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Review: The Beacon at Alexandria

Review: The Beacon at Alexandria

3 Mins
January 26, 2012

December 1997 -- The Beacon at Alexandria tells the story of Charis of Ephesus, a young woman living in the late Roman Empire who determines to make a life for herself as a physician, and finds herself struggling not merely to do so at a time when no women are physicians, but to do so at a time when rational thought and peaceful intercourse are under attack from all sides.

In order to study medicine, Charis disguises herself as a eunuch named "Chariton" and travels to Alexandria. This contentious Greek/Egyptian/Jewish city, formerly home to the great library of Alexandria, is still the center of scientific learning in the Roman world, and site of the famous lighthouse (the "beacon" of the title). Bradshaw convincingly depicts the desperation and courage that Charis' daring act requires, and she does not trivialize its practical and psychological difficulties.

The fourth century is in many ways one of the most tragic periods in history. The Roman Empire, which had brought peace and law to the Mediterranean world, had become a weakened, unstable tyranny, riven by civil wars, religious controversy, and continual threats to its frontiers. The rational tradition of classical Greek civilization had yielded to mysticism and Christian dogmatism; law, to tribalism and anarchy.

But nothing is inevitable in history, and Alexandria in the 370s still seems to have room for every kind of person, even a despicable "eunuch" with the temerity to study medicine. Hoping she may eventually be able to live openly as a female physician, "Chariton" develops a reputation as a bright student and a skilled practitioner. But Alexandria is in ferment, as the adherents of the Nicene Archbishop (and later Saint) Athanasius persecute heretics and are themselves persecuted by the Arian East Roman Emperor. Unexpectedly, "Chariton" finds herself doctor to Athanasius and caught up in the political maneuverings of power-hungry clerics and charming Imperial spies. To escape the dangerous political situation, she accepts a posting that puts her in the path of the great barbarian invasions threatening the empire. But even in a world falling apart, she manages to practice her profession with integrity and find people who still respect science, individual merit, and the ideals of classical civilization.

This novel is notable not only as an exciting tale that celebrates individualism, courage, and professional competence, but also for the numerous convincing details with which Bradshaw enlivens each unfolding scene. The manners of late Roman society, its architecture and fashion, the methods of classical medical education, and many other details are all communicated in a spare, precise style of writing that gives the story unusual immediacy. The characters are sharply and sympathetically drawn.

Bradshaw is the author of several other excellent novels set in late antiquity, including The Bearkeeper's Daughter (which centers on the Byzantine Empress Theodora's rumored bastard son) and a trilogy comprising Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, and In Winter's Shadow, a poignant historical interpretation of the Arthurian story. [Editor's note: Beacon at Alexandria was published in 1986 by Houghton Mifflin.]

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