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This is a multi-layered book:
- A history lesson about life in the Roman Empire in the first half of the sixth century. We learn of Theodoric’s initially benign conquest of Rome, his secretary Cassiodorus, his appointment of Boethius as his right-hand man to govern Rome, and his later change of heart as he has Boethius executed and takes brutal revenge on many innocent people. We learn about his strong daughter, Amalaswintha, Regent after her father’s death, and of her daughter, who is married off to a later Gothic general. The Roman Empire struggles desperately from internal strife and constant attacks from the north (Goths, Vandals, et al), east (Persians) and attempts to conquer and hold onto Egypt and Africa, ruled from Byzantium by feeble-minded but heartless Emperor Justinian, who is dominated by his selfish, blatantly immoral, ruthless wife Theodora. Victorious General Belisarius, who is also very dependent on his callous wife Antonina, advances and retreats in the east and Italy. Peter of Salonica, Boethius’ adopted son, who appears in Byzantium, becomes a secret agent undermining the Gothic powers in Italy and is finally promoted to Ruler of Italy. Benedict, sorely tempted young man, devotes himself to seeking God and starts a chain of monasteries, based on The Rule and the motto ora et labora. We hear of Totila, the new King of the Goths, who tries to rule magnanimously but is later also driven to cruelty; his encounter with Benedict baffles him.
Behind the Byzantium-Goth rivalry lies a deep-seated theological dispute about the nature of Jesus: Arian Goths vs. Catholic Romans.
Most of this is historically accurate; perhaps Peter’s life is invented.
- A novel about a Roman boy, madly in love with his adoptive mother, Boethius’ wife Rusticiana, who is driven by a passion to repel the Goths and grows up to become a secret agent and finally Ruler of Italy, appointed by Justinian. He meets Benedict and returns to his failing beloved, taking her at last to Benedict's sister's convent.
- A novel about Saint Benedict, showing his passion for God, several incidents where minor miracles occur though his acts of faith, his conviction that he is to establish an alternative society in his chain of monasteries - Citadels of God - ignoring and despising both the political intrigues and the lures of worldly wealth and success; and his influence on several important historical characters.
This book provides very helpful insights into the political and religious life of the period and paints a very impressive picture of the saint. The interlocked themes tend to break the flow of the story to some extent.