“In the turbulent aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus, officers of the Roman Empire acquire intelligence of a pilgrim bearing an incendiary letter from a religious fanatic to insurrectionists in Corinth. The contents of this letter could bring down the empire.”
So reads the dust jacket of Stephen Pressfield’s new novel, A Man at Arms. The book tells the story of Telamon of Arcadia, the titular “man of arms,” who is a former Roman legionary, now mercenary. He is hired by the commander of the Tenth Legion to track down the pilgrim and retrieve the letter. The pilgrim is Michael the Nazarene (i.e., a Christian), and the letter is the apostle Paul’s first to the Corinthians.
I am a Christian minister, and this setup piqued my interest. Unfortunately, the book didn’t sustain my interest throughout. My two rules for fiction of this type are that (1) the story is a page-turner, and (2) it doesn’t tax my willing suspension of disbelief. A Man at Arms failed on both counts.
First, the book wasn’t a page-turner. Books that I enjoy compel me to keep reading them because I’m so interested in what is happening. That wasn’t true here. A book this length would normally take me several hours to read over the course of one or two sittings. I found myself picking up and putting aside A Man at Arms every few chapters, which meant it took me several days to read. I read it less out of joy and more out of duty.
Second, A Man at Arms taxed my willing suspension of disbelief. My favorite types of fiction are murder and suspense novels, especially ones in a series, like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels or Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon stories. I also enjoy historical fiction, though—such as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels.
Pressfield is considered a master of the historical fiction genre, based on his previous novels, Gates of Fire (about the Spartans at Thermopylae) and Tides of War (about Alcibiades). One can see his historical orientation in his descriptions of Roman weaponry, martial training, and battle tactics. He clearly has done his research on those topics, as well as a few other that figure into the story.
But the basic premise of the story seems ahistorical to me. It is set in the mid 50s AD, and assumes that Christianity is both distinct from and at odds with Judaism on the one hand, as well as suspected of treason by the Romans on the other. Neither assumption is correct on my reading of early Christian history (e.g., as seen in the Acts of the Apostles).
Some Jews in some places opposed some Christians, but not all everywhere. Similarly, Luke goes out of his way to show that the early Christians were on good terms with the Roman government. Most importantly, in A.D. 51–52, Gallio served as Roman proconsul in Achaia and acquitted Paul himself during a trial … in Corinth (Acts 18)! It seems unlikely that just four years later, a letter to the still-young church in the same city would’ve elicited a far more negative response.
Moreover, why would Paul — writing to Corinth from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8) — send his letter via Jerusalem (to the south) rather than more directly to Corinth (to the west)? Socially, politically, and geographically, the book’s setup seems wrong.
Some other turnoffs in the book include its occasional didacticism and its stilted vocabulary. Fiction should tell, not show, but at times—especially, early in the novel — Pressfield lectures rather than narrates. At times, his word choice and syntax also struck me as odd. Perhaps it was an effort to lend the book a classical feel, but to me, it was offputting.
And then there was the issue of motivation: Given that Telamon’s religious and moral convictions were more Stoic than Christian, though he admired Michael the Nazarene’s courage in the face of adversity, it never became entirely clear to me why Telamon ended up making the choices he made. Nor why others in the story followed him so dearly.
On one thing, however, Pressfield is absolutely right. The kind of religion revealed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians really was anti-imperial. The Christians knew this early on, given that they worshiped Jesus as Lord, rather than Caesar. But in the mid-50s, whether in Judea or other provinces of the empire, Rome did not yet know this.
So, a three-star “Meh” from me for A Man at Arms. It has its moments, but even in the realm of historical fiction, it just didn’t work for me.
Stephen Pressfield, A Man at Arms (New York: Norton, 2021).
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