The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio

4.3 20
by Iain Pears

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Three narratives, set in the fifth, fourteenth, and twentieth centuries, all revolving around an ancient text and each with a love story at its centre, are the elements of this brilliantly ingenious novel, a follow-up to the international bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Now Ian Pears returns with a greatly anticipated novel, so expertly


Three narratives, set in the fifth, fourteenth, and twentieth centuries, all revolving around an ancient text and each with a love story at its centre, are the elements of this brilliantly ingenious novel, a follow-up to the international bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Now Ian Pears returns with a greatly anticipated novel, so expertly imagined and perfectly constructed the author himself describes it as "a complexity."

The centuries are the 5th (the final days of the Roman Empire); the 14th (the years of the Plague — the Black Death); and the 20th (World War II). The setting for each is the same — Provence — and each has at its heart a love story. The narratives intertwine seamlessly, and what joins them thematically is an ancient text — "The Dream of Scipio" — a work of neo-Platonism that poses timeless philosophical questions. What is the obligation of the individual in a society under siege? What is the role of learning when civilization itself is threatened, whether by acts of man or nature? Does virtue lie more in engagement or in neutrality? "Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless," warns one of Pears's characters.

The Dream of Scipio is a bona fide novel of ideas, a dazzling feat of storytelling, fiction for our times.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Confirming Ian Pears's prodigious talent, The Dream of Scipio is a stunning meditation on history and moral philosophy that rises to the standard established in his highly acclaimed 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, the massive, intricate historical mystery that evoked comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

In The Dream of Scipio, Pears sends his keen imagination through history, braiding together three narratives across three embattled centuries, each of which reflects the cyclical struggle to preserve "civilized" values in the face of impending catastrophe. The earliest narrative thread takes place in the Provençal region of fifth-century Gaul, when the Roman Empire is crumbling and barbarian hordes are pounding at the gates. In the face of the escalating threat, philosopher/aristocrat Manlius Hippomanes devises a scheme to preserve the essence of the Golden Age of Rome. He also composes a document called "The Dream of Scipio," which sets forth in detail his own flawed moral philosophy, a philosophy that resonates throughout the novel.

The second thread is set at the height of the plague years in 14th-century Provence, where Olivier de Noyen -- a poet and fanatical collector of ancient manuscripts (one of which is Manlius's "Dream of Scipio") -- finds himself caught between the internecine rivalries of the Papacy and his obsessive love for an outcast woman. The final thread takes place in Nazi-occupied Provence, where scholar and historian Julien Barneuve becomes immersed in the intertwined histories of Manlius and de Noyen as he conducts a doomed love affair with a Jewish artist. When he reluctantly serves as a censor and minor administrator for the Vichy government, Barneuve comes face-to-face with the human cost of moral corruption and compromised ideals.

The Dream of Scipio is a beautifully constructed, rigorously intelligent novel that brings both the remote and recent past into sharp, precisely detailed focus. Pears brilliantly evokes the politics, passions, and prejudices of three disparate eras and poses difficult questions about personal responsibility and the choices a man must make when his world and way of life come under siege. (Bill Sheehan)

