The Grass Crown, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Grass Crown (Masters of Rome #2)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 1132 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

The second book of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series follows up admirably on the first. The scope of the world expands, Rome faces new crises, and the Republic continues to crumble inevitably towards its own destruction. The reader gets to see it all through the eyes of some of the most fantastic characters who’ve ever lived, men and women who are at once larger-than-life and all too real.

Much of the first half of the book focuses on events in the east. First Gaius Marius and then Lucius Cornelius Sulla travel through the nations that border Rome’s province of Asia Minor: Bithynia, Pontus, Armenia, and even into the westernmost part of Parthia. We get some background on the labyrinthine genealogy that dictates the succession of eastern kings, we see Mithridates grow to power and eliminate his rivals — and we see him tuck tail and wait for better times when faced with the Romans. But wait he will. Mithridates dreams of ruling an empire that stretches far further than his little Black-Sea-bordering Pontus; he wants to take Rome’s provinces, and then take Rome. So though Marius and Sulla finagle some negotiations to keep him behind his borders for a while, he’s still lurking, waiting for the first opportunity to strike out.

The first half of the book also spends some time on domestic matters in Rome. We become better acquainted with Livia Drusa, whose brother Marcus Livius Drusus married her off in the last book to his friend Quintus Servilius Caepio (son of he who stole the Gold of Tolosa). I really love her arc for a lot of reasons. It’s the most in-depth view we get from a woman in either this or First Man in Rome, and I like that. I’m glad McCullough takes some time out from the heavy politics and the wars to give us this angle on events. Women’s history is too often overlooked, and particularly in the case of Livia Drusa, that’s a shame — because without her, the next generation of Rome might’ve looked quite different. When we left Livia Drusa last, she’d been forced to marry Caepio, a man she despised, to solidify an alliance for her brother. To his credit, Marcus Livius Drusus eventually realises what an error he made — the Battle of Arausio changed him, and he starts moving away from the conservative ideals that his friend Caepio still stalwartly adheres to. Bitterly unhappy, Livia Drusa takes advantage of Caepio’s absence from Rome to engage in an affair with Marcus Porcius Cato Salonianus, grandson of the famous Cato the Censor and a freedwoman (and thus not at all of the appropriate patrician pedigree). When Caepio returns and finds he has a new redheaded son, he takes to beating Livia — and when Marcus Drusus finds out about that, he and Caepio have a falling out, Caepio divorces Livia, and Livia marries Cato. Through all of this, Livia is spied on and betrayed by her eldest daughter, Servilia, as nasty a piece of work as you could possibly imagine. And yes, this is the Servilia who will become Julius Caesar’s mistress.

And speaking of Julius Caesar — he’s old enough now to be a proper character, though still a child. McCullough portrays him as a true prodigy, whose mother has to fight to keep him firmly rooted in some kind of humility (considering how little of it he demonstrates, one wonders what would have happened if not for Aurelia’s influence). Remarkably intelligent, both book-wise and possessing a keen insight into human nature, Young Caesar shows tremendous promise even at a terrifically young age. Unfortunately for him, this (and the prophecy of Martha the Syrian) mark him out as the man who will someday overtake Gaius Marius’s legacy — and Gaius Marius intends to have none of that. Of course, readers know better — Gaius Marius won’t be able to keep Caesar down — but it is an interesting insight into little-known details of his youth and early life.

Meanwhile — Drusus’s plot intertwines with that which takes over most of the second half of the book: the Social War when the Italian Allies rebelled against Rome over issues of political enfranchisement. Drusus tries desperately to find a way to reconcile the old guard with the demands of Rome’s rapidly expanding and changing world — but to no avail. War breaks out, instigated in large part by his friend, Quintus Poppaedius Silo, one of the other survivors of the Battle of Arausio. And the war is devastating; war in Italy is civil war, with no plunder to be taken, just wealth and food to be lost. It does, however, provide Sulla at last with his opportunity to shine. He takes command following Gaius Marius’s second and more debilitating stroke, seizing the opportunity to show Rome his worth. That, while it saves Rome from Italy, eventually provokes conflict between Sulla and Marius, and their strife is what dominates the last section of the book.

Interestingly, despite dangling him in front of us for the first half of the book, McCullough actually holds off the confrontation with Mithridates until the next book — for this one, he’s just a spectre, the boogeyman haunting the edges of the realm. He does take advantage of the Social War to start attacking at Rome’s borders, taking over Asia Province and ordering towns throughout the region to put to death over 80,000 Roman citizens. But we don’t actually see this or what happens next. We hear about it from poor exiled Publius Rutilius Rufus (who escapes the slaughter and reports back from Smyrna), and we see Sulla eventually head off to do battle with him — but we never actually get there. In a way, this is a little maddening — all the buildup in the beginning of the book doesn’t pan out — but in a way, it’s also rather magnificent. McCullough knows she’s writing a serial, after all, and history rarely ties itself up neatly. By structuring the book the way she does, you get a better sense of how Rome could be blindsided by Mithridates’s attack; the reader gets as consumed in the conflict with the Italians as Rome herself does, and so by the time we remember to think about Mithridates, it’s too late. He’s already made his move.

There’s only one point where the story really starts to drag, and it’s towards the end, in the complicated political situation that leads to Marius’s return from exile during his conflict with Sulla. Things get pretty twisty, and since most of the major players involved at that point aren’t folk we’ve been following all along, it’s a little confusing. Other than that, McCullough does a great job leading the reader through the twists and turns of Roman politics and military maneuvers.

At the end of the book, McCullough leaves Rome in dire straits: ravaged by civil wars, starving, blood-soaked, and with the threat of Eastern invasion still looming large. I promised myself I wasn’t picking up Fortune’s Favorites just yet — not least because I have five books to read before the end of the month if I want to win my 100-book Challenge, and starting another 1000-page monster is not a good way to make sure that gets done — but I’m anxious to get back to it. I so enjoy being immersed in McCullough’s Rome, precisely because total immersion is so possible. McCullough drops you straight into history, fully-realised, not sketchily glanced at. It’s a wonderful indulgence.

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One response to “The Grass Crown, by Colleen McCullough

  1. Pingback: The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough | The Mad Reviewer

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