Blood of the Martyrs by Naomi Mitchison

Constable & Co Ltd, 1939 500 p.

Naomi Mitchison has an extensive bibliography. Some of her output dealt with Scottish themes, others with sexuality. Blood of the Martyrs is a historical novel set in Imperial Rome during the reign of Nero.

Blood of the Martyrs cover

The first eight chapters relate the life histories of the members of the small Christian group whose story the book tells. Thereafter most of the novel takes place in the household of Senator Flavius Crispus, where Beric, a Briton, son of King Caradoc (Caratacus,) is treated as one of the family. He is not a Roman citizen, however, and is effectively being trained up for a return to Britain to help maintain Roman rule. His infatuation with Crispus’s daughter Flavia spitefully spurned by that spoilt young woman, he falls in with the Christians among the house’s slaves. As we are in the run-up to the Great Fire, things are obviously not going to turn out especially well. In passing we meet Paul of Tarsus, imprisoned in the Mamertine jail, and Luke, designated here a provincial doctor. We also matter-of-factly encounter the harshness of life in those days for all but the pampered rich – and even they were not secure from imperial displeasure.

The discussions among Crispus’s Senator friends – the Empire was built on money and the need to avoid Carthage making it, but that was also the Republic’s ruination – their political intrigue, the imperial dynamic which insists on enemies, the attraction of early Christianity for the downtrodden, are all well-handled. The book flows easily, the discussions of doctrine are not abstruse – a rich man couldn’t stay so as a Christian; if he lived like one as he wouldn’t want to keep his wealth – and at one point a character observes that Paul’s epistolic suggestions to a particular Church over a particular problem will one day be taken as a general rule. (each Church here is described as having its own autonomy and is run by a deacon, male or female according to who is most respected,) another fears that the rich and powerful might try to co-opt the Churches.

The novel is very easy to read and appears to be well researched. There are however several mentions of fireworks – generally considered to be a later Chinese invention. Others for pedant’s corner: there was an “Aren’t I?” – I doubt Romans spoke so ungrammatically – a “sunk,” “less” rights, by and bye (my dictionary has that without the e,) smoothe (ditto: says it’s rare) and “you’d have woke up that morning.” Interestingly, Mitchison deploys the word ruthful and the phrase “you usen’t to be interested in such things.”

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