Portland Oregonian
[An] ambitious, heartfelt and thought-provoking book, one that should find a home in the heart of every thinking reader.
People Magazing
Bottom Line: Eye-opening Dream.
Wall Street Journal
The Dream of Scipio is complex,surprising and thought-provoking,a dream of a novel in more senses than one.
USA Today
His fans will rejoice in The Dream of Scipio.
Newark Star-Ledger
...Iain Pears has constructed a splendid novel ...
Susan Tekulve
Set in Provence, France, during the fifth, fourteenth and twentieth centuries, this vast and minutely detailed novel weaves together the stories of three men who witness the fall of their respective civilizations. Manlius Hippomanes is a pagan nobleman who becomes a bishop in order to save Gaul from barbarian invaders as the Roman Empire crumbles around him; Olivier de Noyen, a medieval poet living during the years of the Black Death, sacrifices his livelihood and personal safety to save a Jewish servant girl; and Julien Barneuve, a classicist, becomes a reluctant mouthpiece for the collaborationist Vichy government during World War II. These three narratives are united by the themes outlined in an ancient philosophical text called The Dream of Scipio, which was written by Manlius, discovered and transcribed by Olivier and studied by Julien. At times, Pears' weighty themes take precedence over plot and character development, and the narrative lacks dramatic tension. At these moments, this formidably intelligent novel resembles a ponderous treatise more than a fluid and convincing work of fiction.
Publishers Weekly
Critic Harold Bloom once opined that literature is a series of misprisions, or misreadings, by writers of their predecessors. Although Pears might not have had Bloom in mind in his latest novel, the premise is an unlikely embodiment of Bloom's thesis. The story unfolds in three time frames, in each of which a man and a woman are in love, civilization itself is crumbling and Jews become the scapegoats for larger cultural anxieties. In the first scenario, Manlius is a wealthy Roman living in Provence in the empire's crepuscular 5th century. Although he has received the last echo of Hellenic wisdom, he is surrounded by believers in a nasty sect he despises Christianity but must find some means to protect Provence from the barbarians. In fighting for "civilization," he becomes a bishop and the promoter, almost accidentally, of one of the West's first pogroms. In the next narrative time period, a manuscript of Manlius's poem, "The Dream of Scipio," a neo-Platonic allegory, is discovered by Olivier de Noyen, a Proven al poet of the 14th century. As his 20th-century interpreter, Julien Barneuve, discovers in investigating his violent death, de Noyen was attacked because he got caught up in a political intrigue in Avignon while trying to save his love, Rebecca, from a pogrom unleashed by the Black Death. Barneuve, Pears's third protagonist, has a Jewish lover, too, but is enmeshed in the racist policies of Vichy France. Pears has a nice sense of what it means to live in a time when things fall apart, and not only the center but even the peripheries will not hold. But the readers who flocked to An Instance of the Fingerpost might not find the pages turning so fast in this less mystery-driven outing. Rights sold in Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, and the U.K. (June 10) Forecast: Though it won't be such an easy sell as his mysteries, Pears's latest (with a first printing of 75,000 and $150,000 ad/promo) should attract critical attention for its complex treatment of provocative historical and moral themes. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Pears writes historical fiction with such density and depth that the reader becomes immersed not in one distant time period but in three. Like twisted strands of golden thread forming the braid of an epaulette, he conveys stories of the end of the Roman Empire, the time of the Black Plague, and the years of World War II. As different as these times are, he shows their parallels and their similarities as periods in history, like our own, in which things seem to be going out of control. The book calls for careful reading as it is told in short chapters that mix the time periods almost randomly. Characters from the past are known in the present and influence the thinking and the events of each of the periods until they all become the story of living in difficult times. Pears' writing of the past makes the reader reflect on the present as well and demands careful consideration or some previous knowledge of the times he recounts in order to understand the interaction of politics, religion, love and human relationships. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Penguin Putnam, 398p. map.,
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
In the 400s, as the Roman Empire settles into dust, landowner-turned-bishop Manlius attempts to record the ideas of his teacher, the Neo-Platonist Sophia. In the 1300s, this treatise ("The Dream of Scipio") is discovered by poet Olivier de Noyen, whose efforts to understand it lead him to a learned Jew and a secret love that forces upon him a momentous moral decision while the plague ravages the countryside. In the 1930s, Julien Barneuve encounters de Noyen and his references to the wondrous treatise, even as the Holocaust looms and Barneuve struggles desperately to protect the woman he loves a painter and a Jew. The writing here is not as felicitous as in Pears's magisterial An Instance of the Fingerpost, but the plotting is a marvel; the text moves smoothly among the three eras, drawing parallels that rarely seem forced. In the end, Pears asks good, cutting questions about the idea of civilization, showing that those who claim to preserve it are often its worst enemies. Most libraries will want this. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The truism that "The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all" is given memorable expression in this brilliantly constructed historical novel from the British author of the runaway success An Instance of the Fingerpost. The title denotes a treatise on Neoplatonism composed by Manlius, a fifth-century (b.c.) nobleman and intellectual living in what would become known as Provence, who made it his mission to oppose "civilized values" to the threat of "barbarism"-through his scholarship, and also by securing a bishopric, then raising armies to protect Rome from invasion. The complex failure of Manlius's own "dream" is juxtaposed against two parallel stories, which are literally linked to the history of his manuscript and whose protagonists suffer the corruption of their own ideals in hauntingly similar fashion. The 14th-century poet Olivier de Noyen, a collector of manuscripts for the flamboyant Avignon papacy, heroically resists the machinations employed by Pope Clement VI to turn popular hatred of Jews into an explanation for the Black Plague as divine punishment-and pays a horrific price for his commitment to moral action. And in the years of WWII, as "Free France" succumbs to German invasion, historian Julien Barneuve (whose studies have led him to Manlius's text, preserved through de Noyen's efforts) reluctantly becomes "a censor and a propagandist" for a government that seizes on anti-Semitism to ensure its own survival-and is consumed in a personal holocaust. Each of the three men is ennobled, and victimized, by his love for a woman chosen to be sacrificed for a "greater good." And each endures a separation illustrating the Platonic concept that virtue is wholeness, evilthe violent sundering of an ideal unity of harmonized parts. This imposingly intricate novel begins slowly, makes heavy demands on the reader, and rises to a stunningly dramatic crescendo. Pears has leapt to a new level, creating a novel of ideas even more suspenseful and revelatory than his justly acclaimed mysteries.
From the Publisher
"A thrilling journey through history, into the human heart and soul."—Washington Post

