Home > 2000, 21st Century, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Le Ninèze Alain > Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sator or the Riddle of the Magic Square by Alain Le Ninèze (2008). Original French title: Sator ou l’énigme du carré magique. Not available in English.

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze is a historical fiction novel set in Judaea in 62-67 AD. At this time, Nero was the emperor of the Roman Empire. The narrator of Sator is Lucius Albinius Piso, based upon the historical figure Lucceius Albinus. He was the Roman procurator of Judaea from 62 til 64 AD.

When the book opens, he’s in Jerusalem in times of unrest. His uncle the senator Balbus Piso – based upon Gaius Calpurnius Piso – is in Rome. He’s under the scrutiny of Poppaea Sabina, the Roman Empress married to Nero. Poppaea demands that Piso solves the mystery of the Sator Square, a word square used by early Christians. He asks for his nephew’s help.

Piso is a Roman senator secretly converted to Christianism. At the times, Christians were persecuted by Nero and his life is in danger. He also asks for information about Jesus’s death.

As the book progresses, we see Lucius investigating Jesus’s death, meeting with witnesses of the crucifixion and wondering what really happened. He also digs into the Sator riddle, discussing it with Jewish scholars. Meanwhile, he exchanges letters with his uncle who keeps him informed of his fate in Rome. The situation there deteriorates quickly as Nero becomes more and more crazy and despotic.

The Great Fire of Rome happens, Christians are murdered and Balbus Piso decides to participate to a conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

In Judaea, things deteriorate as well. The Jews rebel against the Roman rule and Lucius Albinus fails to prevent a war. He refuses to break the law and is dismissed by Nero. We see a procurator not really into his task, struggling to be the armed arm of an emperor he doesn’t respect anymore. He’s happy to be demoted and goes to live in the household of a retired centurion who married a Jewish lady and settled in Jerusalem.

Le Ninèze’s Lucius Albinus is a lot more human than his actual counterpart, according to the portray depicted on Wikipedia. No big deal. This is a historical novel and Le Ninèze imagines a humanist procurator who doesn’t want to use force when it’s not needed.

It’s a first-person narrative and Lucius addresses to us. It is strange to have a character tell you that he went to the Mount of Olives, that he now shares the outcome of his interviews with soldiers who guarded Jesus’s grave after he died or with people who attended his trial. Lucius takes you to a time where all this was recent history or event contemporary. I was raised a Catholic and hearing Lucius Albinus investigate this as a journalist put things at human height, stripped of the aura brought by religious rituals. It’s a strange feeling.

Le Ninèze also shows that there were a lot of messiahs at the time and that the communities in Jerusalem had trouble coexisting in peace. (Greeks against Jews, radical Jews against moderate Jews, all against the Roman occupant) The region was always bubbling with rebellions and attacks.

Le Ninèze left a lot of footnotes to give the source of the events he describes. He mostly used the Evangiles, The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus and The Histories by Tacitus. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed reading about Judaea at the time. I liked being in Lucius’s company and I had fun watching him unravel the Sator Square riddle. (or at least find his own meaning)

PS: The Sator Square includes the word Tenet and it has something to do with Christopher Nolan’s film, in case you’re wondering.

  1. September 23, 2020 at 3:22 am

    Aww, not available in English, what a pity!


    • September 24, 2020 at 8:10 pm

      Maybe you can try it in French!


      • September 25, 2020 at 2:53 am

        One day, maybe, I’ve got a fair few to get through first, ATM I’m reading La Guerre de Boutons because I just saw (and loved) the film:)


        • September 26, 2020 at 7:59 am

          I loved La Guerre des boutons when I read it. Enjoy!


  2. September 23, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    The journalistic approach to events so well told and ritualised is a really interesting decision for the author to take. Fingers crossed for an English translation!


    • September 24, 2020 at 8:09 pm

      It’s fascinating to see a retelling of the events with a historical angle and nothing more. I’m not sure it’ll make it into English.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. September 23, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    That is a rather intriguing idea and I can imagine it must be strange as someone brought up in a religious tradition to see it aside from its ritualistic context. One of my favourite short stories is a retelling of the story of Jesus by Judas, by Dazai Osamu, who was of course Japanese and not a Christian, so felt more open to different interpretations. In his hands, it becomes real psychological suspense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 24, 2020 at 8:09 pm

      It was strange to see “saints” as people and interesting to read about the context. There were several people who claimed to be the messiah at the time. Lucius Albinus was quite intrigued by this new religious sect and it’s growing base of followers. In his mind, he wonders why this Jesus is different from the others.


  4. September 23, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    I’d be fascinated to read this, both because the viewpoint is quite different and also to see how the author handles a remote (to us) time period. Hopefully it makes it into English at some point.


    • September 24, 2020 at 8:03 pm

      It’s a nice read but I’m not sure it’ll be translated. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of book to attract a wide audience but who knows?


  5. September 25, 2020 at 11:57 am

    This does sound fascinating, I like the idea of historical fiction and inhabiting the minds and daily lives of people at that time in history. I spent 2 months in Bethlehem with family and read the history of Jerusalem while I was there and saw how contemporary life was lived, and really wondered a lot about how it had been in the past. There still exist so many reminders of the past, yet the stories we hear repeated have a more mystical rather than realistic sense to them. Great review Emma, thanks.


    • September 26, 2020 at 8:06 am

      This was fascinating in the way he brought us to see how Jesus and all the events we read about in the bible (or hear about at catechism) were seen and perceived at the time.

      I also like historical fiction when it makes us touch with our fingertips how life was at the time for common people like us. History with a capital H is interesting too but I feel closer to characters that are more average.

      How lucky you were to spend time in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I would love to visit the area: Israel, Jordania, Lebanon, Syria. There’s so much history there.


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