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Description

Product Description

In national bestseller  The Dream of Scipio, acclaimed author Iain Pears intertwines three intellectual mysteries, three love stories, and three of the darkest moments in human history. United by a classical text called "The Dream of Scipio," three men struggle to find refuge for their hearts and minds from the madness that surrounds them in the final days of the Roman Empire, in the grim years of the Black Death, and in the direst hours of World War II. An ALA Booklist Editors'' Choice.

Iain Pears''s An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Portrait are also available from Riverhead Books.

Review

"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

About 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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.

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Top reviews from the United States

A. Painter
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
I read anything and everthing by Iain Pears!
Reviewed in the United States on August 31, 2015
Beautifully written. Incredible storyline. Unfortunately, I purchased the kindle version. I say unfortunately because whoever does the transfer from printed text to electronic is really clueless. I''m raising this issue because this book is very complex. You have 3... See more
Beautifully written. Incredible storyline. Unfortunately, I purchased the kindle version. I say unfortunately because whoever does the transfer from printed text to electronic is really clueless. I''m raising this issue because this book is very complex. You have 3 similar stories from 3 different time periods being told simultaneously. In the print version these storylines are set apart from each other by clearly marked paragraphs (demarcations). In the kindle version, the stories are just run together without the paragraph breaks, forcing the reader to have to go back and figure out when and where the time period changed. Very frustrating because it disrupts the flow of the story. The correlation between the 3 stories is heart of the book. Consequently, I recommend you read the print version so you are able to navigate from one time period to the next seamlessly.

Iain Pears'' writing style is visual and fluid. If you love words, art and history, you will love any and all of his books.
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Rusty Dalferes
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Three historical periods of turmoil
Reviewed in the United States on July 7, 2020
This was an interesting examination of 3 pivotal periods of history, and a good read, if a somewhat unsatisfying resolution to all the plots. I give it a recommendation -- as I would for most of Pears''s works -- for fans of historical fiction. The novel follows... See more
This was an interesting examination of 3 pivotal periods of history, and a good read, if a somewhat unsatisfying resolution to all the plots. I give it a recommendation -- as I would for most of Pears''s works -- for fans of historical fiction.

The novel follows three main characters separated by hundreds of years, all of whom center their activities in and around what is now Provence and share at least their interpretations of the same philosophy. Manlius is a Roman Gaul in the waning days of the rapidly-Christianizing western empire of the fourth century, a landowner and scholar, who enjoys hosting his friends and discussing erudite matters, but whose region faces invasion by armies of Burgundians and Goths. Olivier de Noyen is a poet and minor church functionary, secretary and messenger for a powerful cardinal during the plague-ridden time of the Avignon papacy in the fourteenth century. Julien is a historical and literary scholar during Vichy-era World War II and the German/Italian occupation. Manlius, a pagan and a scholar, befriends Sophia of Alexandria, an enigmatic philosopher teaching the virtue of philosophical understanding and the immortality of the soul; Manlius becomes her student and conversation partner, producing his own manuscript based on her teachings called The Dream of Scipio after the Platonic allegory, while also being drawn into becoming Bishop in a church in which he does not believe, and a political actor attempting to save his region from the depredations of invasion. Olivier is a bookish sort who collects rare ancient manuscripts for his cardinal, and runs across a copy of Manlius''s Dream, while being drawn into the rivalry between his cardinal, who is in favor of returning the Church to Rome, and another powerful cardinal intent on keeping the Pope in France. Julien is researching Olivier''s poetry when he discovers a reference to the lost Dream by Manlius, and spends years trying to figure out what really happened to Manlius and Olivier while being pulled between the competing ambitions of friends in the Vichy collaborationist government and the Resistance.