"Braiding together parallel plots of romance and political intrigue set in Provence during three dark eras, The Dream of Scipio is a murder mystery on the grandest scale...[Pears] invests his complex story with piquancy, irony, and humor. Their is much to ponder here, from Neoplatonic philosophy to anti-Semitism to public duty...Eye-opening."—People

"A multilayered tale of moral choice, love, danger and loss."—The New York Times Book Review

"An adventure and achievement to match An Instance of the Fingerpost."—San Francisco Chronicle

"A dazzling triptych of love and ideas...Pears leaves us with a dream, not only of destruction, but of immense and unexpected heroism."—Boston Globe

"[An] ambitious, heartfelt, and thought-provoking book, one that should find a home in the heart of every thinking reader."—Portland Oregonian

"This is a dream that will stay with the reader for a long, long time."—Montreal Gazette

"A novel for our time about all time. Wildly entertaining."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Complex, surprising and thought-provoking, a dream of a novel in more senses than one."—Wall Street Journal

Product Details

Vintage/Ebury (a Division of Random
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

The Dream of Scipio

By Iain Pears

Riverhead Books

Copyright © 2002 Iain Pears.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 157322202X


JULIEN BARNEUVE died at 3:28 on the afternoon of August 18, 1943. It had taken him twenty-three minutes exactly to die, the time between the fire starting and his last breath being sucked into his scorched lungs. He had not known his life was going to end that day, although he suspected it might happen. It was a brutal fire, which took hold swiftly and spread rapidly. From the moment it started Julien knew it would never be brought under control, that he would be consumed along with everything around. He didn't struggle, didn't try to escape; it could not be done. The fire ravaged the house—his mother's old house, where he had always felt most at ease, and where he always thought he had done his best work. He couldn't blame those nearby; any sort of rescue would have been foolhardy. Besides, he wanted no assistance and was content with the privacy they had granted him. Eight minutes between the fire starting and his collapsing into unconsciousness from the smoke. Another three minutes before the fire reached him and began to make his clothes smoke and skin bubble. Twenty-three minutes in all until his heart gave out, his breath stopped. Another hour until the fire finally burned itself out and the last charred rafters crashed to the floor over his body. But to Barneuve, as his thoughts broke into pieces and he stopped trying to hold them together, it seemed to have taken very much longer than that.

IN SOME WAYS, his fate was sealed the moment Olivier de Noyen first cast eyes on the woman he was to immortalize in his poems by the church of Saint Agricole a few hundred meters from the Pope's new palace in Avignon. Olivier was twenty-six, having been fated to live and die in what was possibly the darkest century in European history, an age men called cursed, and which drove many all but insane with despair at God's vengeance for their sins. Olivier, it was said, was one such.

