Acté was Alexandre Dumas’ first novel and a partial inspiration for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. As with most of Dumas’ work, it is based on actual historical characters. That being said, my research tells me that it is unlikely that Acté was a Christian convert.
This novel begins in Corinth in the year 57 A.D. Corinth is preparing to hold a competition of wrestling, chariot racing, and singing. Acté, a beautiful Greek girl, is on shore when a bireme arrives containing one of the competitors. Acté falls in love with this man, Lucius, at first sight, and he appears to fall in love with her.
Lucius wins all three competitions but in a manner that seems to fill the audience with dread. He also behaves in an oddly commanding way. To the reader, things don’t look good for Acté, but she heedlessly runs off with Lucius, leaving her home and father behind.
It is not until their arrival in Naples that Acté learns with horror her lover’s true identity. He is the Emperor Nero. Acté is further horrified at the behavior of his court, especially the dissoluteness shown during feasts.
Nero’s formidable mother, Agrippina, actually approves of Acté and hopes that by her innocence, she will discourage Nero from his excesses. But in shock one night at the behavior during a feast, Acté runs to Agrippina for shelter. Unfortunately, that is the same night that Nero has decided to have his mother murdered by sinking her ship with her on it. Agrippina and Acté are almost drowned, but they get away, and Acté is rescued on the shore by the Apostle Paul. Agrippina, although briefly rescued by Acté, ends up dying.
There are lots of descriptions of races and fights and battles in this novel, but its focus is on the fall of Nero and the role Acté played. Acté herself is just a cardboard figure prone to fainting, which is interesting since she is strong enough to swim to shore from the middle of the Bay of Naples, supporting Agrippina, and is described in terms of an athlete and Diana the huntress.
In addition, the many pages wherein St. Paul describes his conversion and in doing so recounts most of the life of Christ, are deadly dull and unnecessary. If his words are meant as the inspiration to convert Acté, I believe they would be more likely to put her to sleep.
All in all, this novel is interesting as the start of Dumas’ career but is not in itself the most compelling of historical novels. It is based on the most damaging of the accounts of the life of Nero, who has been rehabilitated to some extent in more recent scholarship.
Note that the cover at the top is for a French-language version. The only English-language version I could find had just a black cover. My own version is a Kindle collection of complete Dumas works, published by Delphi Classics, shown just above.