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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1726

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First published: Den siste Athenaren, 1859, serial (English translation, 1869)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Fourth century

Locale: Athens

Principal Characters:

Chrysanteus, the archon of Athens and a pagan and philosopher

Hermione, Chrysanteus’ daughter

Peter, Bishop of Athens and an enemy of Chrysanteus

Annaeus Domitius, Roman proconsul at Athens

Charmides, a young Epicurean and the lover of Hermione

Clemens, a young priest and the foster son of Bishop Peter

The Story:

Athens in the fourth century, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantius, was divided by three factions. Dominant among the three was one Christian faction headed by Bishop Peter of Athens. Opposing them, though less in number, was the faction which adhered to the heresy of Athanasius. The third faction was the group which still clung to the gods of ancient Greece and the reasonable philosophy of Plato. The last group was headed by Chrysanteus, archon of Athens and its richest citizen. Representing Rome in the city was Annaeus Domitius, the proconsul, who by traveling a middle path hoped to keep some semblance of order in and about the city. His efforts were hindered by the fact that Julian the Apostate was about to succeed Constantius as the emperor of Rome; Constantius, a Christian, had favored the non-Athanasian Christians, but Julian, who was a pagan, favored the people who clung to the old gods.

Under the favor of Constantius, Bishop Peter and his followers practically ruled Athens and dictated orders to the proconsul. When the Athanasians were accused of killing Bishop Peter’s father, a hermit who lived at the top of a pillar, Domitius turned over the troops of Rome to the bishop and discreetly left Athens to evade responsibility for what might happen. He did not want to take sides in the quarrel, and he feared that the hatred of the Christians might be turned against the pagans, including Chrysanteus. Domitius knew that if Constantius succeeded in retaining the empire, Chrysanteus’ death would be of little consequence; but if Julian were to succeed in becoming emperor, his old tutor, for Chrysanteus had been that, would be a very important person, one whom the proconsul did not want as a corpse about his neck.

As Domitius feared, riot and slaughter broke out in Athens, for Bishop Peter turned the troops and his followers against the heretic Christians and against the pagans. Word came to Domitius at his country villa, however, that Constantius had died and that Julian was emperor. Domitius immediately went back to Athens with the news, arriving in time to prevent a Christian mob from entering Chrysanteus’ dwelling to pillage and murder. Within a few hours, the Roman troops, having returned to the proconsul’s command, restored quiet in Athens and published Julian’s order that freedom of worship and belief were to be accorded all men. Bishop Peter and his Christian faction were reduced, to all appearances, to a position no better than that of any other group. They were ordered to restore to the pagans all the temples they had taken over and to replace treasures they had plundered and destroyed.

Actually, the bishop was more dangerous than ever. He had many spies within and without the city; he had, in addition, a large body of devoted and obedient fanatics at his call. Furthermore, he had as his foster son a young man who was actually Chrysanteus’ long-lost son, Clemens. Reared as a Christian, the boy had become a priest. Through Clemens, Bishop Peter plotted to destroy Chrysanteus. The bishop also plotted to convert Hermione, Chrysanteus’ daughter, to Christianity, not through any pious motives but simply to undermine the position of Chrysanteus and to secure his immediate wealth.

Fate seemed to go against Bishop Peter when Chrysanteus discovered, quite by chance, that Clemens was his son and that Bishop Peter was an escaped slave who had once belonged to the household of Chrysanteus. The bishop was thrown into prison by the archon, and Clemens was restored to his father’s home. Clemens, however, was so fanatic a Christian that he soon left his father’s house and became a hermit, dwelling in a cave on the outskirts of the city.

In the meantime, Charmides, an Epicurean betrothed to Hermione, fell into the bad graces of both Hermione and her father because of his profligate habits. He also fell prey to a Jewish broker, to whom he owed large sums of money, for the Jew became his enemy when he learned that his daughter was in love with Charmides. At the moment of his greatest despair, he was befriended by Bishop Peter, whose followers had succeeded in securing his release from prison. Bishop Peter saw in Charmides another tool in his battle against paganism and Chrysanteus. Upon Charmides’ promise to turn Christian, the bishop interceded with the Jew, showing the Jew that a reformed Charmides would still have an opportunity to marry Chrysanteus’ daughter. The Jew, seeing a chance to recoup all the money he had lent to the penniless Charmides, agreed to the bishop’s plan.