The plots were all solid and full of historical research into the daily lives and beliefs of each of the three periods, although the thread of The Dream running through each of the three time periods was at times a bit strained and hard to see. There was not really a single mystery that connected all three periods, but rather there were conflicts in each period that occurred while the characters somehow contemplated Sophia''s (and by extension, Manlius''s and Olivier''s) philosophy. Overall, though, while the later timelines discussed the events of the earlier timelines, apart from the area of the world and some not-totally-explained philosophical underpinnings, there wasn''t really a consistent thread that ran through all three of them. Not even at the end was there some deathbed tying together of the stories; each story seemed to end on its own without major significance for the other stories. Those caveats aside, the stories were each compelling in their own rights, with sub-plots and love stories and friendly rivalries appearing in each, and it was an enjoyable read.

Again, Pears and I are in grammarian opposite corners on some things (especially comma usage), but once I had identified these areas of conflict and chosen to ignore them, I found Pears to be a talented literary writer with a real facility for describing multiple historical eras in period-appropriate and evocative ways.

I recommend this book to fans of literary historical fiction. It''s not really enough of a mystery novel to recommend it on that basis, and there''s not enough action to call it war story, but as historical literature, it''s a good example.
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MJ
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
An Historical Fiction Lover''s Dream
Reviewed in the United States on November 15, 2014
Although a worthwhile undertaking, this book feels more like tackling a case study than reading great literature, or perhaps tackling three case studies woven into one morality play. But therein lies the strength of this remarkable piece of historical fiction - the skill... See more
Although a worthwhile undertaking, this book feels more like tackling a case study than reading great literature, or perhaps tackling three case studies woven into one morality play. But therein lies the strength of this remarkable piece of historical fiction - the skill with which Iain Pears is able to tie into a nice, neat knot the tales of three protagonists, each struggling with powerful forces of good and evil. The choice of historic periods is superb: each presents the protagonist with a deep moral dilemma in a time of social and moral decline.

Manlius, the wealthy and highly-educated Roman aristocrat, disguises his Pagan tendencies and turns to the power of the Church as a last resort to save Roman civilization and civility. He ultimately casts his lot with one group of Northern invaders whom he believes will be more likely to assimilate to what remains of Roman civilization. But his stratagem is morally deficient, as it can only executed at the expense of sacrificing Jews.

Julien is a naive academic in the theater of World War II occupied France, whose obsession with art and philosophy, coupled with his obliviousness to the drama playing out around him, lead him to rationalize that the Vichy government and German occupiers can be morally reformed. Is there really any way to remain neutral in the face of deplorable choices? Julien bungles it by naïvely believing that Julia, a Jew, will be released from Nazi custody if he hands over an underground member of the French Resistance. At least timing provides Julien the opportunity to correct course and save Bernard, the individual whose life he nearly sacrificed. In that respect, Julien''s final decision, which cost him nothing less than his own life, is one of redemption: he chooses action over knowledge as the real path of virtue.

Oliver, the young cleric, seems at first oblivious to political intrigue, or at least able to deftly circumvent it. The moral dilemma with which he is faced plays out in the context of the struggles of the Papacy smack in the middle of the Great Plague of 1348. He throws what little weight he has against the feuding political powers of the Church in an attempt to save Jews. But salvation of Jews, in his case, is personally motivated by his desire to save the woman he loves, be she Jew or otherwise. One must ask how the actions of all three compare given the dilemmas each faces and the personal motivations each possesses.

I must admit that I had some difficulty reading this book, as I found the writing a bit dry and academic. But it is nonetheless a beautifully constructed narrative. Pears does a magnificent job weaving together stories from three distinct periods with a common needle - the manuscript of the Dream of Scipio.
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Martin Zook
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Soulful Story
Reviewed in the United States on April 22, 2010
Reading Cicero''s The Dream of Scipio (versions are on-line for the Google proficient) helped this half-blind reader better understand Pear''s intent in his own recounting of The Dream of Scipio. The translation of Ciscero''s DoS recounts a recognition that humans have been... See more
Reading Cicero''s The Dream of Scipio (versions are on-line for the Google proficient) helped this half-blind reader better understand Pear''s intent in his own recounting of The Dream of Scipio. The translation of Ciscero''s DoS recounts a recognition that humans have been "given souls made out of the undying fire which make up stars and constellations." Each is "animated by the divine mind, each moving with marvelous speed, each in its own orbit and cycle. It is destined that you and other righteous men suffer your souls to be imprisoned with your bodies."

