Emperor Diocletian (r.284-305 A.D.) is a brilliant leader whose innovative reforms reinvigorate the Roman Empire, but when his power starts to slip he lashes out with a ferocious persecution of the Christians. During the latter years of his reign, thousands of men, women and children are brutally murdered because they refuse to worship him as a god. Diocletian’s wife (Prisca) and daughter (Valeria) convert to Christianity after studying the faith with a Coptic monk in Egypt. Valeria’s fiancé, the commander of the Emperor’s elite Theban Legion, is martyred before their wedding, and Valeria is forced to marry the man responsible for his death (General Galerius). Although Valeria struggles to understand how God could allow such horrific events, by His grace she eventually learns to love her husband.
The lack of period details leaves the reader’s imagination adrift: When Valeria goes “downstairs for dinner” it is easier to picture her in an English country home than in a Roman palace. There are also some major anachronistic flaws (Valeria learns French!). The book’s strength lies in its gentle depiction of the political tensions that play themselves out as a struggle-to-the-death between the old and the new religions of the Roman Empire.