Two decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Roman poet Virgil ended his epic poem of Roman origins, the “Aeneid,” with an unforgettable image of violence. In the final lines of the poem, Aeneas, the founder of the Roman race, whose descendants are destined to rule over the peoples of the earth, plunges his sword into the breast of a defeated enemy in a fit of rage. A century later, John chose to end his biography of another great founder-figure with a very different scene. A huddle of poor fishermen sit in the dawn light by the shore of a lake, eating a simple meal of grilled fish. Jesus sits beside them, and three times he asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter says yes, and each time Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” It is a scene of forgiveness, compassion and hope. Between the end of the “Aeneid” and the end of the fourth Gospel yawns a moral gulf as wide as a civilization.
To most readers, Tom Holland will be best known for his outstanding popular histories of the Greco-Persian Wars (“Persian Fire”) and the fall of the Roman Republic (“Rubicon”). In the preface to “Dominion,” he vividly evokes the visceral attraction he once felt toward the apex predators who served as the heroes of his first two books: the austere Spartan warriors of the fifth century B.C. and the ruthless Roman generals of the late Republic. Yet these glamorous human tyrannosaurs, he concludes, lived in a moral universe with which he has nothing in common. “The values of Leonidas,” he writes, “whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls, and enslaved a million more.”