to an unmarried wanderer somewhere near Constantinopolis. His mother dies shortly after childbirth but not before bestowing his odd name. A soft-hearted, impoverished shepherd finds Eutropius next to his dead mother in a field and takes him home to raise as his own until he can sell him into slavery, castrating him so he will bring more money. This betrayal sends Eutropius on a gradual descent into wretchedness. Because there’s a eunuch for a main character, some readers might assume this to be a somewhat sexless tale, but they would be mistaken. Rather, Webb dallies too long in detailing the vulgar sexual acts performed by slaves and prostitutes; even the kind mistress Sophie, a young woman to whom Eutropius is presented as a dowry gift, commands him to pleasure her. Corrupted, Eutropius begins a thankless career as a pimp for a succession of powerful, lusty politicians. While not charismatic, kind or particularly compelling, Eutropius is imbued with insatiable ambition; he worms his way into the graces of a feeble emperor, using deceit and cruelty to affect momentous historical changes until his arrogance causes a satisfying downfall. Eutropius’ tragicomic story is told amid the battle between emerging Christians and the still-present polytheists, whom Webb details with sharp humor. Many, like Eutropius, convert purely for political reasons, and their fumbles with the new religion’s rules make this unlikable protagonist’s tale easier to follow.
Moral ambiguity casts a cynical shadow on this unvarnished, detailed glimpse into the formation of Western civilization.