Book Review by Christina Szilagyi
Mark Tedesco’s I am John, I am Paul gives life to a story about which little is known: who were the men to whom the Basilica of John and Paul are dedicated? The story is told as a memoir from John’s point of view, as the story of his life in the legions, how he came to his relationship with Paul, and how they came to practice Christianity. The style is conversational and straightforward, with notations about the Latin meanings as needed. These notations alternate between footnotes and parenthetical asides, the latter tending to draw the reader out of the story, but they are useful for one not versed in Roman history.
The story begins with John’s childhood on a farm and his desire to become a soldier, then moves (too) quickly to his adulthood and time in the legions. There, John and Paul meet and become fast friends. They find themselves pitted against their commander, Terentianus, who is inept, at best, and is threatened by the two men’s competency and popularity within the legion. They are separated, John to Alexandria and Paul to Gaul and, eventually, Rome. John feels isolated in Alexandria, but eventually, via his devotion to Mithras, finds a way to be assigned to Rome. From Rome, he and Paul are assigned to fight in Germania with Constantine. Without giving away plot points, this is, eventually, how they come to be given a large house in Rome, which will later become the location of the basilica.
The totality of the relationship between John and Paul is never made particularly clear; at one point, Paul is asked if they are “‘bound to one another in the way of the Greeks?’” to which he responds “‘The bond between us is greater than Greek or Roman.’” The reader is never explicitly told if they are lovers or friends, but in the end, it does not matter. This serves to make a point as they convert to the new religion: the nature of their relationship is never an issue as they are welcomed into the community, thus making indicating that such things were irrelevant in the early Christian community, and that they should be so in the modern.
Throughout the text, Tedesco details some of the elements of legionary life: training, the elements of battle, the boredom of guard duty, and, particularly, the habits of the Mithraic Cult.
Our narrator’s devotion to Mithras is reinforced throughout the book, offering an interesting point of opposition to his eventual conversion to Christianity. Both John and Paul begin as devotees of Mithras, but Paul often comes across as being Christian before he knows what Christianity is. At one point early in the story, he gives his entire pay to a fellow legionary who is in need, not being concerned with his own needs. He often expresses a desire to help those around them who are lacking, and so when he is introduced to the idea of fellowship in Christianity, exemplified by a charity house being run by local Christians in Rome, he is immediately attracted to it. Both men learn about the religion from a friend of John’s sister and from their slave, but while Paul begins to embrace it, John becomes distant and angry with his friend, seemingly jealous of Paul’s devotion and fearful of breaking their dedication to Mithras. This is another point where the author moves far too quickly, telling, rather than showing his reader about these events; however, his point about how Christianity could break relationships in its early years is well made.
The men do not become Christian until nearly the end of the book, and the subsequent years they spend as leaders in their local Christian community are glossed over. Within these years, the death of Constantine and the subsequent upheaval at the hands of his three sons and successors is mentioned, but is only relevant in the context of how it brings Julian to the throne. There are two villains in this book: the first is Terentianus and the second is Julian. While the former has a personal hatred for John and Paul, the latter is portrayed as hating all Christians, and thereby hating all they (and John and Paul) stand for. The two men together create the situation that leads to John and Paul being martyred, which makes them less villains and more enactors of God’s will. After all, without Judas, there is no Good Friday, and without Good Friday, there can be no Easter and no Christianity. The same is true of these villains: without them, the Basilica of John and Paul is never built, and this story is never told.
Overall, the book is reminiscent of Lloyd Douglas’ The Robe or Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, books whose intent is reinforce the faith of the reader or to inspire readers to become Christian. While I cannot comment on its effectiveness in this, I can say it was an interesting read.
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Mark Tedesco is a published author and history teacher in Los Angeles. He was born in California but lived for many years in Europe. There he developed a unique perspective which is apparent in his teaching and writing. Besides writing, Mark's passions run the gamut from archeology to sports and fitness. His colleagues consider to him to be somewhat of a Renaissance man. He enjoys imparting to his students his thirst for life and happiness. This thirst, or quest, is apparent in every work Mark devotes himself to.
After eight years of research, Mark's work of historical fiction draws the reader into an experience of Ancient Rome. "I am John, I am Paul: A Story of Two Soldiers in Ancient Rome." The mysterious bond between the two soldiers is intertwined with the historical events of the 4th century.
Book Review of I am John I am Paul: A Story of Two Soldiers in Ancient Rome - Related Topic: Roman Religion