Historian and Scholar Brings Authenticity to Roman-Era Fiction
A renowned historian and theologian with over sixteen years of teaching experience at Moody Bible Institute, Bryan Litfin has penned several nonfiction works on church history and is a frequent contributor to radio and other media outlets. Having successfully pivoted to the world of fiction, Litfin is an established novelist and lends his expertise to a breathtaking new series set in the glorious yet volatile heyday of fourth-century Ancient Rome. Taking readers on an epic journey through the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine, Bryan Litfin’s The Conqueror engages real events in an unparalleled story full of bravery, fortitude, and sacrifice.
It’s AD 312 and as Rome stands at the brink of war, Brandulf Rex and Junia Flavia find themselves on two very different battlefronts. Rex, a Germanic pagan on the Rhine frontier, must valiantly fight his way through the ranks to enlist as a spy and special forces operative in the Roman army in service to Constantine. Meanwhile in Rome, Flavia, the pious daughter of a Christian senator, finds herself up against emperor Maxentius and fighting for the life of the church in the political arena. In over her head, Flavia lands in mortal danger, and she and Rex must work together to uncover a deadly plot that threatens the empire.
As Rex and Flavia risk their very lives to unseat the evil Maxentius and forge a tenuous future for Rome, they’ll discover that bravery takes many forms. Will the barbarian warrior and the senator’s daughter live to see the empire bow the knee to Christ? Litfin skillfully weaves a vivid and cinematic page-turner that promises to transport readers onto the frontlines of the tumultuous rise of imperial Christianity—perhaps one of the most pivotal eras in all of history.
Can you provide a brief description of your new book, The Conqueror?
The plot takes place in the Roman Empire during the ancient church period, though not in New Testament times. Almost three hundred years after Christ and the apostles, the Emperor Constantine is a frontier general contemplating conversion to Christianity. But his great enemy Maxentius is entrenched in Rome, and battle looms. Constantine sends the hero of this novel ahead of him to spy on Rome. Rex is a young, powerful Germanic warrior who has joined the Roman army as a special forces operative. But upon arriving in Rome, he meets someone intriguing: a beautiful Christian girl named Flavia, a senator’s daughter. Together they work to bring down the wicked and decadent Maxentius, facing dangers and trials side by side. It all comes to a climax at the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. The winner will determine the future of the empire. Will Constantine conquer by the sign of the cross and emerge victorious? Or will the ancient gods of Maxentius continue to hold the people in bondage to pagan religion?
This story takes place in the realm of ancient Christianity. How did your expertise in this area help you write the book? What kind of research was required?
I am deeply acquainted with the literature, archaeology, and outlook of the people of the ancient church. Most novelists have to look up things about their historical period and include them in the story. But it didn’t quite happen like that for me. This material has been my scholarly field of expertise for twenty-five years. I’ve been reading, writing, and making presentations on this stuff for a long time. I have a doctorate in it. I have also traveled extensively to Italy and throughout the Mediterranean and former imperial lands. So, when I wrote The Conqueror, I didn’t just pull from book knowledge but from a deep reservoir of familiarity with the ancient church. I think that injects a lot of realism into the story. These are not evangelical Christians wearing togas and sporting green leaves in their hair. They think and act like the ancient Christians actually did. Some of that might be surprising to modern Christians.
The Conqueror deals with Constantine, the first Christian emperor. How is Constantine a symbol of the complicated relationship between church and state?
Under Constantine, the ancient church transitioned from an age of persecution to an age of imperial patronage. Instead of being killed by the emperors, Christians suddenly found themselves being favored and having resources and influence. That can be viewed as both good and bad. Not too long after Constantine—and culminating a process that he began—the empire adopted Christianity as its official state religion and tore down the temples of the idols. Because this was the first instance of a “state church,” and because that scenario continued for many centuries afterward, Constantine has become a symbol of the union of church and state. That brought a lot of benefits to Christianity, such as theological expansion and numerical growth, not to mention the end of martyrdom. But did this more comfortable situation water down the vigor and commitment of the earliest church?
How are some of the issues Rex and Flavia deal with similar to those Christians face today?
The novel’s title is ambiguous. Who is The Conqueror? Constantine? Rex the kick-butt warrior? Or is it Christ himself? And what does he conquer? The Roman Empire? Or your own stubborn heart? One of the themes here is that the Lord demands submission to his will, even when it’s very hard.
