This starts off Sulla’s book, but it ends Caesar’s.
Fortune’s Favorites spans 83-69 BCE, and as any Roman historian can tell you, quite a lot happens in that period of time. The fall of Sulla, wars in Spain, the rise of Pompey, the flourishing of Cicero, Mithridatic Wars, trouble in Bithynia, and a slave uprising by a man who may or may not have been named Spartacus. McCullough has a lot to cram in here, and she’s expanded the cast of central characters outward from the relatively narrower scope she started with in First Man in Rome. Still, the predominant focus is on Sulla, until he dies, when Pompey and Caesar take center stage.
And Caesar’s been waiting for that for a while. In the world of the books, he’s still waiting, still nowhere near the heights of fame he’ll eventually reach. But for McCullough’s purposes, he finally gets the screen time he deserves. He’s been asking for it since he was a kid, way back in First Man in Rome, when he appears as a precocious toddler. McCullough gives young Caesar the full aura of inevitable glory — not that his story is entirely without misstep or error.
First, though, we have to get rid of Sulla. Having conquered over Gaius Marius and won a victory, though not a resounding one, over Mithridates, Sulla gets made Dictator of Rome, so that he can try and put the pieces of a shattered city back together. What’s more, he’s made Dictator without any term limits, an unprecedented move — previous Dictators served for no more than 6 months, but the Senate allows Sulla to take power for as long as proves necessary. He’s far from heroic in appearance at this point, however — falling to pieces, really. I didn’t catch this on the first read-through, but I think McCullough might have been inferring he suffered from diabetes. Some of the symptoms sound similar, as do the measures taken as remedies. Whatever the cause, he hardly resembles his former self.
Fanatically conservative, Sulla takes broad steps to restore Rome to its glory days of a perfected Republic — never mind that Rome has quite outgrown its humble origins. He seeks to resettle power in the hands of the patricians, where he believes it not only rightly belongs, but where the gods intend and expect that it belongs. This involves a lot of undoing of the progressive measures we saw in The Grass Crown, particularly those with regards to tribunes, to the electability of magistrates, and to treason courts. His proscriptions tear through the ranks as he ruthlessly culls the herd of wealthy Romans in order to refill Rome’s treasury (an utter necessity to pay Rome’s legions). Still, his capacity for the ridiculous remains undiminished, and some of his actions certainly tang of his strange sense of humour. When he orders Caesar to divorce his wife Cinnilla, daughter to Sulla’s lesser enemy Cinna, Caesar refuses — and eventually has to go on the run. He makes a poor job of it, takes fever, gets caught — and it’s left to his womenfolk to plead for mercy on his behalf. They prevail, due largely to Sulla’s appreciation for the theatrics he coaxes out of them. By refusing to divorce Cinnilla, Caesar can no longer remain flamen dialis, the restrictive religious position settled vindictively on him by Gaius Marius — and nothing could please Caesar more. Freed from the hobble of that office, he takes off for a military life, to make a name for himself.
After his sweeping reforms, Sulla does the most extraordinary thing imaginable — he resigns and retires to a pleasure villa on the coast, bitterly declaring that he’s done what he can for Rome and will now leave her to her own destruction, as he is left to his. McCullough doesn’t shy away from describing the vices Sulla and his guests indulge, but what makes this section more intriguing than lurid are the figures of Metrobius and Valeria, tenderly devoted to Sulla even in his moral and physical decay. Metrobius has been a periodically appearing figure since Book 1, a Greek actor who Sulla has loved since he was a boy; Valeria is Sulla’s fourth wife, young and beautiful and somehow rapt by this powerful, complicated man. He dies in their arms.
Meanwhile, Caesar’s having adventures off in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. He makes friends with King Nicomedes of Bithynia and his wife, whom he comes to regard as sort of grandparent figures to him. As Nicomedes was a notorious homosexual, this friendship becomes the source of gossip back in Rome (but once he’s back on the scene, Caesar puts those rumours to rest by swiftly seducing any number of his rivals’ wives). He explores Asia Minor. He raises fleets in absurdly short amounts of time, to the chagrin of his military superiors who seek to humble him. And, he gets kidnapped by pirates. This is one of my favourite stories about Caesar — he gets kidnapped, insists they double his ransom because a paltry 20 talents doesn’t reflect his worth, spends a season amiably joking with the pirates but reminding them all the while that he’s going to have them crucified — and then does so. He finds their lair when no other man has been able to remember the way back. The whole story is a credit to his luck, his charisma, his ferocious intelligence, and his utter ruthlessness.
The next major event in the book is the war against Quintus Sertorius in Spain. Sertorius, a relative of Marius, grew up in the military tradition, won the Grass Crown at a young age, but somewhere along the line got disenchanted with Roman politics and decided to rebel, setting up his own state in Hispania. Metellus Pius hasn’t gotten very far with him, but young Pompey Magnus, a hero in his own mind, thinks he can sort it out. There are some important lessons to be learned there, for sure, but my favourite part involves Sertorius’s white fawn — a strange historical reality that McCullough weaves into her epic tale. It’s the blend of scope and detail that always make these books so wonderful, and this is a great example of that conjunction.
Things wrap up with the rebellion of Spartacus, which in some ways provides an interesting look at the life of gladiators and the details of the revolt, but in other ways feels a bit tacked-on. I think this is perhaps because none of our main characters are the ones who deal with the problem; Pompey is only tangentially involved towards the very end, and it’s all “off-screen”, so there’s less emotional investment. Still, it’s a major historical event that McCullough couldn’t very well overlook, and she does bring her usual deftness with character to it. The leaders of the rebellion become well-drawn humans in just a few pages, and the struggle is well-portrayed.
As with the rest of the series, this book is best when involved with wonderful personalities, and worst when dealing with tortuous legal circles. The Romans did few things better, to be sure, and McCullough is to be commended for navigating them in anything resembling a coherent fashion — but they just aren’t as exciting reading as the rest of the book. Those sections pass, though, leaving us with the wonderful stories of these tremendous characters. And, as I said, it’s really all about Caesar at the end. He leaves off well on his way to earning an illustrious name, in the military, in the law courts, in the Senate, but deciding that he needs to spend a bit more time abroad — so he heads off for a quaestorship in Spain.
This book covers, in a lot of ways, a strange gap. In some ways, it’s a down period between major events — but, as is so often the case with history, there are so many small things going on. McCullough triumphs in taking the reader through all of them in such a way that you don’t lose the thread of the story and that the characters remain distinct and fully-realised. If you know your history, you generally know where things are headed, but because this is a lesser-known period, how they all get there remains a surprise — and many of the minor characters are complete revelations. Fortune’s Favorites continues McCullough’s masterful series and ushers in the maturity of its ultimate tragic hero.