After nearly a decade, Steven Pressfield puts forth his newest installment in the world of historical fiction A Man at Arms. Masterfully, he brings ancient history alive and into the modern-day. Through his attention to detail, rich world-building, eloquent writing style, and brutal descriptions of combat scenes, the author surrounds the story with an aura of authenticity. It is easy to forget A Man at Arms is a work of fiction through the immersive narrative.
A story of courage, love, betrayal, and conversion that juxtaposes the philosophies of Christianity and Stoicism makes Pressfield’s latest piece a real page-turner.
Taking place approximately two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, A Man at Arms follows the story of a retired member of the Roman Tenth Legion turned mercenary, Telamon of Arcadia, who is tasked with intercepting the notorious Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. This epistle — which is considered by the Romans to be a grave threat to the empire — is being carried by a courier Michael and young mute child Ruth, whom Telamon is instructed to intercept and return to the Roman legion commander.
What begins as a simple quest to retrieve the ominous letter turns into the adventure of Telamon’s lifetime with the unlikeliest of companions, one that will change him forever. Despite his best efforts, Telamon and his old-warrior philosophy are challenged by every new encounter he and his band of outcasts face. What used to be an unwavering devotion to gold and principled stoicism turns into an unwavering devotion to his companions, and more specifically the child Ruth, with whom he acquires an endearing father-daughter relationship.
An unexpected turn of events sets Telamon on a mission to escort Michael, Ruth, a sorceress, and a youthful admirer of the protagonist named David to the city of Corinth to safely deliver the letter to the underground church.
The action is cinematic and the dialogue is captivating and thought-provoking. After being thoroughly entertained with the excitement of Telamon’s masterful combat skills, the reader will be further intrigued by the clash of philosophical ideas that buffet Telamon’s personal ethos. As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that Telamon is not just a man at arms against the foes who wish to prevent him from completing his mission but also a man at arms against the people, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas which challenge his worldview.
Throughout the book (and climaxing at the end of the novel) is a clever and well-hidden theme presented by Pressfield which shows that the pen is in fact mightier than the sword. An idea that is foreign and antithetical to everything Telamon believes but proves to persistently poke at his ethos like a thorn in his side. To the point where he is even surprised by his own actions and becomes unrecognizable compared to his former self.
While the plot can feel slightly repetitive at various moments throughout the book, the absorbing character development keeps the reader deeply invested in the story. Telamon, who begins the story as a detached, emotionless, stoic whose only god is “Strife” (as he puts it), undergoes a beautifully moving transformation. Through friendship, love, and turmoil, Telamon learns to find meaning in his life both within and without the suffering of the world around him. A character development that will likely prove to be of great utility to the reader.
For a novel written about one of the most important events in early Christian history after the death of Jesus Christ, A Man at Arms has a surprising lack of explicitly religious themes in it. The plot is certainly driven by the events of early Christianity, however, the Christian religion in its infancy is somewhat of a background character to the main plot. While some may consider this a disappointment, I find this literary approach from Pressfield to be refreshing. The author is not seeking to evangelize the reader outright, but rather, highlight the relatable journey of the protagonist and his encounter with the staunch passion and devotion of the early Christian Church.
Yet, Pressfield exposes the reader to early Christianity in brilliant fashion through the few Christian characters in the book in small yet compelling ways. In the most compelling dialogue in the novel, the courier Michael interrogates Telamon for his lack of belief:
“Let me grant you your skepticism, brother…your disbelief, even your scorn. Say you are right. Indeed it may be more than possible that in my grief and sorrow I experienced a vision, a phantasm of the rabbi from Nazareth. Say that’s true. Does that make his life and suffering meaningless? If he were simply a man like you or me and he chose to die rather than betray himself and the meaning he perceived his life was dedicated to…isn’t that sacrifice a compelling narrative for the rest of us?”
The story eventually answers this question for the main party, but it is up to the reader to answer this for themselves. A subtle yet powerful attempt by Pressfield to convince the reader of the merits of Christianity, at least as the early Christians would see it. While it is easy to get immersed in the captivating dialogue between Telamon and his interlocutor, for the skeptic, it may feel as though the author is directly speaking to you through Michael when he says: “You are a believer too, my friend. You just don’t know it”.
This book will intrigue the believer and the skeptic alike as the author weaves subtle moments of Christian apologetics into a thoroughly dramatic narrative. A sign of Pressfield’s expertise and skill.
Although A Man at Arms is a work of fiction, it has the potential to shape the way one reads Saint Paul’s writings in the future. Through this novel, Pressfield opens the minds of the reader to explore the possibility that the biblical texts — that so many take for granted today — have been passed down through history at a great cost and were surrounded by violence and turmoil.
What makes Pressfield’s latest work so enthralling is his ability to paint a vivid picture of a page out of history. Through exhaustive attention to detail, A Man at Arms helps the reader get a sense of what life was like for first-century Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire. For what scholars have had to leave mostly to the imagination, the author paints a compelling backstory to the biblical events following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
I highly recommend A Man at Arms for Christians and non-Christians alike. The protagonist of the book exemplifies the masculine spirit and as such A Man at Arms will be valuable reading for any man seeking to understand Telamon’s mens bellator (warrior’s mind). For both the believer and non-believer, A Man at Arms is a call to stand up for one’s beliefs with valor amidst tremendous adversity. A message which will resonate with men everywhere.
If you are a seasoned fan of Steven Pressfield’s previous work, looking to experience his rich world of historical fiction for the first time, or simply a man who loves dramatic adventures with plenty of sword fighting — pick up a copy of A Man at Arms, it will not disappoint.