Isabelle de Fréjus had just turned sixteen and had been a wife for seven months, but was not yet pregnant, a fact that was already causing old women to gossip knowingly, and to make her husband angry. For her own part she was not displeased, as she was in no great rush to embark on the great gamble that left so many women dead or permanently afflicted. She had seen in her mother the terrible damage caused by her own birth, so swiftly followed by another and another, and was afraid. She did her duty by her husband, and prayed every night (after she had taken such precautionary measures as she knew) that her husband's assaults would prove fruitless for a while longer. Every second day she went to church to beg forgiveness for her unruly, rebellious wishes, and at the same time to place herself at the disposition of the Virgin in the hope that Her mercy and forbearance would endure a while longer.

The effort involved in this celestial balancing act required such concentration that she left the church in a haze of thought, her brow furrowed and showing off a little wrinkle just above her nose. Her veil was ever so slightly disarranged, as she had pushed it back a little when she knelt down to pray. Her maid, Marie, would ordinarily have reminded her of this small lapse, but knew her mistress well, and knew too what was going through her mind. It had been Marie, in fact, who had taught her those little tricks that were helping to make Isabelle's husband so increasingly concerned.

A small wrinkle and a veil askew were perhaps enough to inspire a painter, but not in themselves sufficient to have such a devastating effect on a man's soul, so some other explanation must be sought. For Olivier, standing nearby, felt as though some immensely powerful beast had torn at his breast, sucking the very life from him. He gasped in shock, but fortunately no one heard him. So intense was the sentiment, that he had to sit down on the steps and remain there, staring long after the receding form had disappeared from view. And when he stood up, his legs shaking, his brow damp with sweat even though it was still morning and not yet hot, he knew that his life had changed forever. He did no work for days. Thus began a tale of the doomed love between a poet and a young girl that was to lead to such a calamitous and cruel ending.

PERHAPS IT was her youthful beauty? Julien Barneuve thought so, at least when he first read the account of this fateful encounter, elaborated through the years and finally set down with all the romance that hindsight can offer around 1480, nearly a century and a half later. The pedigree of the anecdote was always suspect, seeming too close to Petrarch's encounter with his Laura to be comfortable. But it had tradition behind it, as well as one of Olivier's finest verses, the tenline poem that begins (in the wholly inadequate 1865 translation of Frédéric Mistral), "My eyes have stabbed my soul . . ." And the essence was surely true, for Olivier's dreadful fate a few years later when he fell into the hands of Isabelle's husband could not be contradicted. If he had not loved her, why would he have killed her and been attacked himself in such a way?

For Olivier was tainted with madness, it seemed; the story recounted how the girl had wished to go with her husband to flee the plague and the poet begged her to stay in Avignon, that they might die in each other's arms. And when she refused, he killed her, unable to let her go. The deed revealed his secret, and he was set upon by the Comte de Fréjus's hirelings in revenge, beaten, and his tongue and hands cut off. Olivier was, quite literally, silenced, his voice forever quieted. He could no longer talk, write, or even make signs so that others could understand him well. More still, the outraged and humiliated husband had destroyed all but a few of his poems. No one could now tell whether his poetry, for which he was beginning to become known, was indeed the first flowering of a literary Renaissance, the model beside which Petrarch ranked a lowly second, or merely appeared so to those few who had read his work during his life. Only a dozen or so remained, not enough to captivate a man like Barneuve until he came across some documents in the Vatican library on a cold day in February 1926 while going through the papers of Cardinal Annibaldus di Ceccani, a collector of manuscripts and the poet's first—and only—patron.

It was the first section of a twenty-page manuscript in Olivier's hand that kept Julien awake at night in excitement, when he finally made the connection and understood its importance. 'According to Manlius.' A brief sentence that meant nothing to most people, but all the world to him. In a moment of jest he said it was worth selling his soul for.

THE WRITINGS that Olivier passed down were begun by Manlius Hippomanes over a series of months at his villa a dozen leagues outside Vaison, some sixty kilometers to the northeast of Avignon. "Writings" is the wrong word, perhaps, for like many men in his position, Manlius rarely wrote himself, although he could do so quite easily if he chose. He dictated, rather, and his words were taken down by an amanuensis, his adopted son, whose life was made unreasonably difficult because of the speed at which his master spoke. Syagrius—an amiable young man of some twenty-three years who worked hard to make the best of his good fortune—had to scribble to keep up, then work long into the night to decipher his markings when preparing the fine copy. And no mistakes were tolerated; his master had a good memory and the highest opinion possible of his own prose, and could be punitive if so much as a word was changed. Besides, Syagrius desired nothing so much as to please, and attract a word or two of praise. What he dictated, what so excited Barneuve, was a digest of philosophy, cut down and reduced to its essentials for dissemination among his circle and perhaps, should opinion be favorable, beyond that. Few now had any familiarity with such matters and must drink their wine watered to make it palatable. After it had been read, and if it was found suitable, he might pay a copyist for up to a hundred versions—perhaps fifty would now be more than sufficient—which he would send throughout Gaul, to his friends.

