The Last Athenian

Translated from the Swedish of VICTOR RYDBERG. By WM. WIDGERY THOMAS, JR., late U. S. Consul at Gothenberg, Sweden. Philadelphia : J. B. Peterson and Brothers.
THE degree of merit ascribed to this romance by Fredrika Bremer’s declaration that “it is the most genial historical novel ever written in the Swedish language,” is to be exactly determined only by those as well acquainted as she with Swedish fiction. It would perhaps be no more than the whole duty of a reviewer to affect this acquaintance, and we will not deny that we have it, though we think most readers will be satisfied to learn that, judged in itself, “ The Last Athenian ” is very interesting. As to “genial,” we are not certain from our perusal of M. Rydberg’s novel, let alone our collateral knowledge of Swedish romance, that we should apply that epithet to it in either an absolute or a relative sense. We feel sure, however, that it would be next to impossible for any writer to take M. Rydberg’s theme,—which is Athenian society of the fourth century, in the reigns of Constantius II. and Julian, rather than individual fortunes, though these are not neglected,— and quite divest it of attraction; and our author is so thoroughly master of the historical situation, and is in such full sympathy with the civilization struggling against the barbarized and degraded Christian Church of that day, that he clothes his subject with a peculiar fascination. The effect is in truth rather bewildering and dismaying at times to the humane and enlightened modern reader. He becomes unawares a heathen philosopher for the nonce ; there is nothing he desires more than that the two warring sects of Christians should exterminate one another; he looks upon the conversion of the temple of Mars into a church as a gross outrage; he openly rejoices when Julian the Apostate comes to the throne; he laments that prince’s untimely death as a personal and universal calamity. Doubtless, M. Rydberg does not intend so much as this, but in the presence of those atrocious Homoousians and Homoiousians, it is hard to keep from declaring one’s self fully and finally for the only temperate and tolerant people in Athens, the pagans namely. This is a fatality of the historical romancer’s art, which he cannot himself avert; and as in this case it helps to enforce the great lesson that these are happier than any former times, and that with the lapse of ages Christianity itself has grown purer and better, it is a fatality not altogether to be regretted. We are duly Christians again upon the appearance of Theodorus with his humane teachings, and we perceive that our author has not been equally deluded with ourselves by the æsthetic and sentimental aspects of declining paganism. It is Julian’s hatred of bigotry, not his apostasy, which he admires ; and while he makes us regret that so much which was beautiful in civilization and art must perish with the advance of Christianity, he teaches that the form only is perishable, and that no principle of truth or beauty is lost. We perceive, indeed, that men were sensual and selfish in obedience to the old philosophy while they were intolerant and cruel in violence to the new faith; and we are made to question at last whether the spectacle of the slaughter of the Homoousians by the Homoiousians was not more consoling than the banquet of the Epicureans, where death and vice both sat crowned with flowers, and a sort of polite despair was deified.
Apart from its religious interest, “ The Last Athenian ” is a very absorbing romance. Chrysanteus, the Archon of Athens under Constantins and Julian, and afterwards leader of the rebel Donatists, though always himself a pagan, is that Last Athenian from whom the book is named; and so much love story as is in it links the fate of his daughter Hermione to that of Charmides, a refined and profligate young philosopher of the Epicurean school. The son of Chrysantcus has been stolen in infancy by a slave who afterwards appears as the Homoiousian Bishop of Athens), and reared hr the Christian faith, from his monkish devotion to which his father vainly attempts to estrange him. Annaeus Domitius, Proconsul of Aclrain, vacillating between paganism and Christianity, and doing homage to whichever religion is politically uppermost, disposed naturally to be the friend of philosophers and politeness, but greatly drawn to the new faith as the most popular, is a relief to the other characters in their earnestness and sombreness; and his charming wife, Eusebia, with her Homoiousian dogmas, and her habit of confounding the impulses of sense and spirit, now converting pagans, and now making love to a handsome ecclesiastic, is his worthy mate, and an admirable study of the kind of character developed often enough in periods of religious excitement. Such persons as Athanasius also appear in the comprehensive scene, and Theodorus, the great Arian, leads the beautiful Hermione to an inquiry into Christianity. She becomes, through the evident sympathy of the author, what in these days we should call a Unitarian ; and her loathing of the orthodox Christian Church and its priesthood is so deep that, when dragged to the altar and baptized by force, she stabs herself.
We give but a faint idea of the tragic events of the book by the mention of this incident; and we have sketched its general character very vaguely. We can praise it as a romance which most may read with benefit, and nearly every one with interest, — as in fact a generously planned and conscientious study of a strange, sad, and most fascinating period of history. In many of its scenes and characters, the author shows himself an artist of signal power, if not a perfect master of romance. The descriptions of the combats between the two factions of Christians, and between the imperial troops and the Donatists, are fine battle-pieces, painted vividly and clearly; while in other pictures M. Rydberg has a charming tenderness and delicacy of touch. We owe much to Mr. Thomas for making us acquainted with so delightful an author, and have only to regret that here and there the English language does not hold out sufficiently to save the translator from the American, not to say the newspaper, dialect.