This description provides a clear framework for Pears'' story. Each of the three pairs are embodied souls traveling through historical upheavals (the collapse of the Roman Empire, the plague and it''s social influence, and the eruption of Nazi Germany). Pears'' dream takes the story a step further however by creating a masculine-feminine dynamic. In the first story, between Manilius and Sophia (the Gnostic keeper of the ocean of life was named Sophia, and Pears'' Sophia is tied to Hypatia and her circumstances reflect the historical character), the teacher and keeper of wisdom Sophia repudiates her student Manlius (Man-li-ness) for corrupting her teachings, resulting in the slaughter of the Jews and others, rather than chose the honorable course and leave behind the vestige of something noble as Manlius''s father did (p.388-9). Manlius is blind.

In the middle story, Rachel (a Biblical name conjuring compassion, caring more for the other than one''s self) and Olivier (Olive=peace) achieve a degree of unity of masculine and feminine that Manlius and Sophia did not. (I loved the scene where Manlius goes to Sophia to profess his love, and she takes him to her midden and asks if he loves her manure, too, pointing out that if he loves her, he loves that aspect of her also.)

By the final incarnation of these three characters, Julien sees both preceding stories in the context of one another, and sees how his own story and that of his love Julia (note the similarity, masculine and feminine of the same name) fit into the two stories that preceded them. At the end, Julien sees in Julia''s paintings a triple portrait of the three couples (p.382). In reviewing Julia''s restoration work in the shrine to Sophia, "He went into the chapel and looked at the pictures she had studied, and saw them through her eyes...She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution." (p.384) Julien''s soul is shortly released when he immolates himself. It seems to me that in Julien/Julia, we have a true unity of the masculine and feminine souls.

I''ve read and reread this book already, and feel another reread coming on.
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Robert E. Olsen
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Civilization and an Author''s Discontents
Reviewed in the United States on November 7, 2009
Even without an albino monk, Iain Pears'' "The Dream of Scipio" is a thinking person''s "The Da Vinci Code." Alhough it takes 20 or 30 pages, or more, for the reader to make sense of the author''s shifts of scene and point of view -- from the last days of the Roman Empire in... See more
Even without an albino monk, Iain Pears'' "The Dream of Scipio" is a thinking person''s "The Da Vinci Code." Alhough it takes 20 or 30 pages, or more, for the reader to make sense of the author''s shifts of scene and point of view -- from the last days of the Roman Empire in Gallic France; to the century of the Avignon popes and the Black Death in Provencal; to the German occupation of Vichy France -- it is worth the effort. This novel is a meditation on civilization, defined here as social ties and the transmission of proper cultural values, which is to say it is a history of ideas and a theory of polity set in fiction. Through its characters and the dilemmas they face, it follows rationalism from the teachings of Plato and Hypatia into the theology and mythology of early Christianity, from pre-modern Judaic teachings into a resistence and accommodation to the Church in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and from the classical tradition of scholarship in modern times into an effort to understand the past and influence the present. In each era understanding and reason may be sophisticated persons'' processes of choice, but misunderstanding reigns. Good intentions -- including the intention to do good -- consistently pave the road to Hell. Powerful institutions and rulers co-opt facile ideas to preserve and enhance their own power. And civilization consistently burns.

This is my first novel by Iain Pears. It is not surprising that he began life as an author of detective novels. Like detective novels, "The Dream of Scipio" is heavily plotted, and there are twists aplenty. Unfortunately, as in detective novels, the savvy characters are nevertheless somewhat two-dimensional, and they often explain themselves and their actions through straightforward dialogue instead of storyline development. Still, the historical trappings are excellent, the crises faced by civilization in each era were real and substantial, and the issues Pears raises will resonate with anyone who enjoys the life of the mind.