Manlius was a host that evening; as he worked, the sun set so gently, leaving a rosy hue in the sky, and the first hints of cooling air began to blow through the open courtyard that was used as a dining room in summer. A few of the party outside began composing verses to amuse themselves and show off their learning. It used to be a regular occurrence amongst them; for Manlius had always surrounded himself with the cultivated, the men of learning whom he understood and who understood him. He had done so all his life; it was his duty and often his pleasure, especially when he could patronize the worthy, or give entertainment to friends of equal rank.

Courtesy required that he play the part of the charming host at dinner as he had done countless times in his past, and he did his duty, even though he had little taste for it that evening. He conformed, as always, to the wisdom of Varro, that the number of guests should be more than the Graces and less than the Muses; he took trouble to ensure they were neither too eloquent, nor yet too silent; discreetly directed the conversation so that, although not trivial, it was not too ponderous, with readings to match. And he accomplished with ease that most delicate task of being free from meanness in his provision of food, without trying to impress his guests with its expense.

Despite his efforts, though, it was not a happy occasion, as it was becoming increasingly hard to assemble even a small group of likeminded spirits. Half the guests were clients, dependent on his favor and keen to eat the dishes of larks and partridges, carp and trout he had ordered, but too ill at ease in such illustrious surroundings to make easy conversation. His adopted son, Syagrius, watching carefully, fearful of making a mistake or saying the wrong thing, ate clumsily, blushing with embarrassment, and said nothing. There were two true friends, Lucontius and Felix, who tried to make things easier, but instead ended up dominating the conversation, interrupting when others tried to speak, being unnecessarily contemptuous of the clients and overly familiar with Manlius himself. And then there was Caius Valerius, a cousin of Felix's whom Manlius tolerated only because of his friend; he was a coarse man who wrapped himself in piety like a suffocating blanket, which only partly concealed his ill humor and vulgarity. The three friends set the tone, swapping verse and epigram in the manner of the golden age, bathing themselves in the meters and resonances of the great authors they had revered since they had been schoolboys. It was Lucontius who introduced the lapse in taste—rare for him—that made the evening so much less than agreeable.

Yet now the breath of the Academy blow the winds of the church of Christ. Elegant, witty, refined. Felix smiled briefly and even Manlius barely managed to suppress a nod of approval.

But Caius Valerius turned dark with anger. "I consider there are some things at least which should be above jest."

"Was I jesting?" responded Lucontius in mock surprise, for he realized that Caius was slowwitted enough to be unable to distinguish between respect and mockery. "Surely I speak only the truth? Surely we see the Revelations of Our Lord solely through Greek eyes? Even Saint Paul was a Platonist."

"I do not know what you mean," Caius replied. "The truth is told to me in the Bible. I need no Greek words to tell me what I see there." Should Manlius intervene, explain how there are many ways of understanding even a simple passage? Teach him how such mysteries as the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit were given shape in our minds through the teaching of the Academies? Caius was one of those who gloried in his ignorance, called his lack of letters purity, scorned any subtlety of thought or expression. A man for his time, indeed. Once, and not so long ago, he would have fallen silent in embarrassment at his lack of knowledge; now it was the knowledgeable who had to mind their tongues.

"And you must remember, dear Lucontius," Manlius interrupted, "that there are many who consider that Plato had access to the wisdom of Moses, that he merely translated Our Lord's wisdom into Greek, not the other way around." He looked anxiously, and saw that Lucontius, dear sensitive soul, took the warning, flashing a brief apology with his eyes. The moment of difficulty was over; the dinner continued, harmlessly and without point.

