[Book Review] The Flames of Rome (Paul L. Maier)

The Flames of Rome invites you into to the Roman Palatine of the first century, sometime in the middle of the Acts of the Apostles. Maier gives a close view of what it might have looked like to be a witness to all the dirty deeds done by those in power at the time—the acts scandalized ancient Romans just as much they will scandalize you as you read about them. Maier connects how the politics of Rome affected the early Christian church: how Christians went from reluctantly tolerated to hunted down and murdered in the most imaginative ways.

image708This book takes real history and dramatizes it to connect the different events together in cohesive manner. This is important because history is often scattered across many different texts—and those texts are not always reliable in some areas—so putting together a cohesive picture can be difficult. It is especially useful to have a day-to-day perspective; many times we get caught up in the geopolitics of Rome and forget the individuals other than the emperors.

A Different Kind of Novel

What makes this book different is that every scene, character, event, and sometimes even specific phrases are well-documented history. There’s a Notes section at the end cataloging the most outrageous or controversial points, with Maier intentionally leaving out regular stuff because of space restraints. Even with the restricted amount of notes, there are a lot of them. There were many times I would read a chapter and think to myself, “There is no way we have solid evidence for that!” I would flip to the back of the book and check what Maier noted for that chapter. Almost every time, there was specific citations in a historical source backing up exactly what happened in the novel. Since Maier only included the controversial or items where the historical record is silent, many entries would say something to the effect, “We don’t have direct evidence of this, but comparing sources X, Y, and Z, this has been the most probable explanation scholars have reached. Read scholar A for a more thorough treatment.”

Maier does a good job of showing how the internal structure of the highest offices in Rome might have worked during the tail-end of Claudius’ reign and all throughout Nero’s rule. Mostly this just means showing how crazy they both were, but Maier also shows how the emperor’s staff would get things done by swaying the emperor. If you think today’s political climate is crazy, wait until you read about the murderous mothers, sex scandals, and multiple assassination attempts and you might think we are pretty fortunate, all things considered.

New Connections

This book connected a lot of dots of history for me. It also changed the way I view several of the characters and books of the New Testament.

When we talk about Paul being in prison in Rome, I previously envisioned a dark and musty dungeon. Maier completely changed my mental model for Paul’s time in Rome. Paul would have been able to do quite a lot with few obstacles to evangelize. After reading this book, I will imagine a pleasant house arrest with lots of freedom to do as he wished.

We often today whitewash or dismissively talk about persecution, especially with Christianity enjoying such a privileged position today (even as it has lost some of that in recent decades). You will not be able to dismiss persecution so easily after reading this book: it is the stuff of nightmares. I found it difficult to read through the few chapters of the intense persecution. We recoil today at the beheadings in the Middle East (as we should), but that truly is getting off easy compared to some of the torture conducted by the Romans. After reading this book, you will have a new appreciation of Jesus’ words, “take up your cross and follow me.”

A Documentary Novel

As a novel, I found it to be good, but not great. As others have noted in other reviews, The Flames of Rome is not a masterpiece. Several characters and scenes fell flat and the first half of the book felt scattered. I recommend it because it connects Roman politics, highlights somewhat obscure historical people in a new light, and provides a well-evidenced historical story.

I will caution anyone who read this to not rely on it as a historical authority. It is fantastic for what it aims to be: a documentary novel. It is not a textbook. It is great for context and a perspective you don’t usually get from traditional history books.

If you like Roman history, you will probably like this. If you are Christian, you will probably quite like this book once the backstory is laid and the Christians come into play (…well, you may not like some aspects, but you’ll appreciate it, at least). I look forward to reading more from Maier.

The Flames of Rome by Paul L. Maier (1981) Amazon

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[Book Review] Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge (Steve Patterson)

Patterson doggedly stays on one issue throughout this short book: At the bottom of everything, there are inescapable truths that are discoverable and you can be certain of them. While it could have easily been a confusing mess to read, he works many relatable examples throughout to explain what he means.

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It is a short book: if it were longer, Patterson would have simply repeated himself as the topic is narrow and quite obvious. Patterson points out that restating the self-evident and obvious is necessary when we start denying the undeniable. The entire book deals with such basic ideas that it is hard to believe we need this book. Here’s the entire book summed up:

  1. Things are what they are and aren’t what they are not.
  2. This is implied by simply existing; thus, logic is inescapable.
  3. Contradictions cannot exist.
  4. Truth exists.

Square One is largely a compilation of Patterson’s blog and podcast with edits to make it flow. I found the book useful because it brings together all of these topics in a cohesive mannerthe blog covers many other subjects.

It is also noteworthy the book is under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, meaning anyone can freely use the material as long as they give credit. I like it. More people should do this and escape the endless copyright. I’m considering applying it to all of my work.

Patterson does an excellent job of what he claims to do at the outset:

The reader can rest assured: this book is not a work of academic philosophy. It’s not incomprehensible or irrelevant. It doesn’t try to sound profound by hiding behind opaque language. It is meant to be read and understood. (page i)

Short, concise, and without unnecessarily complicated languagewho can possibly find fault with this? Many topics in philosophy require sophisticated language, but this is not one of them, although it could be obfuscated easily.

I found the discussion about existence implying the Law of Identity (A = A) and Law of Noncontradiction (A != not A) to be enlightening. I had not thought about how if something exists then “it is surely what it is and not what it is not”. Of course, it is obvious once we say it out loud, but such is the nature of self-evident truths.

As a Christian, it was surprising to me to see Patterson claims the Law of Identity and Law of Noncontradiction cannot be created by God. “If a God exists, then he exists, and therefore he too is bound by the laws of logic.” This goes against the usual conception that God created everything.

Patterson wisely doesn’t go any farther than stating this. There are a few ways to understand this while keeping to the orthodox tradition. It most definitely does not mean we get to say, “Aha! We have found something God did not create! Therefore, he is not Almighty and the Bible is not true!”

Patterson notes logic and existence are inseparable (page 41). Each implies the other and each is not a property of the other. You cannot have logic without existence (because then logic doesn’t exist) and “existence without logic would be existence without existencei.e. non-existent.”

Understanding that God is a necessary being means logic necessarily exists. One could say since God is necessary and the uncaused cause, he brought logic into existence, even if saying he “created” logic would be somewhat inaccurate. The usual verbiage is that logic is an outflowing of God’s nature. This is still accurate as God exists and existence cannot be separated from logic. (See also Is God Subject to Logic?)

Patterson goes into many more implications of the certainty of the existence of logic and truth. I’ll leave you to pick up the book or read his blog to see what else he draws out.

Overall, I found the book to be edifying and enjoyable. One might wonder if $10 is a bit steep for a book that says Things are most certainly the way they are, but such is the nature of The Foundations of Knowledge.

Truth is discoverable.
It’s not popular to say.
It’s not popular to think.
But you can be certain of it.

 – Steve Patterson

Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge by Steve Patterson (2016) Amazon