I Am John, I Am Paul by Mark Tedesco follows the lives of two real-life Roman soldiers in the fourth century, Ioannes (John) Fulvius Marcus Romanus and Paulus. John and Paul form a strong bond of friendship during their days fighting on the German frontier, a bond that is never broken even when John is sent away to Alexandria by a sadistic centurion.
John spends years in Alexandria longing for home and corresponding with his family and Paul in Rome. While in Alexandria, John is initiated into the Mithraic religion, but his faith in Mithras doesn’t seem to give him the peace he thought it would.
Political upheavals enable John to return to Rome, his family, and Paul. John and Paul resume their duties in the Legion, and even volunteer to rescue a close family member of Emperor Constantine, who was kidnapped by a rival Roman general. The mission succeeds, and the Emperor is so grateful that he gives them both farm lands and a house in Rome, ensuring they and their families will never again know poverty.
While in Rome, John and Paul discover the ‘Way,’ the nascent Christian movement that threatens the old Roman gods. In the Way, John discovers the faith he always hoped would fill his heart, which strengthens both men when they suffer the inevitable persecution.
I’m a huge ancient Rome geek, so there were many things I liked about this book.
For one, it was well researched. The author knew his history and provided illuminating details of the lives of average ancient Romans. Tedesco had a clear understanding of Roman religions, including Roman pagan rituals, Mithraism, and the practices of the ‘christus followers’. The book was beautifully written in a first-person narrative told primarily by John, with dialogue that had an ancient, almost biblical feel.
Now I offer the following as an observation and not a criticism, as it is more a warning about the book’s style.
I felt like I was reading John’s personal journal. And like the journals of real-life people, you won’t find the standard fiction novel plot twists and character conflicts. For the most part, things just happened to John—he doesn’t really do much (besides plan and execute the rescue mission, which was the best part of the book for me). Most of the conflict is internal, with John searching for spiritual meaning in Alexandria and Rome. Tension between characters was minimal.
In other words, read this book for the thoughtful writing about a man searching for his spiritual home, or to experience the lives of everyday Romans during the fourth century. But skip it if you’re seeking a page-turning adventure story set on an ancient Roman battlefield.
I Am John, I Am Paul is available on Amazon.
Cross-posted on New Podler Review of Books.