Except that Manlius was discomfited. He took care in his invitations, actively sought to exclude from his circle crude and vulgar men like Caius Valerius. But they were all around; it was Manlius who lived in a dream world, and his bubble of civility was becoming smaller and smaller. Caius Valerius, powerful member of a powerful family, had never even heard of Plato. A hundred, even fifty years before, such an absurdity would have been inconceivable. Now it was surprising if such a man did know anything of philosophy, and even if it was explained, he would not wish to understand. Manlius thought greatly of such matters after most of the guests had gone to their beds, escorted by servants with torches. He stared out of the great doors at the landscape beyond, once a park of perfection, now disfigured by the rough cottages of farmers whose dwellings were coming ever closer, huddling nearer his huge villa for protection like piglets around a sow. He could have razed them, but feared their inhabitants might take themselves off, go and find a new lord to protect them—one who would not honor the law if he demanded them back. Then he looked the other way, to the bathhouse now abandoned and turned into a barracks for the soldiers permanently needed to protect the estate.

All they wanted was to live in security, and all the harm they did was to spoil his view. A man like Caius Valerius was very much more dangerous. "None of us truly chooses our family, I'm afraid." It was Felix who had walked up quietly behind him. "People like my dear cousin have always existed; even Vergil, I believe, had a brother-in-law who despised his poetry."

Manlius put his arm around him, and they walked slowly in the fading light. Of all the creatures in the world, Felix was the one he truly loved, whose company made him relax and forget his cares. For years now, decades even, he had relied on this short, powerful man, whose mind was as quick as his frame was bulky. A deceptive man, for he looked as he was—a soldier, used to the hardships of fighting and the simplicities of armies. Yet at the same time, he was supple in argument, quick in understanding, and the most honorable, loyal friend Manlius had ever encountered. Nor did he ever condemn; while Manlius frequently heard himself making waspish comments about others, Felix never judged, always sought to see the good even in those who had so little virtue in them.

"I know," Manlius replied. "And I tolerate him for your sake. But, truly it is a hard job."

"Rude, vulgar, and scarcely lettered. I know. But a great donor to the church and someone who has dispatched men from his own estates to help defend Clermont from the Goths. As have I."

"But I haven't, even though Sidonius is one of my oldest friends? Is that how you wish to end your sentence?" Manlius added. It had been preying on his mind greatly in the past few months. The city of Clermont, far to the west, was under siege from King Euric, blocking his desire to grab a stranglehold on the whole of Provence. If it fell, they would all soon follow, and it could not last long without reinforcements; indeed it might already have fallen had it not been for Sidonius, who had put himself at the head of the defenses and was refusing to accept the inevitable.

For inevitable it was, in Manlius's view. For years now, the barbarians had been moving into Gaul; sometimes they were encouraged, sometimes resisted. Sometimes they were treated as enemies, sometimes as allies against a still worse danger. But every time they took a little bit more, and every time the power of Rome to stop them proved a mirage. Not many years ago, an army of thirty thousand had been sent against Euric's father: none had come back. His own father had conceived the great strategy of the emperor Majorian to beat back the threat; but was undermined and killed by his enemies among the Roman aristocracy of Gaul even fore any army could move. Now here was Sidonius, brave, foppish, foolish Sidonius, who had decided to take a stand where emperors had failed. He had always had a weakness for lost causes, for grand, heroic but empty gestures.

"I had another letter from him begging our help," Felix continued. "He says that a few thousand troops now could make all the difference."

"He said that six months ago as well. It made no difference at all. Has something now changed?"

Felix shrugged his shoulders wearily. "We must try, surely? The whole of the civilized world is at stake."

Manlius smiled. "We are the civilized world, you and I," he said. "A few dozen people, with our learning. As long as we continue to stroll through my garden arm in arm, civilization will continue. Euric or no Euric. And I fear that you may provoke worse anger than you imagine." Felix shook his head. "You would not have spoken so cravenly a few years ago."

"A few years ago everything was different. When I was young we could travel without fear along well-maintained roads, through well-administered cities, and stay at the villas of friends stocked with labor. There was an emperor who wielded real power rather than being a plaything of warlords. Those days are as distant now as the age of Augustus."

"It is peaceful enough here."

