Book Review: Christopher D. Stanley, A Bull for Pluto

Stanley, Christopher D. A Bull for Pluto. Buffalo, NY: NFB Publishing, 2020. 520 pp. Pb. $25.00; Kindle $9.99  Link to Amazon

This is the second volume of Christopher Stanley’s A Slave’s Story picking up the story where A Rooster for Asklepios left off. After a disappointing visit to the Asklepion in Pergamum, Lucius and his slave Marcus travel home to Psidian Antioch. On the way they make a short visit to famous hot springs at Hierapolis hoping to find some cure for Lucius’s illness.

Bull for Pluto, Christophet StanleySeveral things happen when Lucius arrives at Hierapolis. Lucius realizes he will not recover from his illness. While in Hierapolis, he orders a tomb made by a skilled local craftsman and arranges for it to be delivered to his home in Antioch. One of the most interesting features of Hierapolis is the massive necropolis just outside of the town. There are approximately 1200 limestone tombs, many with inscriptions.

Since they arrive about the time of the festival of Cybele and Apollos., Lucius and Marcus witness the wild dance of the Galli, the castrated priests of Cybele. This lurid festival shocks the refined Roman citizen Lucius. The festival also features animal sacrifices to Pluto, the ruler of the dead. The animals led to the mouth of a cave in the Ploutonion where they are killed by poisonous carbon dioxide gas rising from the cave. This location was recently excavated by Italian archaeologists, although the site has been closed to visitors each time I have visited Hierapolis. Here is a link to a 45 minute documentary on YouTube featuring Mark Wilson to orient readers to this archaeological site.

I won’t spoil any of the plot twist, but Lucius becomes very ill while staying in Hierapolis and a local Jewish family takes him into their home and provides for his recovery. This continues a theme begun in the first novel in the series. At the beginning of the story, Lucius was deeply offended when he found out one of his business partners was Jewish. But as the first novel progresses, he encounters Jews who are kind and fair, and offer him gracious hospitality. Both he and his slave Marcus attend a synagogue in the first novel, and they find their attitudes towards Jewish people softening. Marcus falls in love with a slave in the Jewish household, but this romance limited because of her commitment to her Jewish faith.

As with A Rooster for Asklepios, there are only a few incidents involving Christians. After Lucius returns to Psidian Antioch, he is invited a Christian worship meeting. As a prominent Roman citizen, he simply wants to sit in the back and observe in the same way he did when he visited the synagogue. However, one of his slaves wants the congregation to pray for him for healing. This humiliates Lucius and he leaves the Christian congregation with a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

There are several other plot twists when they returned to Antioch, but I won’t reveal any spoilers here. The novel ends satisfactorily and the plot is left open for a third A Slave Story novel. However, the first two books can be read together as a unit. In fact, by way of constructive criticism, I think that A Rooster for Asklepios should have been divided into two shorter novels about the same size as A Bull for Pluto.

Stanley makes considerable effort to ensure the historical and cultural accuracy of every detail in his novels. This included careful on-site research at most of the places mentioned in the books. Stanley recently published “Paul and Asklepios: The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Mission of Paul” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (2019), 1-31 and he has a monograph coming out in 2022, Paul and Asklepios: The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Mission of Paul.

Stanley also maintains a website for A Slave’s Story. There are links to background material relating to the locations described in both novels conveniently organized by the sections of the book. This site addresses one frustration for me as I read the novels. I wanted more documentation! Several times I wanted to check the footnotes to see what primary sources Stanley followed for a particular practice. Most readers will want to browse this site as they read the novels.

Conclusion. A Bull for Pluto is a scholarly novel which illustrates the Greco-Roman world of mid-first century Asia Minor. I highly recommend both A Rooster for Asklepius and A Bull for Pluto for people who are planning on visiting Turkey since most of the “Seven Churches” tours or Pauline Missionary Journeys tours include Hierapolis.

NB: Thanks to NFB Publishing for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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