The plan worked smoothly. Reformed, Charmides was received again by Chrysanteus and Hermione, and a date was set for the wedding. Nothing was said of the fact that Charmides had been baptized as a Christian. On his wedding night, however, Charmides was killed, murdered by a young Jew who had discovered that Charmides had seduced the usurer’s daughter, to whom the assassin had been betrothed. After the death of Charmides, much to Chrysanteus’ discomfiture, the Christians claimed the body of Charmides for burial and proved by documents that the dead man had been one of their number.

Further disaster overtook pagan Chrysanteus when his son went mad after being attacked by another hermit. As if that were not enough, Julian the Apostate was killed in a battle with the Persians. The new emperor, Jovian, was not only a Christian but also an adherent to that branch of the Church represented by Bishop Peter. The bishop, supported by Roman troops and the proconsul, was again the real ruler of Athens.

Immediately upon hearing of Julian’s death, Chrysanteus and Hermione fled to the mountains, where they were befriended by another small sect of Christians, a group that had been declared heretics by the bishop and consequently had no love for him. Learning that Chrysanteus and Hermione had taken asylum with the outcasts, Bishop Peter, still avaricious for Chrysanteus’ great wealth, prevailed upon the proconsul to lead a crusade into the mountains against the heretics. Domitius was willing to do so, hoping thereby to win acclaim and honors from the new emperor. There was a short but bloody campaign. In the battle, Chrysanteus was killed and Hermione taken prisoner. Hermione was forced to submit to baptism. Rather than remain alive as a Christian under those circumstances, she killed herself immediately. Her death left the wealth of Chrysanteus in the hands of Bishop Peter. A short time later, his reasons for desiring the wealth became known; with it he intended to buy the bishopric of Rome, which even then was regarded as the seat of the Church. His superior at Constantinople suspected that Bishop Peter must intend to turn heretic, for the bishopric of Rome had turned to the beliefs of the Athanasians.

These suspicions were confirmed by agents sent to Athens, and orders were sent to Bishop Peter’s fellow priests to kill him. He was given a draught of poison which did not cause immediate death; he lived, ironically enough, to receive emissaries from Rome who offered him the coveted bishopric just before he died.

Critical Evaluation:

Viktor Rydberg has been translated into English more than any other Swedish novelist of the nineteenth century. In addition to this historical novel dealing with the early history of Christianity, he wrote several nonfictional volumes about the Church Fathers and the history of Christianity. The obvious doctrine of this novel is a strong plea for freedom of religious conscience and worship. While it is a glorification of the Greek ideals of reason, wisdom, truth, and harmony, it is not an anti-Christian novel directed against the principles and ideals of Christianity. It is really a thesis against bigotry, cruelty, and intolerance, as personified in the early leaders of the Church in Athens.

THE LAST ATHENIAN presents an awesome analysis of a crumbling civilization heading precipitously into the Dark Ages; detailed descriptions of fourth century dress, customs, political conflicts, and beliefs fill out the narrative. There is much discussion of the changing philosophical attitudes and of the demise of the ancient gods, and the problem of the seeker after truth in an age of absolute belief is one of the central concerns of the novel.

Just as the great architecture of the Golden Age was dismantled to construct new Christian churches, so the great philosophies of the past were sacrificed to current prejudices. Many old customs were discontinued simply because they were associated with the old “heathen” ways; even the ancient custom of bathing fell into disrepute. Only a man of the sternest integrity could dare to stand against the blind will of the majority.

Deeply rooted in scholarship, THE LAST ATHENIAN is a well-written and often moving novel of people who search for truth according to their own hearts and minds, even when it is dangerous for them to do so. The moral choices of the individual form the real conflict in the book, aside from melodramatic turnings of the plot. As the narrator explains, all of life in the fourth century was colored by theology, from the emperor’s down to the slaves’. The full social spectrum is included in the novel, with lives and beliefs carefully presented.

Hermione is an unusual and exceptional heroine, intelligent as well as beautiful, a young woman brought up by her philosopher father to be true to her convictions. She comes to learn that there are more subtle evils than hypocrisy and deliberate cruelty; great crimes can be committed with complete sincerity when people believe they are doing God’s will. From the self-torture of a religious fanatic such as Simon of the Pillar, it is but a little distance to the torture of others. Hermione’s suicide is the final, futile act of an individual battling against social forces larger than she can comprehend.

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