Title: The First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome #1)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 1152 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars
I love a panoptic. I really do. Nothing pleases me better than a truly epic story, crossing decades, with a cast of thousands. I have no trouble keeping track of it all, and so that never detracts from my enjoyment. Rather, it enhances it — I love to feel as though I’ve been dropped not into an isolated story, but into an entire world, fully realised and teeming over with real people.
Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (at least the first four books, which are all I’ve managed to read thus far) is a masterful example of this sort of literary indulgence.
The First Man in Rome, the first book in the series, chronicles the meteoric rise of Gaius Marius. He’s not a name most of us know anymore, unless you’re a devoted classical scholar. But he was a huge name in his own time, and he is, in fact, the reason so many of the things we do know about Roman history are the way they are — particularly with regard to the army. Gaius Marius is a New Man — meaning he’s the first man in his family to have entered the Senate. Though some of the Romans deride him as “an Italian hayseed with no Greek” thanks to his Picentine origins, Marius has his thumb on Rome’s pulse better than most of the Senate. He also has unparalleled military instincts — and he can tell where trouble’s going to come from (Africa, then the Germans). Fed up with the mismanagement of patrician generals, who have gotten tens of thousands of Romans killed with their ineptitude, Marius decides that no one but him can really set things right. He sets about restructuring the legions, improving the training of the troops, and knocking the self-important senatorial generals off of their high horses. His most controversial measure is to begin recruiting from a new source. Typically, Roman soldiers had to come from a certain rank — Roman, Latin, or Italian citizens who were landowners. Marius begins recruiting from the Head Count, the poor men who own no land, but who might just be in need of a good solid career. The old guard, of course, squabbles and fusses about this move degrading the sanctity of the armies — but with so many men of the proper rank dead, they really have no choice, unless they want to get invaded.
Marius is well past the traditional age to be consul for the first time (42), but when he’s in Numidia, warring against Jugurtha, he meets the Syrian prophetess Martha, who tells him that he’ll be consul not once, but seven times. This ought to be impossible; the traditional rules of Rome stated that ten years had to pass between consulships. Not fussed by that, Marius sets his sight on that goal and goes for it. He has a lot of enemies — mostly patrician men loathe to support a New Man from the provinces — and the political tangles are rendered in a fascinating way. McCullough makes a reader feel these battles, manipulations, and gossips every bit as keenly as the politics of the modern world — and we see these ancient Romans not as removed figures, but as very real people with very real foibles.
The secondary plot focuses on Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man escaping his family’s downfall. Though the Cornelii are patricians, Sulla’s father was a drunk who left his son in penury, reliant on his mistresses (a Greek and his stepmother) for his livelihood. But when he turns 30, the age when he should be entering the Senate, Sulla decides to turn his life around. It takes him a few years (and a few murders), but he manages to get into the Senate and embark on a promising career. His rise starts when he serves as quaestor to Marius in Numidia, demonstrating a keen mind and a talent for covert ops. Marius and Sulla become linked not just by their military ambitions, but by their wives — Julia and Julilla, two daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar. No, not that Gaius Julius Caesar — he won’t be born for a while yet. These women will someday be his aunts.
Finally, there’s Gaius Marius’s best friend, a sensible man loyal to him, though he doesn’t always agree with his politics: Publius Rutilius Rufus, who is related to almost every other important character in the books. Among the most important of them are Marcus Livius Drusus, a young politician who will become more important in the second book, and Aurelia Cotta, who marries one of the Julian sons (and she will someday be our famous Caesar’s mother). Much of the story gets relayed through Publius’s letters to Marius, and those letters have a wonderful voice to them. It’s a clever way of summarizing the gaps in the story without getting too bogged down or making it feel like a history lesson. Publius gives colour to some of the dryer parts of the timeline.
The story follows these men and women through the beginning of the end of the Republic, from 110 to 100 BCE. This period sees the subjugation of Numidia as well as an invasion from German tribes, and McCullough gives both depth and breadth to those events. The Jugurthine War gets wonderful detail, both in the lead-up to it, the personality of Jugurtha, and the complex politics that governed Rome’s intervention. This is really the war that kickstarts Rome’s period of rapid expansion. Up till then, they had mostly acquired territories almost accidentally; from this point forward, they will go after them with greater initiative. We see the tragedy Rome suffered at the Battle of Arausio, when Cimbri and Teuton tribesmen slaughtered over 120,000 Romans in a day, through the eyes of a few young legates (including Marcus Livius Drusus). And we see the politics, the ins and outs of Roman elections, the power of the tribunes (especially one Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a populist-turned-revolutionary), the nuances of religion, and the tensions between patrician and plebeian, between the Five Classes, in vivid, colourful detail.
There are points where the book drags, at least for me — they tend to be the sections more heavily focused on military history, rather than personal, and I confess that’s where my attention wanders a bit. I also wish McCullough gave more time to the female characters. They get a better shake later on — even the very next book features several rather more prominently — but there are definitely some wasted opportunities here. Julia and Julilla are counterpoints to their respective men, rarely granted individual voice, and the formidable Aurelia does not even appear until a few hundred pages in, and does not assert herself so magnificently until almost the tail end of the book.
Still, this book is fantastic in so many ways that I’m willing to overlook those shortcomings. McCullough does a magnificent job bringing Rome to life. This book is educational without being a textbook, which I also enjoy. The maps are astonishingly helpful, and the extensive glossary of terms (and by extensive, I mean almost 100 pages in itself) provides all the detail you could possibly want about these facets of ancient Roman life. Better than all of that, though, McCullough presents characters. The First Man in Rome has people in it — weak and strong and in-between, prejudiced and considerate, conservative and liberal, hot-tempered and cool-headed. Even the minor characters are nuanced and three-dimensional, and the major characters are so well-drawn that, by the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve known them forever. Reading The First Man in Rome is an all-over wonderful experience.
Recommended to: history geeks, fans of HBO’s Rome, and anyone who loves awesome stories.