IN THIS novel, Sarah Walton comprehensively excavates the sights, disputes and social structures of the port of Alexandria in the quarter century leading up to the inter-faith massacres and wholesale destruction of the city’s famous library by Nicene Christian mobs in 391 AD.
In doing so, she reveals the loosening threads of a society once renowned for its tolerance, dissent and learning through the interlinked voices of three characters.
Kiya is a devotee of the Ophites, a small gnostic Christian sect who are increasingly mistrusted by the growing power of the established church.
Aeson is a member of a street gang whose nickname “Pretty” demonstrates his lowly status. But his beauty gains the eye of the eponymous anti-hero who firstly finances him as his lover and then adopts him as his son.
Rufius Biblus Catamitus, an outrageously transgressive figure, is a learned and fleshly satyr who excites ridicule and respect in equal measure because of his patrician status.
Walton comments in her postscript that, as a rich adult, the social expectations on Rufius were that he would be on top sexually. Yet he is a “cinaedus,” an effeminate buggeree and, according to the author, Roman sexuality was oriented along the axis of penetrator and penetratee rather than the false poles of gay and straight.
Yet in a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant of difference, Rufius’s orientation puts himself and his household at risk. That threat is exacerbated when he becomes the director of the scriptorium — the library — on behalf of the Bishop of Rome to root outheretical works.
But he turns that commission on its head by setting up a book-smuggling sideline and in the process becomes a target for many more dangerous vested interests.
That Rufius nimbly tiptoes his way around the secular, religious and street authorities is testimony to his courage and sharpness but even he can’t hold back the religious pogroms instituted by Bishop Theophilius who is determined to destroy both paganism and other expressions of Christianity, sacred texts included.
In spite of the slowly closing aperture of hope for a tolerant Alexandrian society, stylistically conveyed by the leisurely advance of armed desert monks on the city, this is a novel of pace and humour.
While the comedy in Rufius’s camp asides are occasionally a little wearing, they at least reflect the spirit of a man who will not be anything other than himself.
Having comprehensively established the credentials of both the main characters and the city itself, the last third of the book is a deftly handled account of the accelerating orgies of destruction launched by Theophilius.
The publishers compare Walton’s work to the novels of Mary Renault and, while that is partly true, in her remarkably adroit handling of the intersections between the big questions of faith and politics and the smaller-scale concerns of relationships and identity, there are elements that would not be out of place in novels by Gore Vidal set in the “classical” era. Highly recommended.
Review by Paul Simon