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The Beacon at Alexandria

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  1,401 ratings  ·  118 reviews
In the Fourth Century A.D., independent and determined young Charis is forbidden to become a doctor because she is a woman. Disguising herself as a eunuch she flees Ephesus for Alexandria, then the center of learning. There she apprentices to a Jewish doctor but eventually becomes drawn into Church politics and is forced once again to flee. She serves as an army doctor at ...more
Paperback, 376 pages
Published July 1st 2003 by Soho Press (first published 1986)
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Average rating 4.23  · 
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 ·  1,401 ratings  ·  118 reviews

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Lee Anne
Mar 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
*Do NOT read the synopsis on the back of the book/goodreadsgives away the entire story. Literally. The whole plot.*

Its been almost ten years since I read this book for the first time, and it still has a powerful hold on me. I cant explain exactly why it is a favorite; sure, it has the bold and brave girl-who-disguises-herself-as-a-boy in order to do what she loves, but its so much more than that. Charis is one of those characters that I cant help loving and rooting for, and her journey during
Sep 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ya, 1980s, hf-africa, hf-roman
Top rank Bradshaw, a multiple re-read ... with a marginal review from someone at Kirkus.


Solid but not particularly stirring historical, from the author of an Arthurian trilogy (concluded with In Winter's Shadow, 1982). In A.D. 371, Valens is Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople. Cowardly, chariot-race-loving Theodoros, a consul at Ephesus, is disconcerted to be accused of treachery by ugly, low-born Imperial agent Festinus: Valens, it seems, is taking seriously a
Jan 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Historical fiction fans
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Rachel Neumeier
Jun 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Gillian Bradshaw is my favorite historical author, hands down, and this is my favorite book of hers. It's one of the books I reach for when I need something to read for just a minute -- and one of the ones I usually wind up reading straight through (again) because I can't leave it unfinished.

Charis is a wonderful character; the world building is exquisite; the romance is handled subtly and beautifully and doesn't take over the book -- not only did I just re-read BEACON for the fifth or sixth
Jul 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
When Charis, a fifteen year old girl living in Ephesus in the middle of the fourth century finds herself betrothed to a powerful but sadistic man, she flees to Alexandria and, instead of domesticity, pursues her interest in medicine. Disguised as a eunuch she attends lectures and is apprenticed to a Jewish doctor.

But fourth century Alexandria is a hotbed of religious and political dissent and, finding herself inadvertently caught up in the midst of it, she's obliged to flee once more, this time
Feb 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Really wonderfully done. The last line in the epilogue literally left me with chills: "the Fall of Rome was, for the west anyway, 'the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind."' Coming on the heels of this story, it was really excellently done. I mourned the empire's demise with the characters. I felt powerfully for many of the characters throughout the story. Particularly in the second half of the book, I was literally heartbroken for Charis at the idea of how unfair ...more
Jun 12, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2008, book-club
I finally finished "The Beacon at Alexandria" by Gillian Bradshaw. It took me a really long time to read this book. I liked it fairly well, but it was long. It is only 350 pages long, but it felt like forever. Basically it is a story of a young woman in Ephesus during the third century who runs away from her about to be arranged marriage and goes to Alexandria to become a doctor. The rest of the story is her career and attempts to remain disguised as a eunuch. The idea was a good one, but I ...more
Jul 07, 2009 rated it liked it
It is very difficult to make a self-determined female in an historical setting not seem, at best, oxymoronic and at worst a puppet of modern sensibilities. Somehow, Gillian Bradshaw manages it in this eloquent, slow-moving yet motivating read about a woman who studies medicine in an otherwise restrictive world, eventually needing to disguise herself as a eunuch in order to continue practicing, while fighting an attraction to a male who may or may not understand her.
Plot: 10 (engrossing at all points and compelling in overall thrust)
Characters: 10 (complex and memorable)
Accuracy: 10 (thorough and detailed even with obscure details)

A genuinely great novel set in the later Roman Empire. It's a complicated setting to place a novel in since the open autocracy and religious fanaticism of the period doesn't endear it to the average reader. This book however, doesn't really focus on all that (though it certainly shows up) but instead tries to portray everyday life
Riccarla Roman
Feb 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
I love history, but lately I've been reading a lot of Tudor England books. This book was completely different in time period, but the desire for sex, money, and power was still the same.