Each of the main characters inquires as to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Pears asks the reader to consider not only what they consider but also whether their inquiry ultimately matters.
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Geoff White
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Three civil crises in two millenia
Reviewed in the United States on May 17, 2014
Three crises: the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century, the Black Death in the fourteenth, and the eruption of German Nazism in the twentieth, are seen as all presenting a similar question. Can men of good will, culture, and refinement join the barbarians in... See more
Three crises: the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century, the Black Death in the fourteenth, and the eruption of German Nazism in the twentieth, are seen as all presenting a similar question. Can men of good will, culture, and refinement join the barbarians in the hopes of civilizing them, or should they resist to last, however futilely? The various answers to this question are the essence of this book. The historical work is serious and respectable, the characters well developed so that the dilemma becomes real to the reader and Pears'' technical skills are high. So why not five stars? Because Pears does not apply the same inquiring and critical analysis to the cultivated and learned values he defends, but rather assumes their ultimate validity. He may well be right, but does he not owe us a cultivated and rational defense of the values he assumes we share?
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Jake Mohlman
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Complex and beautiful
Reviewed in the United States on October 2, 2002
In "An Instance of the Fingerpost" Iain Pears proved himself to be an author of tremendous originality and skill, taking what might have been a relatively mundane murder mystery and turning it into a literary study of perception. In "The Dream of Scipio" he has gone one... See more
In "An Instance of the Fingerpost" Iain Pears proved himself to be an author of tremendous originality and skill, taking what might have been a relatively mundane murder mystery and turning it into a literary study of perception. In "The Dream of Scipio" he has gone one step further and written a novel that spreads perspective over 1500 years, and whose primary plot point is an idea. Obviously, this is not the conventional way to write a novel, and in the hands of someone less skilled it would be a disaster. However, Pears able hands have produced a work bursting at the seams with ideas.
It would be difficult to offer a plot summary in the traditional sense, but I am going to attempt to summarize the themes and settings of the book. I would like to apologize in advance if I seem vague, but it would be difficult to discuss the plot in any detail without ruining the book. As I alluded to earlier, just as "An Instance of the Fingerpost" considered a central plot point from four perspectives, so to does "The Dream of Scipio" from three. The difference is that the first examined something vary tactile (a murder) from four contemporary viewpoints, but in this instance the characters are considering a manuscript (or more accurately, a philosophy) and are separated by 1500 years. What links these otherwise temporally diverse men are the times and place in which they live and the women they love. Each is living during the shattering of civilization: Manlius during the winter of the Roman Empire, Olivier during the plague, and Julien during World War II. Moreover, they all live in France, in Provence, and almost the entirety of the novel takes place in the vicinity of Avignon. As such, there are historical echoes that resonate down through the ages.
Perhaps the most startling of these echoes are the women they love. Each is an outcast in her own way, and all of them have their fates wrapped up with those of the Jews, who were horribly persecuted in each time period. Pears hints at reincarnation for these three couples, but that might be too obvious a turn of phrase. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are linked by their knowledge of those who came before, and are striving to overcome the failures of the past and preserve civilization for another day. It would seem that Pears sees civilization as a spiral ascending upwards. At certain points on the spiral we will revisit the errors of the past, and even as mankind''s advancement has provided the tools for increasing horror exponentially, it has also given us the lessons to try to prevent it. We won''t always succeed, and frequently the solution will actually set civilization back more than the problem, but the attempt can be (although isn''t always) valuable in and off itself.
That''s "A Dream of Scipio" in a nutshell. It is obviously not a "conventional" novel, and if your looking for something light and easy, this is one you''ll want to skip. However, if you are looking for something that will really make you think, that will in fact force you to think just to keep up with the plot, then this is a novel for you.
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Leslie Bialler
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
This one''s for history buffs!
Reviewed in the United States on August 31, 2003
In this complex novel author Iain Pears skillfully weaves together three connected stories, each of which is set during a time civilization was in a state of collapse: the last days of the Roman Empire in the West; the plague year 1348; France during the German occupation... See more
