Each of the strands that make up Charis’ life—her gender, her calling, and her citizenship—becomes Bradshaw’s avenue to explore the quality of life in the late Roman Empire. In an atmosphere of hostility toward women, it seems impossible for these identities to be woven into a pleasing pattern of psychological wholeness.
Charis realizes that her Ephesian life, split between social expectations and hidden study, is a pretense, and she fears that she will become the false plaything that she has pretended to be. Even though this realization gives her the courage to run away, she must continue to pretend—this time that she is a “man,” for only men could study medicine. Charis thrives in her study, outshining all fellow students, but she must balance what she has gained with what she realizes that she has lost. She laments, “Never to be loved by some tall young man. . . . Not if I wanted to practice my art. Not if I stayed myself. And if I stayed myself, I was simply my own grave, with no free outlet to the world til death came to claim me.” This dilemma only deepens when she falls in love with Athanaric.
Alexandria is the center of the book as well as the beacon of the title. There Charis could learn medical truths both in the city’s classrooms and famous libraries and as practiced in its crowded streets and dirty homes. Her learning is always tested against the touchstone of Hippocrates—Charis is nothing if not a passionate follower of Hippocrates. Others in Alexandria are following a beacon...
(The entire section is 627 words.)