4 out of 4 stars
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In The Centurion, Joe Mack High tells the story of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events. Thanks to his grandfather's service in Pompey's navy and his father's university studies in Greek philosophy, Cornelius grows up in a prosperous, educated, landowning family. Deciding to enlist in the Roman legion and become a centurion, Cornelius joins a unit in Germany. There he meets Pontius Pilate, who invites him to join the garrison in Palestine, where Pilate has been appointed prefect of Judea.
In Judea, Cornelius learns about the complex relationships between the various layers of Roman administration, the Jewish temple priests, and the local communities. And he learns that there is a problem. It seems that people are being encouraged to reject the leadership of the temple priests by an activist named Jesus. As the number of "Followers of the Way" increases, the emperor worries about the potential for rebellion against not only the temple but also the authority of Rome. Torn between law and politics, Pontius Pilate struggles to handle the situation. History is clear about what happens to Jesus. But what happens to Cornelius? What choices does he make? And how do those decisions affect his life?
Character development is one of the strongest attributes of this exciting and imaginative novel. The personalities and values of each major character can be seen in what they do and what they say. Cornelius, for example, shows throughout the book that he is willing and able to accept people and situations for what they are and make the best of them. He supports fellow centurions in battle and pitches in to help with the work whenever he is traveling. And he is equally happy to discuss Stoic philosophy with his university professor or with Jesus, Judas, Saul, and others. Pontius Pilate is quite the opposite. He is the perfect administrator, straightforward and detail-oriented. But the complexities of Judean politics and the intrigues of Rome are too much for him.
Historical detail adds even more veracity to this story. Animus (grandfather of Cornelius) supplies a detailed description of how catapults were first used to attack other ships during his time with Pompey's navy. Cyrus (son of Animus and father of Cornelius) explains how to evaluate the quality of wheat shipped from Egypt, a skill he gained as the steward for a successful merchant. And the reader learns about Roman weaponry and combat strategies from Cornelius himself as he takes part in a critical battle at the River Weser.
The style and tone of the author's writing are unique. He combines first-person narration with a light touch of formality, a method that gives the impression of a personal diary, perhaps a scroll retrieved by archaeologists and then translated from another language. Such an approach is both intimate and convincing.
The Centurion deserves 4 out of 4 stars for its creative retelling of key events in antiquity, sympathetic and realistic characters, exciting battle scenes, and superb writing. There is much to appreciate here and nothing at all to dislike. Because the book includes historical figures such as Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and Judas, some might consider it to be a religious novel. But it is more about philosophy and human nature than religion. Almost anyone, Christian or not, is sure to enjoy The Centurion. It has adventure, suspense, ancient history, and, yes, an interesting and creative take on the crucifixion and the beginnings of the Christian religion.
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