The fourth book in McCullough’s Masters of Rome series follows the early political career of Julius Caesar. In some ways, this narrows the scope of the series — or at least, it compresses the locations. Most of the book takes place in Rome itself, not out in the provinces. During this book, we see Caesar’s rise to true prominence in Roman society, finally achieving the age and status in the cursus honorum that heralds his position as one of the greatest figures in all of history. He marries Pompeia, continues his tempestuous affair with Servilia, arranges his daughter Julia’s marriage (twice), gets elected curule aedile, staves off his creditors, puts down the Catiline Conspiracy in somewhat reluctant partnership with Marcus Tullius Cicero, arranges the First Triumvirate as the fulcrum holding Pompey Magnus and Marcus Crassus in balance, and gets elected to his first consulship. At every turn, he has to battle the machinations of the so-called boni, the “good men”, conservatives who oppose his meteoric rise almost as much as they oppose Pompey’s impetuous upstart nature and Crassus’s economic success.
When the book opens, the boni, led by Porcius Cato (Servilia’s half-brother), move to block the triumphal parade to which he is entitled, returning as he is from the governorship of Spain where his troops hailed him imperator on the field. They do this by refusing to let him stand for election in absentia, and he cannot enter the city without losing the imperium, and without imperium, he cannot triumph. (Roman politics are full of these sorts of complex nuances and bizarre strictures, and it’s to McCullough’s credit that she renders them in a way that readers can follow — though not necessarily easily; careful attention must be paid). Caesar surprises them all by foregoing the triumph so that he can stand for election. It’s near-unbelievable. A triumph was one of the highest honours a Roman man could claim, and no more than a handful ever managed to (at least up to this point; they became rather more common in the following decades and centuries). That he would forfeit it utterly bewilders his opponents, but it’s a masterful stroke, and shows, right from the start of the book, not only how formidable Caesar is, but that he sees the big picture. Caesar will make the immediate sacrifice for the greater gain; he sees more and recognises far more than his peers, and that makes him dangerous.
As befitting the title, the women of the story play a greater role in this novel than they have in the past, and so too does the world of women, the domestic counterpart to the men’s machinations in the Forum and on campaign. One of the best examples of this is in the Bona Dea scandal. The rituals of Bona Dea were one of the most fiercely female spheres of Roman society, a strictly women-only religious event on which hinged the very equinoctial balance of the universe. In 62 BC, the young renegade Clodius Pulcher dressed in drag and sneaked in while the rites were being hosted, as they always were, by the wife of the senior magistrate in the city — at that time, Pompeia, second wife of Julius Caesar. The scandal not only shocked but terrified the entire city, who worried that the desecration would so offend the gods as to cause natural catastrophe. McCullough does a great job of making this esoteric bit of history seem quite relevant, particularly in light of how much it hinges on what many people would now consider “superstition”.
One of the most noticeable changes in Caesar’s Women is how McCullough’s cast of characters is evolving. Most everyone we started out with back in First Man in Rome is dead (I think, honestly, Aurelia might be the only character from Book 1 still hanging on). The people who were young in the early books are now middle-aged or older, at the height of their power, having finally succeeded the previous generation. Everyone’s hoping that, after decades of civil wars and near-invasions, they’ll get a chance at some peace. And they will, at least for a very little while, thanks to the thinly-yoked Triumvirate. And behind these men stands a new generation of up-and-comers, young men who seem far more reckless and openly liberal than their immediate forebears. Clodius Pulcher and Mark Antony stand prominent in this crowd, and one of the interesting things in this book, which I hope McCullough takes through to Caesar, is watching Julius Caesar decide to take his cousin Antony in hand, to rescue him from himself, in a way, by pointing out that youthful indiscretions can mar a man’s dignitas for life.
Though the cast of characters remains as large as ever, this really is where everything becomes about Caesar. His dominance over Rome asserts itself over the text as well, inexorable. What’s magnificent is seeing such a larger-than-life figure rendered with the mix of awe and realism that McCullough offers. She’s a little in love with her subject, and no mistake (and I don’t blame her; Julius Caesar is one of my huge historical crushes), but that doesn’t stop her from showing Caesar’s foibles. As he gets older and more powerful, arrogance starts to take hold; he demands much, and continues to demand it because he usually gets it. It’s an oddly magnetic arrogance, really — his certainty in himself is so rock-solid that failure is truly inconceivable for him. We might hate him for his presumption, as the boni do, if the gods didn’t reward his perseverance and high-handedness at every turn. He always comes out on top. If you’re opposing him, that would be unimaginably frustrating (as we see through Cato and Cicero and the rest); for a reader, it’s bewilderingly enchanting. Caesar wraps us around his finger just as he does Rome, and there’s no resisting.
Overall, Caesar’s Women is another exemplary entry into both the genre and the series. McCullough manages to render the twists and turns of Roman politics — not the most accessible of topics — in a way that a reader can not only follow them, but understand why they mattered so much. It feels very much like watching our modern political debates — it’s just that the values and considerations are somewhat different. No doubt our congressional battles will seem nigh-inscrutable to readers two thousand years from now — but the basic motions of people seeking power, seeking revenge, seeking glory will always be the same. McCullough captures that brilliantly. As I’ve said about the whole series, she really drives home that these were real people, living real lives, with the same petty concerns and daily frustrations as all of us. In some ways, expanding her world to such breadth and depth, exposing so many details of life in the period, going beyond the outline of events that most people know just through cultural osmosis — all of that epic scale actually makes the characters more realistic and less like the towering figures in our history books. Seeing them in situ, as it were, in their culture, without the magnificence of centuries’ worth of reputation puffing them up — it brings them back down to a relatable level. And that is McCullough’s real triumph with this series.
And now — I’m not sure what to do. Caesar is still out-of-print, and even if I get my hands on an old copy, it will make me a little crazy to have a mismatched set, since my first four copies are all from the most recent reprint. But I’ll figure something out. I have to seethe saga through to the end, somehow.