Part two of the Rise of Emperors series is the necessary bridge between the fascinating beginning and the climax between Constantine and his friend-turned-enemy Maxentius. Like book one, each chapter is told in succession by first one, then the other. Maxentius, who started out weak and was forced to take control of Rome despite himself, has grown into his position—even to the point that he is able to oust his treacherous father who attempts to wrest the empire back from him. Constantine, who is pretty much the rogue of the west, is forced to fight on the fringes, slowly gaining the loyalty of barbarian tribes. Both Maxentius and Constantine are at odds with the eastern empire, but they cannot join forces because they know that their positions are mutually exclusive. One or the other must capitulate. Both face serious—and different—problems, leaving them weakened and miserable. I find myself liking both of them and would have a hard time knowing who to “root” for, except we all know who will win in the end. It’s just a matter of finding out how. It seems that Constantine has the advantage that his followers practically worship him and see him as divinely inspired. Even after his lowest point, emotionally, he emerges from a shrine to a heavenly welcome:
But then, just as I made to step out from the portico and into the sunlight to cross the glade towards them, I was almost blinded when a shaft of white light—like that cast by a blade in a noonday desert battle—flashed across my face. Blinking, I realized it was the sun’s rays, reflected from the thin film of wine I had poured into the font.
I took one more step forward, but when I caught sight of my soldiers not just looking at me but staring, I halted. Their mouths had fallen agape, and they were owl-eyed as they beheld me in some sort of awe, pointing. It was as if I had sprouted wings!
Those who had not yet noticed me emerging from the shrine were soon alerted by their comrades and within a trice, each of them too regarded me as a man might look upon a strongbox of jewels. Batius’ lips moved as he mouthed some instinctive prayer and stared at me. Krocus dropped the rag of bread he had been eating.
Maxentius could only have wished to be seen in the same light! Although he was the stronger of the two, his reputation diminished in direct proportion to his funds—mostly frittered away by his own mismanagement. Regardless, it’s becoming obvious that his big confrontation with Constantine is looming. Things got off to a slow start in this volume, but the action picked up halfway through and hurtled to the end. There was a lot of background to absorb, but my patience was well rewarded. It’s inevitable that our two protagonists are on a collision course and the stage is set for book three and a rousing conclusion.