Tag Archives: historical-rome

Caesar’s Legion, by Stephen Dando-Collins

CaesarsLegionTitle: Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 336 pages
Genre: nonfiction – Roman history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I was looking for a comprehensive yet readable military history featuring the Roman legions, and Dando-Collins delivered. This book (more or less) follows the history of the famous Tenth Legion, raised by Caesar and present for most of the battles of his Spanish and Gallic campaigns as well as during the Pompeian War. Following Caesar’s death, they fought first for Antony, then for Octavian, and then fell into disuse in Syria. General Domitius Corbulo whipped them back into shape a few decades later, and they were instrumental in subduing the Jewish Revolts of the 60s and in taking the fortress of Masada in 73.

Dando-Collins walks the reader through these events with vivid attention both to military strategy and to the daily life of the legionaries. Both are valuable to me — you get the big picture from Caesar’s viewpoint. He focuses on some lesser-known battles of the Conquest of Gaul as well as the most famous, and does a particularly nice job detailing the end of the Pompeian Civil War, after Pharsalus. Most accounts just sort of take the attitude of, “and then Caesar left Egypt and mopped everybody else up.” This does a better job showing just how fierce the resistance continued to be, even with Pompey’s death and the capitulation of several other key Optimates. He seems to want to excuse the Tenth Legion from its mutinies where I’ve seen other writers come down pretty hard on them for turning on Caesar, attributing it to bad influence and a few corrupt centurions (rather than to a not-unreasonable expectation of getting paid). They manage to redeem themselves, though, and restore their reputations to one of honor and glory — just to sink back down again a few decades later.

That in of itself is an interesting view of the Roman legions that we don’t often see. Mostly you hear about how they were the finest military machine the world had ever seen (I know some Parthian cataphracts who might wish to argue the particulars, but, whatever). We hear about the ones that get obliterated (Carrhae and Teutoburg Forest, for example). We don’t often hear about those that sink into idleness and ignominy. He also gives you both sides of Caesar — the truly genius military mind, but also the one slightly in over his head after the Rubicon, prone to errors that would’ve been uncharacteristic in earlier years.

This book had two major drawbacks for me. One was Dando-Collins’s decision to replace Roman military rank with modern American military rank. Maybe it helps some readers, but for me, it just made it more confusing. I know what tribunes, legates, and proconsuls are, but I can no more decline the strata of modern major generals than I can perform integral and differential calculus The other was that this wasn’t really a history of the Tenth Legion. It was, in many places, a speculation on where the Tenth might’ve been and what they might’ve been doing, and in others, nothing to do with the Tenth at all. We spend a fair bit of time with the Sixth and the Thirteenth, for example, and a fair bit of time just unraveling political matters and personal vendettas. I understand that history leaves gaps, and that it would’ve been strange and jerky to leap from one event to another without explaining intervening matter, but then, why set that as your premise in the first place? Why not just write a comprehensive history of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey? Or of the evolution of the legions from late Republic into early Imperial Rome? It seemed strange to me to promote such a conceit when the actual narrative digressed so very often (even when those digressions were rather nice and things I appreciated, such as the chapter spent on the story of Germanicus and Agrippina). At least he admits when he speculates, though — it makes the reading a bit tiresome, with so many “if”s and “perhaps”es and “maybe”s littering the pages, but it bespeaks academic honesty.

Dando-Collins has written another book, which does purport to look at the history of every legion. That one’s on my to-read shelf, so I’ll be interested to see how it compares. He’s also written a number of other Roman histories, and I like his writing style well enough to look into them someday. It’s accessible but not childish, managing to be comprehensive without drowning a reader in dense details the way many military histories do. I appreciate how often Dando-Collins refers to primary sources, which further enhances this book as good reading material for someone with an interest in not just the mechanics but the culture of the Roman legions.

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Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a DayAncientRome5DenariiDay
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 144 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

This book is a great resource, though it isn’t quite what I’d expected or hoped for. Matyszak writes with his usual felicity and accessibility, but this book is not, as the title and cover might led you to believe, quite so similar to his Legionary or Gladiator. The premise does not really drop you into the role of ancient tourist. Rather, the book provides a snapshot view of Rome-at-a-glance, somewhere around the year 200.

And it just that — a glance view, with plenty of anecdotes and trivia, but not a particularly deep exploration. I do like the book’s organization, which takes you through things to do, places to go, and social customs to observe. Matyszak pays special attention to the geography of the city of the Caesars: what’s on which hill (temples, temples, and, oh yeah, some more temples), what you’ll find in the Subura (crime and prostitutes, mostly), what’s across the river (nothing you want to be a part of), which forums to hit for what activities and shopping excursions. He stresses a lot of the activities most important to Roman social life at all strata — bathing, eating, gossiping, going to the races. Roman entertainment can be beautifully poetic or utterly depraved, though Matyszak does unpack the goings-on at the Colosseum — not always lethal combat between gladiators (who were, after all, expensive investments), not necessarily to everyone’s taste (Romans throughout the centuries voiced their distaste for the more gruesome activities — though enough still approved, clearly, that they kept it up), and Christians pretty much never got thrown to the lions (they got crucified instead, because that’s the Roman sense of humor there in a nutshell). He notes the architectural genius of the colosseum, able to fill in 20 minutes and disperse as quickly, using techniques that stadium-builders still employ today.

