Gods and Legions, Michael Curtis Ford’s second novel, takes as its protagonist one of the most intriguing figures of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Julian, who tried to turn the mid-fourth century Roman world away from Christianity and back to a version of Greco-Roman paganism.
The narrator of Ford’s tale is the Christian physician Caesarius, a brother of the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus. The reminiscences of Caesarius are accompanied by the occasional commentaries of Gregory. The choice of narrators is an interesting strategy, because it enables Ford to present Julian through the eyes of someone who admired the emperor personally, but who was opposed to his religious reforms.
The novel begins in 354 c.e., when Julian, a scholarly young man in Athens, is called to Rome by his cousin, the Emperor Constantius, son of Constantine. Since Constantius had earlier had the rest of Julian’s family killed, Julian fears that he has been called to his own execution. Instead, the young scholar is sent as a figurehead to fight a hopeless war to defend the provinces of Gaul. However, Julian turns out to be a surprisingly successful general and is forced by events to turn against Constantius. Becoming emperor himself after the death of Constantius, Julian’s support for paganism grows more intense and he begins to lose his sanity. His short rule ends in an ill-considered attack on the Persian Empire.
Ford is strongest in his descriptions of Roman military life. His battle scenes are particularly gripping and realistic. He shows somewhat less skill in characterization, and Julian’s sudden descent from heroism into madness is not entirely convincing. On the whole, though, Ford has managed a lively and informative work of historical storytelling.