In this complex novel author Iain Pears skillfully weaves together three connected stories, each of which is set during a time civilization was in a state of collapse: the last days of the Roman Empire in the West; the plague year 1348; France during the German occupation in World War II. All three stories are set in Avignon (in 1310 the Papacy moved to that city because of disorder in Rome and would remain there until 1378) and the surrounding Provencal countryside.
The thread running through the three stories, all of which deal with moral dilemmas posed by an oncoming collapse, is the title of the book, a manuscript entitled "The Dream of Scipio," written by a fifth-century Roman, Manlius, who converts to Christianity in order to try to preserve what is left of the Western Roman Empire. The manuscript is discovered by Olivier de Noyen, poet, scholar, aide to a powerful Cardinal, in 1348, and rediscovered in 20th-century France by intellectual Julien Barneuve.
In each of the stories the protagonists are faced with moral choices--must a few be sacrificed to save the many? And it''s left to the reader to determine whether they''ve made the right choices or not. Pears, with his deadpan prose, offers no opinion.
The tale is a chilly one. (Some may put the book down and select another after reading the opening sentence.) And if you stick with it you''ll probably be consulting reference books to read up on the history of the periods Pears writes about (he helpfully supplies a timeline).
Pears makes no missteps. He accomplishes what he sets out to do, but when you''ve finished it you''ll probably want to run outside and take a walk in the sunshine.
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David Heald
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Breathtakingly Brilliant
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 25, 2019
I loved this book when I first read it many years ago. Now, read at leisure, I love it even more. The writing is sublime and I re-read many of the memorable passages, savouring them like a good wine. And what a moral tale it is. How does an individual react when faced with...See more
I loved this book when I first read it many years ago. Now, read at leisure, I love it even more. The writing is sublime and I re-read many of the memorable passages, savouring them like a good wine. And what a moral tale it is. How does an individual react when faced with the collapse of civilisation and the arrival of the barbarians? Manlius betrayed all his civilised values to reach accommodations and save his prosperous life, and deservedly earned the approbrium of Sophia. Olivier was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to save his friends and the Jews from persecution. And poor Julian compromised himself and was unable to save Julia from the Holocaust in spite of this. All in all still a magnificent book.
4 people found this helpful
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adam200982
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Worth perseverance
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 9, 2015
I enjoyed this overall,some parts I found could have been done just as effectively with half the words but then again,maybe it would have lost some of its character if it had been done that way.overall I think it was cleverly done,the way it covered such a vast length of...See more
I enjoyed this overall,some parts I found could have been done just as effectively with half the words but then again,maybe it would have lost some of its character if it had been done that way.overall I think it was cleverly done,the way it covered such a vast length of time,all running together,slightly confusing at first but once I got into the gist of it was fine and enjoyable read.
One person found this helpful
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Gettheebehindme+
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A delight.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 27, 2015
I first read this when it came out, and it set me off reading in a wide circuit of the history of Late Antiquity - starting with Peter Brown''s ''The World of Late Antiquity'', which appears to be the ''Ur'' book on the subject. Over and above that, ''The Dream of Scipio'' tell...See more
I first read this when it came out, and it set me off reading in a wide circuit of the history of Late Antiquity - starting with Peter Brown''s ''The World of Late Antiquity'', which appears to be the ''Ur'' book on the subject. Over and above that, ''The Dream of Scipio'' tell three stories of people doing awful things for very cogent reasons. Ethics and Honour. A delight.
4 people found this helpful
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David J. Ingram
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Life in Vaison
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 11, 2013
Generally I don''t like novels which operate on multiple time frames. Pears has made a good stab at this though it still irritates me to have to jump every few pages. His knowledge and research of the subjects is impressive and it is handled with intelligence.
One person found this helpful
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Kendall Ward
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Great. But will need to put on your thinking hat!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 15, 2016
While it''s not as phenomenal as An Inatance of the Fingerpost, I didn''t expect it to be. It is still a fantastic read! I did find it confusing at times with how quickly he changed from one character to the next but I enjoyed the challenge, for the most part.
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