Whether through fiction, Christian living, self-help, marriage, family, or youth books, each Revell publication reflects relevance, integrity, and excellence. For more information, visit www.RevellBooks.com. can be described as one long, slow trudge toward martyrdom. Is that gloomy? Well, the Scriptures tell us to crucify the flesh, die to self, fill up in our own bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Our Savior suffered and so will we. We might not have to die for the Lord like the persecuted church, but he might ask some very hard things of us. Is Jesus really your Lord, not just in the good times when obedience is fairly undemanding but also when he asks for your all—that one thing you don’t think you can give up? That’s when the Lordship of Christ truly means something. Rex and Flavia both wrestle with those themes.
Beyond this, they deal with issues related to friendship and attraction between a believer and unbeliever. (Rex is unconverted and worships the gods.) There are also issues of when you should obey your parents and when you must plant your flag of independence, as well as spiritual doubts about whether God will deliver you when it really counts. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the novel, Rex serves as a speculator (a spy) in the Roman army and witnesses some gruesome things. How does faith complicate his duty as a soldier?
One issue the ancient church was wrestling with was what constitutes a “just war.” Can a Christian soldier fight in the army and kill people? Can he defend the borders against invasion? Who will stop bad men from doing violence if good men don’t oppose them with violence? Or should we always “turn the other cheek” no matter what, letting the bad guys wreak havoc? So, there is a debate between just war theory versus Christian pacifism. The ancient church was divided on this subject.
The complicating issue with Rex is that he is an unbeliever who doesn’t just witness gruesome things but actually does them—in battle and even in more ambiguous settings where it’s maybe close to murder. Yet he is being drawn to the peace and love of the gospel. He worships Thor and Hercules. Can peaceful Jesus really be the God for him? And if so, could the Christian God really forgive his bloody acts? And could Flavia love him if she knew about his violent past? It’s a major spiritual trajectory for Rex.
The Conqueror is book one in a new series. Without giving away spoilers, how do all the books in the series tie together?
I believe that by the time the third one is done, you aren’t going to have a series but a saga. The historical moment when Rex and Flavia lived was so pivotal. My plot engages this duo with all the turning points of church history at that time. (It’s about an eighteen-year span, actually.) There’s a plot about the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and finding the actual bones of St. Peter. There’s intrigue and danger down in the catacombs underground. There’s the council of Nicaea and the Arian heresy. There’s the discovery of the True Cross and the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. There’s epic travel from Italy to Greece to Egypt to the Germanic frontier to Constantinople. There are ginormous battles in the civil war that was happening at that time that ushered Constantine into power. There’s the development of the canon of Scripture. There’s the defeat of Gnosticism. There’s the doctrine of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed. All the important church fathers of that era are in the story, like Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius and Ossius of Cordoba and the popes. And behind it all is the spiritual journey of Constantine, and the Roman Empire along with him, in which Rome turns from a place that persecutes Christians and makes martyrs to one that favors the church and launches it on a totally new trajectory. Rex and Flavia are right there in the midst of it all. So, of course you also see their individual evolutions from late teenagers until they’re in their mid-thirties—and all the personal struggles, joys, and travails they face together.
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
Since I am a professor, I shouldn’t admit this, but my number one reader takeaway isn’t learning about the ancient church. It’s for the reader to have an exciting time, to be colossally entertained. I think of these books as having a lot in common with adventure stories like the Indiana Jones movies. Good guys, bad guys, huge stakes, epic backdrops. The hero and heroine running hand in hand as they elude the villains and take them down. If the reader doesn’t experience that thrill, I’ve failed.
But along the way, the reader might have fun learning about how things really were in the ancient church. And I hope they will be moved by the themes, and in a small way, that my books will help them know God better, to trust Him more deeply.
And I hope that many years from now, they’ll still remember Rex and Flavia because their story stands out as such a great tale.
What are you working on next?
Book 2 is already written and ready to be edited for release in October 2021. That one is, I think, the most “swashbuckling” of the three. Lots of chasing and adventures and travel. Now I am working on Book 3. That’s the one with the Council of Nicaea plotline and the mother of Constantine (Helena) founding the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is still in Jerusalem’s Old City today. (Or at least, the Crusader version of it is there.) I’m going to grapple with some big-time theological issues that were worked out then and we still hold today. It’s going to be a great finish to the saga!
How can readers connect with you?
Email me! I’ll respond. firstname.lastname@example.org is my personal email address. And my web page.
Bryan Litfin is the author of the Chiveis Trilogy, as well as several works of nonfiction, including Early Christian Martyr Stories, After Acts, and Getting to Know the Church Fathers. A former professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute, Litfin earned his PhD in religious studies from the University of Virginia and his ThM in historical theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently an acquisitions editor for Moody Publishers. He and his wife have two adult children and live in Wheaton, Illinois. Learn more at www.bryanlitfin.com.