"All illusion, my friend. We have been attacked by marauders at this villa three times in the last six weeks. It nearly fell to looters on the last occasion. Two of my other villas have been destroyed and now produce nothing. This tranquil scene you see here this evening depends on six hundred troops hidden in the background. They consume near a third of everything we produce and could turn on us one day. There are fewer people to tend the fields, fewer still to buy our diminishing surplus. In a way, we are under siege here as well, and slowly losing the battle, just as friend Sidonius is losing his. You must know all this from your own experience."

"I do, of course." Felix paused, and they walked some more before sitting at the edge of the pond. "And I am grateful to you for inviting me, as ever. I, too, grow lonely for company, even though I am surrounded by people."

Manlius leaned over and kissed his friend on the cheek. "It is good to see you once more. But however restorative, that is not the sole reason I invited you, of all people. I need to tell you something. Something important." It was the moment when he had to test a friendship that had endured for nearly twenty years without argument, without dispute, with perfect amity. Manlius was aware that he was trespassing on something sacred. Felix turned toward him, drew his arm away. "Such gravity and seriousness! Whatever can it be? You are publishing your letters at last?"

"This is not for laughing. I have been thinking as you have for some time. That we must try. That all we value may indeed be destroyed but it should not be given up so easily. I have received a letter from Bishop Faustus of Riez."

"Good heavens! You are going to pray! You are going to start going to church! Truly, this man is a saint and a miracle worker. All that I hear about him must be true."

Manlius grunted, and for a while they talked about the pond they were sitting beside, clogged now with weeds. They swapped aphorisms about water, played with quotations from Pliny about his garden, inverting grammatical constructions so that the neatness and order of the original became the clogged and unkempt reality of the present. Then, as old friends do, they said nothing, but looked at the lilies still growing and the insects hopping across them in the evening light.

"Faustus wrote to ask me to become Bishop of Vaison," Manlius said eventually.

Felix knew immediately the importance of what he said, but still tried to cover it over with a joke. "Not Bishop of Rome? How about emperor, too? You'd look handsome in the purple. Truly, the man doesn't know you very well, or he wouldn't have wasted his ink." Manlius threw some dust into the water and watched as the perch swam toward it in the hope of food.

"I have decided to accept," he said quietly.

Excerpted from The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears. Copyright © 2002 by Iain Pears. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A thrilling journey through history, into the human heart and soul."—Washington Post

"Braiding together parallel plots of romance and political intrigue set in Provence during three dark eras, The Dream of Scipio is a murder mystery on the grandest scale...[Pears] invests his complex story with piquancy, irony, and humor. Their is much to ponder here, from Neoplatonic philosophy to anti-Semitism to public duty...Eye-opening."—People

"A multilayered tale of moral choice, love, danger and loss."—The New York Times Book Review

"An adventure and achievement to match An Instance of the Fingerpost."—San Francisco Chronicle

"A dazzling triptych of love and ideas...Pears leaves us with a dream, not only of destruction, but of immense and unexpected heroism."—Boston Globe

"[An] ambitious, heartfelt, and thought-provoking book, one that should find a home in the heart of every thinking reader."—Portland Oregonian

"This is a dream that will stay with the reader for a long, long time."—Montreal Gazette

"A novel for our time about all time. Wildly entertaining."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Complex, surprising and thought-provoking, a dream of a novel in more senses than one."—Wall Street Journal

Meet the Author

Iain Pears was born in 1955. Educated at Wadham College, Oxford, he has worked as a journalist, an art historian, and a television consultant in England, France, Italy, and the United States. He is the author of seven highly praised detective novels, a book of art history, and countless articles on artistic, financial, and historical subjects, as well as the international bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost. He lives in Oxford, England.

