The Donation of Constantine
Lambourn Books £11.95
Available from Amazon
IT IS 751, and Rome is under threat of attack from the Lombard
King Aistulf, who has already brutally sacked Ravenna. In the
Lateran Palace, pious Pope Stephen's more worldly counsellors try
to persuade him to fight back, or appeal to the Emperor in
Constantinople for help.
In the firm belief that they are acting for good, Stephen's much
more street-wise brother Paul and a bright English nun forge a
decree from the fourth-century emperor Constantine giving the Pope
temporal and spiritual power over the Christian world. Emboldened
by his new authority, Stephen undertakes a perilous journey across
the mountains to France, and crowns Pepin king, asking for his help
in saving Rome.
At the same time, across the river in Rome's poor quarter, a
devout Muslim boy, Omar, falls in love with his Christian neighbour
Lenora. The forged decree will affect both their lives, as it will
those of people who do not know of its existence.
This is a ripping yarn, and LeVay's skill in moving between
apparently unrelated stories that finally interweave keeps the
reader turning the pages. He is good at capturing atmo-sphere,
whether it's a freezing winter journey or the claustrophobic world
of the papal court. It is also a highly intelligent novel that
requires a great deal of background knowledge to understand it
properly. LeVay gives us this through the dialogue, without being
patronising or stilted.
He has done a huge amount of research into what Rome was
actually like at the time, and is fascinated by complex processes,
whether political or technical. I didn't know that Rome's grain was
ground by ship mills on the Tiber. I do now, and exactly how they
Underpinning the book, of course, is the old question whether
the end justifies the means, which is one he leaves unanswered.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.