The Fall and Rise by David J Winter

Book Review by Ian Hughes

Most people`s knowledge of Constantine`s rise to power amounts to little more than that "he was the first Christian emperor". Anybody who has delved a little deeper knows that the reality is far more complex and that the conversion from a Pagan to a Christian Empire was a long and often brutal transformation.

David J Winter has set his first novel in the complex period surrounding the rise of Constantine to power and of the simultaneous rise of Christianity from being a persecuted sect to the religion approved by the emperor. The story details the profound impact that Constantine`s assumption of total control had on "ordinary" people.

Before passing an opinion on the story, it is necessary to comment upon the layout and quality of the book itself. The quality of the printing, the layout and the typeface used are all good and are a credit to Aberdeen Bay. What is not so good is the quality of copyediting and proof-reading. There is a large number of typographical, punctuation and spelling errors in the book that should really have been caught prior to publication: I have found examples of this in my own books, so I can appreciate how frustrating it is for the author.

The good news is that there are few factual errors. The very few examples include the concept that in the early-fourth century Venice was a major city near the mouths of the River Po, and that as early as 312 the Huns were a major influence on events within the Roman Empire. These are almost certainly wrong, as the founding of Venice is usually dated to the fifth century and the Huns are first recorded around the middle of the fourth century. Another is the statement that a Roman soldier had a "Lauriacum-Hromowka Spatha", which I must admit reads a little odd. Whilst few, these examples of anachronisms do tend to damage somewhat the reader`s suspension of disbelief.

However, once these slightly-irritating factors are overcome, what emerges is an interesting tale centring upon the lives of five individuals in the north of Italy during the reign of Constantine. The story revolves around the affairs of a small group of people who have known each other for a long time, some of whom are related by marriage. At the beginning of the book some of these are Christian and some Pagan, some are civilian and some are high-ranking army officers. As the story unfolds the characters are caught in the wars of Constantine and Licinius, as well as in personal events.

Obviously, religion is a major feature of the book. It is clear that the author has a good command of the intricacies of the rise of the Catholic Church, as well as the uncertainty surrounding Constantine`s adoption of Christianity. We know now that Christianity was destined to win the battle of the religions, but at the time this was unknown. Winter has tried hard and has almost been able to keep hindsight completely out of the story.

For an author, it is sometimes difficult to keep one`s own biases out of our work. Early in the book there is a contrast between a group of Christians, who join together to defend each other peacefully against oppression, and the opposition Pagans, who do no such thing. This makes it clear where the author`s loyalties lie. Coming early, the contrast can lead to the conclusion that the author is a Christian who believes in the purity and innocence of the earlier Christians. However perseverance rewards.

Winter is willing to bring the fallibility of early Christians to the fore, which, together with predictions concerning the unification of the Church after the Council of Nicaea, offers a nice balance. He further addresses the bewilderment amongst pagans when dealing with Christians. Throughout the life of the empire there had been a willingness to incorporate non-Roman Gods to the Roman pantheon and the refusal of Christians to accept this tolerance and join the traditional form of religious inclusion is dealt with nicely.

Away from the religious aspects of the story, the confusion and divided loyalties caused by civil war, along with the problems of inflation, are also covered. This is where I feel the book is strongest. The impact upon the lives of the traders of the runaway-inflation at the end of the third century is dealt with very well, as is the manner in which they were forced to adapt to survive. Furthermore, with his depiction of senators becoming less and less willing to be involved in the affairs of state, Winter has identified one of the main reasons for the gradual collapse of the West, even though this would take a long time to happen.

The characters themselves are drawn so that the reader is able to sympathise with their predicaments. However in one or two cases I feel that a little more attention to specific characters would have helped to explain the actions of some of the people away from the main participants. On a lighter note, I still find the idea that Constantine would wink a little odd - although I can`t give any reason for my feelings!

Overall, I would recommend this book. Although fiction, it gives a glimpse into the lives of "ordinary" people at a turning point in Western history and can bring to life the ordinary people who are usually absent from the history books, which usually focus upon Constantine and Christianity. Winter is apparently writing a second book. I look forward to reading it.

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