Brief Biography

Oxford, England
Date of Birth:
Ph.D., Oxford University

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Dream of Scipio 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of this author until I saw this book in the New Titles section of my local library. The title grabbed my attention, as I thought it might have been a historical novel. I was partly correct; it is much more than a historical novel. It is a work of literature, and one of the best new novels that I have read recently. Iain Pears write with such clarity, but at the same time he writes lucidly, and with much charm, that made me keep the book in my hand, figuratively. I did have to go to work, go to school, and eat, and sleep, and things like that. I haven't read his other books, but I just might tackle An Instance of the Fingerpost. It remains to be seen. In Scipio, I love how he interwove the characters and settings into a fictional, yet highly believable tapestry. And the women they loved; I almost loved them myself. Anyway, not to get too crazy here. It was just a good book, and I recommend it to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Terrific second outing into 'serious' historical fiction for Pears. The Neoplatonic philosopy of the 5th Century fading Roman Empire is carried forward through the 14th Century to WW2. Centred in a small Provencal village, the story revolves around three similar characters from three different time periods with similar apprehensions about impending doom. A great read for anyone who like me loves a good historical yarn with a message for our time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Daunting, at first, to consider reading about fourth century scholars and a twentieth century classicist and how their lives parallel. I was seriously afraid it would be an unbelievable bore. In fact, it is a warm-blooded, human story full of intrigue, history, and a love of words. Nothing is forced, and the author makes the parallel time lines work. This is one of the very few books I've read that manages to surprise and make you gasp right up until the final paragraph!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great novel; the ideas, characters and images in it are extroadenary and often very complex. Sadly, it was a required reading assignment, so I was not able to fully enjoy it. I reccomend this book to any readers and/or philosophers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful narrative and imagery; but this is not light reading for the beach. It flows in and out of the centuries frequently so it can be difficult keeping characters straight. The pay off is worth it. All charcters are flawed, but Mr. Pears also is able to humanize the antagonists so the conflicts are more poignant.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the book that introduced me to Iain Pears writings and made him one of my favorite modern authors. While not as epic as An Instance of the Fingerpost, Scipio is an excellently crafted work of prose, demonstrating Pears' gift for storytelling and historical fiction. Particularly, I love Pears' talent for turning the reader's perception of characters and manipulating one's biases -- used to perfection in Scipio -- such that we come to loathe the characters we most want to love and admire the characters we were determined to hate. The parallels across three times of uncertainty and crisis mirror modern times without being overtly allegorical. His mastery of the historical content allows the story to flow naturally. This book is an excellent first introduction to Pears' writing -- a book to read and reread.
Yeatsian More than 1 year ago
Not a simple book, but one that touches on the deepest problems of human civilization: institutional decay, individual ambition, love and faith. It demands careful reading and attention, and rewards the reader with genuine insights into both the mores and moralities of times different than -- and disturbingly similar to -- our own. A deeply moving book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
spread over 1500 years, Pears tale of decline in civilization is breathtaking in it's scope. Three 'heroes' trying to make sure the flame of reason is not extinguished, and three 'heroines' who help guide their actions. Manlius, a wealthy Roman landowner who sees his world will soon be over-ridden by Barbarian hoardes, Olivier, a poet, a reader and a thinker who see's his world crumbling with the onset of the plague, and Julien who's life is plunged into darkness by the German occupation of WW II. All lived out in the same area of Southern France. Six lives fundamentaly the same on the brink of chaos that threatens to engulf the world with darkness and extinguish what man clings to as civilization. A book to be re read...
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Dream has become one of my favorite books because of the ethical dilemma it raises. For example, your character is not defined by what one thinks, but rather one's actions. Dr. Pears leaves you guessing what stance he chooses until you read the chapter about the philosopher. In the end, the author offers a solution to Julien's plight. In a world where many things are occurring daily, I appreciated how the author made me think how my own action or inaction affects those around me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While not within a country mile of "An Instance of the Fingerpost," the book is a thoughtful, if not compelling read. Pears' balancing of three lives of men who live in different eras but who have similar problems and desires is interesting, once you get into it. But his vague references to philosophy can be irritating and even boring at times. Least well-developed is the story about Manlius. The most thought-provoking element of the book, in my view, is the ethical issue of collaboration with the Vichy government. Weighing Marcel's rationalizations about keeping order and maintaining a government in Provence against the life-and-death decisions he -- and Julien -- sometimes have to make in the name of maintaining that order makes one think about how you would act in the same circumstances.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She breaks into a run. Sweat trickling down her face. In hopes to shun. It feels like a race. This man is no good. Not even if he could. Run. Run away. Head for freedom.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
If you have the patience for unbearable amounts of philosophy, and the willingness to struggle through the unclear character jumps, then the story is better than most put onto pages.