Charis of Ephesus is the daughter of a prominent citizen of Ephesus. Her brother wants to be a lawyer and she wants to be a physician. Of course, this is not possible in Ephesus a of centuries after Christ.

The new governor accuses her father of possibly trying to overthrow the Emperor. Her quick thinking helps
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Apr 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Lovers of Historical Fiction
I probably love this more than it deserves so feel torn how I should rate it. Is this a deathless historical classic such as Gone With the Wind, Name of the Rose or I, Claudius? No. Neither its style nor an ability to place me in a foreign, alien mindset places it in five star territory. Is this book and are Bradshaw's works in general great favorites I out and out love? You betcha.

Charis, the heroine and narrator of the tale is arguably too modern in her outlook--but it doesn't stop me from
Nov 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is the story of a patrician girl living in Efeso in 371 d.c whose dream is to become a doctor, even if it was not allowed for women.
Her chance to follow her dream arrives when she is forced to marry an undesired suitor: she disguise herself as an eunuch and she leaves for Alessandra, the cultural capital of the empire.
The story follows ten years of her life, the beauty and the decadence of the Roman empire, the poilitics, the religious conflicts, the military camps, the behinning of
Gwendolyn Cayad
Oct 02, 2016 rated it it was ok
I had very high expectations of this book because of the 4-5 stars rating, but I was not so impressed because the ending was predictable and the writing style was flat. It was an exciting idea though, about a woman practicing medicine in ancient Alexandria.
Jun 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: hf
Enjoyable read about a young woman in the 4thC AD who flees an impending marriage to a cruel noble by disguising herself as a eunuch and heads to Alexandria, Egypt to study medicine, something that has been her secret desire. Despite many scoffers, she turns out to be an intelligent, quick study and gifted healer who has luckily been taken on as an apprentice by wise & compassionate Jewish physician. She comes to the attention of the current archbishop & is soon embroiled in religious ...more
Feb 15, 2018 added it
Shelves: read-in-2018
Really enjoyed this! I can tell the author really did her research. The world is so detailed and vivid and consistent. Charis is a great heroine. I called a few of the plot points, but I think the strength of this book is in her growth. The way she seizes her life for herself is admirable, and as she is thrown into precarious/dangerous and new situations, her inner strength and conviction shine through, and it's wonderful to read. Loved reading about her.
Black Bones
Feb 28, 2020 rated it it was ok
The story started like the great Virginia Woolf's "Shakespeare's Sister" and ended like the cheap Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight".
The description of setting was fabulous, all that Ephesus, Thrice, Alexandria...

Mar 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, wishlist
Charis is a wealthy young maiden of Ephesus, she is lovely, intelligent and altogether obsessed with the art of medicine. With the help of her brother and her old nursemaid, she flees marriage with a brutal man who accused her father of treason and tortured her friends. For her, it turns out to be the chance of a lifetime. She disguises herself as a eunuch and travels to Alexandria, the world's capitol of medicinal knowledge. Apprenticed to a true Hippocratic, she enters a world of wounds, ...more
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"...students of the period can still feel that the Fall of Rome was, for the West anyway, the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind."

This is my all-time favorite book. So much was lost in the Fall of Rome. This book takes place towards the beginning of the end. It all starts with the social normalcy of a household, and the women in that household. This book has lots of nasty stuff relevant to the time period. The brutality of slavery, sexism, violence, torture, and
Dec 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who likes history
Recommended to Michiel by: goodreads
This is the kind of book that, once I find it, makes me so happy. I had never heard of this author or this boook had it not been for Goodreads. The only thing I didn't like was that it had to end.

Charis is a young noblewoman of Ephesus during the early Christian era. The Church is rife with heresies, and the Empire is split and beset with barbarian hoardes. Against this background, Charis works to pursue her dream of becoming a medical doctor.

