Imagine for one moment that you could get back in time. Where would you go, what would you do? Now imagine that you are religiously minded and that you perceive your faith to be under attack in the present day.
This is the premise of Jonathan Hickman’s Pax Romana from 2008.
It is is 2053. Scientists at CERN have discovered a way to transport an area through time. Something to do with Deckhard’s Geothermal Drive, Wet-tachyon field projectors and multicore DNA processors.
Cardinal Beppi Pelle convinces the Vatican to sponsor a project to send a group of adventurers back in time to assist and strengthen the church. What time do they choose? Not a biblical period, but the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. By doing this Hickman can explore the complexities and grey areas where religion and politics meet.
So far, the plot of the novel is not original. It is similar to Mary Dora Russell’s The Sparrow, which explores how the Vatican might approach the future, through intergalactic missions. Whilst Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man cheerfully told the tale of a man who travels to the period of Jesus’ mission.
This novel explores the critical moment when early Christianities coalesced into state sanctioned religion(s) and the compromises of political support.
The story is drawn with a restricted palette, heavily shadowed and largely in black and white with a gradient ink wash behind. It’s puts the characters in focus, rather than the “world” of the comic.
The characters are complex. Although most are mercenary types, they show a range of human emotions and responses which drive the plot. Yet, they do not respond to the world they find themselves in. Most notably, where is the dirt? In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the hero is so disgusted by the filth and stench he experiences, that he founds a soap factory.
The world of Pax Romana is ambigious. The UN is all powerful, preventing large scale conflict by empowering amoral mercenary forces. The only educational institutions named are military academies, although the presence of scientists at CERN presupposes scientific training. What of religious, philosophical or historical studies?
In this “old future” Islam is the dominant religion in Europe, a nightmare of the far right, something which implies a loss of faith in “Western Civilisation”. One of the initial aims of the mission is to strengthen the church ahead of the Arabic expansion of the Seventh Centuries. Even if one assumes this is an acceptable objective, then the strategy to go about this is flawed to say the least.
In the Age of Trump, this vision takes on overtones which perhaps were not present in 2008. I think, we are meant to understand that the church that has lost its moral steer. The novel focuses on the tensions between religion and politics, between truth and power. It is a deeply troubling background however.
The drama of the novel focuses on Constantine the Great, who famously converted to Christianity after a vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against his rival Maxentius. There has always been some uncertainty about the strength of his own faith. Did he “convert” for political reasons- Christians had become dominant in the Roman Empire at the time – or did he genuinely believe.
In the novel, this question centres of whether Constantine actually saw the vision before his fateful battle. Interestingly the narrative of this event is mured by different historical accounts. One author Lactantius claimed that Constantine had a dream in which he was told to draw the Christian cross on his soliders shields. In another version, by Eusebius, Constantine has a vision of a cross with the Greek words for “In this sign, conquer”. He then had a dream in which Christ explains what the vision means. He is later wholly associated with the Chi-Rho symbol and not the cross. Some historians think this story was created by writers to bless Constantine’s actions. He was essentially a usurper. The phenomenon of light crosses have been recorded through history, caused by solar halos. This has lead some historians to identify the vision with Constantine’s adoration and identification with the Unconquered Sun. Nevertheless the story will always elude explanation.
Constantine was a bloody man and killed his own son Crispus. On his death bed he was baptised as a Christian (a common practice at the time to maximise the impact of baptisms cleansing of sins). In the novel, these events don’t happen and for all its moral ambiguity Constantine is presented as nothing less than an upright leader, principled but realistic.
Ultimately the novel misses the most interesting figure of the period – Julian the Apostate. A philosopher, intellectual and accomplished general, he was the nephew of Constantine the Great and was one of the few surviving males of his family. He is most famous today for converting back to “paganism” and using the Empire’s resources to support pagan cults. His short reign ended in battle against the Persians, but the actual cause of death have always been disputed. Was he murdered by a Christian? His friend, the public intellectual Libanius certainly thought so. The Copts of Egypt, claimed St Mercurius killed him from afar. Julian’s last words were supposed to have been “thou hast conquered, Galilean” (which later influenced a poem by Swinburne with a few good lines).
The problem with any historical fiction set in this period, is not so much that the intentions of certain figures of hard to unravel, but that the evidence is sometimes contradictory or written for purposes which make it hard to unpick “historical” reality. In fact this is the problem with some forms of history, the idea that objective truths can be identified and entire worlds recreated.
Ultimately the greatest cultural influence within the novel is, perhaps, the Da Vinci code by Dan Brown. A global phenomenon of the first decades of the noughties, it presented Christianity as a politicised corruption of the true religion preached by Jesus and protected by certain disciples, among them Mary Magdalene. Constantine’s chairing of the Council of Nicea cemented this take over and saw the suppression of true Christian gospels.
This is all delicious “botty-dribble” (to use public intellectual Stephen Fry’s memorable description) but wrong. The novel did however focus the public imagination on the role of Constantine in the consolidation of Christianity. The novel states that there “is a common misconception that it was an assembly to compile or edit the Christian Bible”. Except for a small window of time in which the Da Vinci code was popular, this is not true. It highlights a flaw of the novel, which is a lack of engaged interaction with the historiography of the period.
The novel ends with pages of an alternate timeline, which tells us that cloning technologies predated the invention of the microscope by several centuries and that the steam engine was invented by Charles Martel 700 years later than its actual invention in Alexandria.
The first page of the novel begins with the Pope listing his titles which include the Eternal Priest of Amon-Ra. It is never explained why. Amon-Ra was worshipped in Classical Greece and Alexander famously sought his advice in the Oracle at Siwa. By the period of Constantine, Egyptian religions were massively popular across the Roman Empire, but centred on the goddess Isis. We can only speculate why it is that a male god is identified with a Pope.
For all it’s serious playfulness, the novel doesn’t quite unpick the complexities of the time, the compromises of religious faith or truly examine how modern people would react to being thrown back to a time of dirt, death and disease. It is nevertheless a fascinating and thought provoking romp through one of the turning points of history.