Render unto Caesar

by Gillian Bradshaw


Reviewed by David Maclaine


Render unto Caesar is a cut above the average novel by Gillian Bradshaw, which is to say that it's very good indeed. The novel's setting is Augustan Rome, but the emperor is out of town when the hero, a Greek from Alexandria, arrives seeking repayment of a debt owed to him. His first efforts to win justice are rudely rebuffed; his next attempt embroils him in a dangerous plot. His only ally is a freed gladiatrix, a proud woman who provides some needed muscle, but the tendency of rich, ruthless men to brush aside annoyances by brute force makes it doubtful whether justice is possible for a foreigner in a strange city.

The basic construction of Render unto Caesar is Bradshaw's norm: an action story tinged with romance playing out in a condensed time-frame. But the issue at the center of this story has unusual import. The plot hinges on whether authorities in Rome will honor a contract held by a Roman citizen hailing from a distant province. Will Roman pride and prejudice outweigh the rule of law? Should a Greek who is treated as inferior purely because of his non-Roman nationality continue to press for justice in the face of violence and death threats? Will the deputies of an absent emperor uphold law and order, or will their bigotry blind them to a deadly conspiracy? Render unto Caesar ratchets up the tension and sustains suspense even though we're pretty sure all will turn out well in the end. The story's resolution includes a nice surprise, sidestepping the expectations of modern romance and replacing them with an outcome that doesn't distort historical realities. The question at the center of the story, "What does it mean to be a Roman citizen?" lies at the very heart of the imperial ideal, and in the hopes of any nation that aspires to be more than an overgrown tribe. (2003, 461 pages)

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Render unto Caesar appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History


Other historical novels about Roman citizens from outside Italy:

Josephus by Lion Feuchtwanger (1932), about the first century Jewish historian Josephus during the years when he visits Rome, then witnesses the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; #1 in the Josephus trilogy. See review or more info at Amazon.com

Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom (2008), about a Roman soldier sent to organize the defense of a city on the eastern border of the Roman Empire in 255 A.D. from a threatened attack by the Sassanid Empire in Persia; #1 in the Warrior of Rome series. More info

Roman Wall by Bryher (1954), set during the Roman period in what is now Switzerland. More info


Nonfiction about Roman culture:

A History of Private Life, Volume 1: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium edited by Paul Veyne (1987). More info

Imperialism, Power and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire by David J. Mattingly (2010). More info

Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp (2011). More info


Online:

Roman Citizenship at Wikipedia


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