To tell the truth, that description doesn't do a lot
Apr 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of my favorite books of all time. Charis, an Ephesian aristocrat, flees an unwanted marriage with a brutal official, by disguising herself as a eunuch and going to Alexandria to study medicine. Once she becomes a doctor, a series of coincidences lead her to becoming the personal physician to Athanasius (yes, THAT Athanasius), catapulting her into undesired political intrigue. Her adventures will take her past the borders of the late Roman Empire, and lead her into both adversity and love. ...more
Jun 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: generalfiction
Gillian Bradshaw is an outstanding author of historical fiction; she studied classics at Cambridge and her attention to detail is reflected in her novels. Beacon at Alexandria describes the trials of Charis of Ephesus, who dreams of studying medicine in the 4th century Roman Empire and diligently reads Hippocrates. Threatened by an impending engagement, she manages to disguise herself as a eunuch and travel to Alexandria and fulfill her lifelong dream. As time passes, she also begins to realize ...more
Mar 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
This well written historical novel is set during the late 4th century in the eastern branch of the declining Roman Empire and tells the story of Charis, a woman who disguises herself as a eunuch in order to study medicine in Alexandria. She is very intelligent and talented and becomes a very good and successful doctor, but because of political machinations ends up being sent to Thrace to administer an army hospital. I particularly liked the strong, appealing characters and the comparison between ...more
Dana Stabenow
Feb 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
I was supposed to do a bunch of stuff today. Instead I finished this book.

Charis of Ephesus in 371AD is about to be married off to the odious local governor and runs off to Alexandria to become a doctor instead. Historical fiction at its best, great characters and a you-are-there setting that makes you feel like you're living then. Her street scene descriptions are some of the best I've ever read. In a sane world books like this one would never be out of print.
Re-read 7/1/09. I continue to re-read my favorites of Bradshaw's novels, and am glad to discover that this one is also as good as I remember. Bradshaw is very good at drawing out all the complexities of Charis's situation: there are no easy solutions in which Charis gets to have it all. I suspect I should be a bit cynical about the romance subplot (which fortunately does not take over the entire book), but I guess I'm secretly sentimental about such things after all.
Jan 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015-read
Re-read. My favorite of Bradshaw's novels.
Debbie Gascoyne
mmmm. This is one of my all time favourite books. Rereading it is like settling in for a delightful evening with an old friend.
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: greek-roman
In a film class in college, the professor stated that films about the Roman Empire tell us more about the time in which they were made than the actual time period. I feel that is especially true with this book. It's a charming story and held my attention more than I expected. However, it seems much too modern to be authentic for me. Charis, a noblewoman who feels trapped in the society she is born to, runs away after an awful marriage arrangement to become a doctor. Her first stop is Alexandria ...more
Sep 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 4-star
Really enjoyed this book. It is the story of Charis, a woman who runs away from her homeland in Ephesus to escape a cruel marriage. She goes to Alexandria, where she disguises herself as a eunuch and sets herself on a journey to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. The story is filled with politics and intrigue, and felt well paced and realistic.

The way Chariton's identity was eventually revealed felt believable, and the adventures in between did as well. None of the story felt pushed and
A Rina
Jun 14, 2018 rated it liked it
I had high hopes for the book, as it came highly recommended to me. The historical background was vivid and rich, and the plot beautifully developed, but about halfway into the novel, it seemed like the character development became a lot more anachronistic, the dialog more flat, and the ending, too predictable.
Would recommend it for the precious insights into the lives of people and tribes around the time of the fall of Rome.
Feb 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I first read this novel in the Eighties, and although I recall really enjoying it, I couldn't recall much of the story.

I loved every aspect of this book (no sappy romance, no sex other than a vague allusion towards the end of the story and no gratuitous violence).

In our modern times, it's difficult to imagine that there was a time in Man's history that people weren't even really aware of the need for boiled water when treating illness and injury.
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Born in Arlington, Virgina, Gillian Bradshaw grew up in Washington, Santiago, Chile and Michigan. She is a Classics graduate from Newnham College, Cambridge, and published her first novel, Hawk of May, just before her final term. A highly acclaimed historical novelist, Gillian Bradshaw has won the Hopwood Award for Fiction, among other prizes. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and their four ...more

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