Caius, the head of the Roman Praetorian guard, is charged with the religious as well as the logistical protection of Rome. Thus far, the walking dead are but a distant, albeit audible afterthought, confined to ravishing the destitute lower classes in the outskirts–known as the insula.
When these barriers are breached in horrifying fashion, certain revelations begin to come with that moment—that all is not well inside the inner rings, and really—haven’t been for quite some time. And Caius knows this better than anyone.
Meanwhile, a Christian sect, led by Polycarp, is being held accountable for the outbreak, primarily for the crime of polluting Rome’s theological mashup with undiluted monotheism, and all the baggage that comes with a faith that exalts not the dead, but feeds the living and celebrates life after death. Roman culture, while expending its firsfruits to the dead who could not partake of them, completely ignored the living that could. Polycarp’s earthly mission involved chipping away at this behemoth. And the unity of communion—the breaking of bread is the accord in which this is brought to bear.
Caius is unable to hold the center, and is faced with personal traumas along with political decisions meant to allay the rage of vox populi –I won’t go into what those are here, because it gives away too much.
Polycarps’s band of devotees are gathering—at great personal risk—in the catacombs, a feature which helps undergird the horrid rumors that the communion they are taking isn’t symbolic—but cannibalistic—a major point in the ultimate prosecutorial proceedings against him.
But the book isn’t about logistical gamesmanship scenarios. It’s about relationships. Inside the isolated, patrician orbs of Rome, the people are hoping to hedge their hopes against the undead by the protections given them by their class distinctions. In the catacombs of devotion, those congregants are shedding, or subjugating their statuses for the sake of unity, and feeding the hungry, and opening themselves to the gifts that may give the undead a proper release from their torment and hunger.
Within this unified body, Polycarp gives authority and leadership to a young woman named Dora, a scarred, publicly-shamed pleasure slave. Upon paying a price for her, he sets her free, and then exalts her to his right hand with a new name.
As I said, the story involves relationships. And this one is key. It will touch your heart.
I fear of giving away more than this. It’s a beautiful and powerful story, rich in the historical nature Rome. But if I have to walk away with one message, I can say this. The idea of the walking dead as a horror linchpin alone is and has been fascinating for me ever since I was a kid. But to see them as literal and metaphorical statements simultaneously gives these ones extra power. They can be seen as the simple, raging specters in the Via sanctus, or they can be seen as the composite boiling down of a nihilistic end, devoid of meaning—yet they are somehow starving for it.
In the inner circles of Rome, the barriers are physical. Assumptions of impregnability cause lethargy of spirit and lack of preparation for the ultimate breach. And when that day comes, all men are equal in the grip of the walking dead—and instead of being internally prepared for a glorious resurrection that saves them in the long term, they are externally destroyed by an aberrant resurrection in the short one.
In the margins, the poor and destitute, though hungry physically, also know that the physical hedge for them is improbable, if not laughable. Their equality amongst each other, however, was established in their communion with—each other, making death—in all its forms equal in scope—and an unworthy adversary against the Apostolic Gift, something that is only housed behind hedge of a pure and honest faith—the greatest hedge of all.