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IN BRIEF

Fiction

January 23, 1994|DICK RORABACK

THRESHOLD OF FIRE: A Novel of Fifth-Century Rome by Hella Haasse (Academy Chicago: $19; 246 pp.)Those eager for parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and the imminent demise of our own will be disappointed. Hella Haasse's Rome of 380-412 AD is indeed in its death throes. There is an ongoing Cold War with the East (we won ours); there are barbarians at the gates (not pertinent, unless you want to count rock and rap); the West's capitol has been relocated to swamp Ravenna (Foggy Bottom doesn't count), where the regent for a weak emperor is a Vandal general soon to be assassinated (Constantinople's regent is a eunuch). Haasse's real villain, though, is Christianity, Christianity of a hypocrisy and rigidity hard to duplicate this side of the auto-da-fe.

The gifted hands of Haasse, grande dame of Dutch letters, rescue the era from the flaking pages of history texts. Plausible people, by turns flawed and worthy, stand in for opposing views. Representing the new Establishment is Hadrian, the city's top magistrate, who was born an Egyptian heathen and thus is more Roman and Christian than Caesar's wife. On trial before Hadrian is Claudius, avatar of enlightened paganism (historically, Claudian, last of the great Latin poets). Linking the two is Eliezar--Hadrian's mentor and Claudius' illegitimate grandfather--whose example makes a compelling argument for Judaism.

It is a trial of ideas, and ideals, one made more poignant by hindsight: These are "twilight men in a twilight time."

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