This novel, the sequel to Cast Not the Day (2009), continues the adventures of narrator Drusus, a British noble who is drawn into a struggle against emperor Constantius—son of Constantine, who Christianized the Roman Empire. For Waters, the expansion of Christianity signaled a rise in corrupt leadership and shallow moral judgments: Various bishops and other members of the faithful come off as arrogant scolds, clowns or pathetically passive souls. Drusus has his own reasons to remain an adherent of the Roman pagan ways, not least because they don’t pass judgment on his love for Marcellus, a fellow noble. So he throws his lot in with Julian, the “philosopher prince” of the book’s title, who’s charged with handling the empire’s western provinces. As Drusus joins campaigns through Gaul and across the Rhine, Julian’s army pushes back German barbarians. But Waters’ battle scenes are brief and, for him, a little beside the point; he dwells much more often on the palace intrigue involving Constantius’ effort to undo Julian’s successes. Drusus routinely praises the rigor of Julian’s Athenian philosophical training as the wellspring of his greatness, but there’s hardly enough philosophy in the novel to justify the title; Julian’s talent is largely a capacity for high-flown oratory whenever morale threatens to sink. For a novel with the geographical and temporal expanse of this one—the story spans from Britain to Constantinople between 355 and 361 —it can feel dispiritingly flat-footed and talky, preferring to focus on byzantine power struggles over taxation and troop strength. In the midst of it, the romance between Drusus and Marcellus, positioned as the emotional workhorse of this tale, is neglected.
I, Claudius this isn’t. Waters’ research is solid, but this would-be epic is dry and caricature-filled.