As a pastor, I am often immersed in books, workshops, and conversations about the critical role the Roman Empire played in shaping the formation of the early Christian community. If I were teaching a course on that topic, I would certainly recommend, if not require, students read Faith L. Justice’s book, Dawn Empress. Justice gives readers insights into the ruling class in a way that is clear, intriguing, and fascinating. Even though most of the characters’ names are strange, she does a great job of helping readers keep the many characters straight.
The portrayal of a young woman stepping into incredible responsibilities at a very young age immediately made me want to cheer for Princess Pulcheria. Justice makes Pulcheria’s sacrifices seem logical and believable, if a bit extreme and hard to imagine from our twenty-first-century perspective. Pulcheria’s story gives us a glimpse into the many and complex ways the political and religious worlds were intertwined in that time and place.
I found Justice’s descriptions of religious thinking and traditions quite accurate and helpful in understanding the motives of the people involved. Depictions of the plotting, jockeying for position, jealousy, and conniving among political rivals matches what I’ve learned about that chapter of history from other sources. The author has clearly done her research.
Pulchria’s beautiful, poignant description of her younger brother (aka the new Emperor) on his wedding night was both tender and touching. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better bedroom scene. Justice also brilliantly describes the unusual love triangle between Pulcheria with her deep affection and protective concern for her brother and her brother’s new bride. Pulcheria is accustomed to leading and not eager to let the new bride assume the role of first lady of the Roman Empire.
Kudos to Justice for a well-written novel about a complex topic. For anyone who enjoys history or a story about family loyalty among siblings, orphaned early in life, Dawn Empress is an engaging addition to the “books to read” list.