Matyszak also does a great job of discussing the integration of religion with Roman life — all-important and yet not terribly pious, at least to a modern point of view. The gods are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Every hill, every valley, every home, every crossroads. Celebrations in their honor dictate the movement of the calendar. Auspices and astrology inform political life. And yet the gods don’t actually care if you believe in them. So long as the rituals are observed, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain, and you can go on to merrily worship anyone you choose. “Confessing a deep love for a particular god,” however, as Matyszak notes, “is superstitio and the person concerned is probably emotionally disturbed.”

Though the humor in Ancient Rome in 5 Denarii a Day is not as laugh-out-loud funny as I found Legionary to be, or even the Classical Compendium, Matyszak’s sly humor still shines through periodically. Some of the best bits of the book, though, actually showcase the humor of the ancients, every bit as dry and ironic as the best of the BBC. Matyszak liberally sprinkles the book with quotes from Plautus, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others — and even when those are from “serious” sources, they often highlight the absurdity of social or political life. They also provide insight into those great geological details about what sort of people you’d find in what places.

Overall, this is a nice resource to have — not particularly comprehensive, but an excellent overview, and certainly inspirational for me. There are all sorts of fun tidbits to mine and to research further. This would be a great addition to any Rome-enthusiast’s bookshelf.

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Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

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The October Horse, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The October HorseOctoberHorse (Masters of Rome #6)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 800 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

The October Horse is, I would say, the weakest of the series thus far, and it particularly suffers after (er, spoiler alert?) Caesar’s death.

It begins well enough, very nearly where Caesar left off, following Pompey’s death in Egypt. Caesar tracks him there, finds out what happened, and decides that he really doesn’t have any patience for this Ptolemaic nonsense. He determines to set things right in Egypt, mostly to recover some debts another Ptolemy owed to Rome and to secure the grain trade, but also because he’s intrigued by Queen/Pharaoh Cleopatra — who is not, by McCullough’s depiction, the stuff of legend. No, she’s small, profoundly ugly, obsessed with her family’s bloodlines, and a completely impulsive ruler. Caesar tries to impress better form on her, but it doesn’t seem to take. He does, however, stick around long enough to sire a son on her — which Cleopatra credits with ending the Nile’s drought. She sees Caesar as, like herself, a god in human form, and thus worthy of breeding into the Ptolemaic dynasty. Though she knows he has a Roman wife and can never acknowledge her children as his legal heirs, she nonetheless wants to hold onto him so she can produce a daughter for her son Caesarion to marry.

To Cleo’s dismay, however, Caesar doesn’t stick around — not least because he has no desire to be party to producing incest, but also because he just plain needs more to do once he’s set Alexandria back in order. He mops up some of the other Pompeians (one of the best sections of the book actually involves Cato’s march across Africa), and then returns to Rome to set things in order, though he’s desperate to be off again on a campaign to Parthia. Caesar’s arc in this book is the tragedy of having no worthy opponents left. With no opposition, he can do as he pleases — and he doesn’t like it. He still does it, because he knows what’s necessary for his nation, but it brings him no satisfaction. He also spends a great deal of time contemplating who will be his heir (aware, thanks to a Celtic prophecy, that he doesn’t have too many years left). He has more options than are immediately apparent, given his numerous cousins and nephews, but ultimately the choice comes down to Marcus Antonius or Gaius Octavius. The proven commander, a grown man with extensive military experience but a shocking lack of any redeeming moral fiber, or the untried teenager, eerily insightful but asthmatic and militarily deficient? No one knows until after Caesar’s death — but Antony assumes it’s him and acts accordingly.

McCullough decides to make Antony actively complicit in the assassination plot, since he believes that he gets everything once Caesar’s dead. I will say that, for purely personal reasons, I didn’t like this. For all Mark Antony’s faults, I have a historical crush on him, and so I far prefer the versions of history that place him as Caesar’s trusted lieutenant. As for the other conspirators, I wish she’d done some of them better justice. When we last saw Decimus Brutus and Trebonius, they were some of Caesar’s most loyal adherents, with him to the end. The first time they appear in October Horse, they’re already turning against him. While this does seem to be what happens in Plutarch, you’d think McCullough might’ve fleshed it out a bit better. Instead, she just sort of leaves it at “they got jealous” and that’s apparently motivation enough for murder. Decimus does pretty well fall apart afterwards, though, realising that he killed the best man he ever knew, the man to whom he owed everything. Instead of much on them, however, we get a lot of time with Brutus and Cassius — whose characterizations I did appreciate, since she shows Brutus as weak, ineffectual, and cowardly, Cassius as snappily ambitious and hot-tempered, and Porcia as not totally in possession of her wits, especially after her father’s death. It drives home just how pathetic the “Liberator” cause was, how wasteful, how petty. (Yes, I am an unapologetic Caesarian).

McCullough makes an interesting choice with the structure of this book. October Horse divides into more and shorter parts than the rest of the series, and I think it’s to draw attention to the ticking clock, counting down to Caesar’s doom — since presumably, anyone reading this series knows that March of 44 is the fated date. McCullough makes you more aware of the passage of time here than in previous books in the series, so you feel the sand running out of the glass of Caesar’s life — and he seems to hear its whisper as well. For all the lead-up, though, the Ides of March itself passes quickly. McCullough doesn’t dwell on the act, and then she’s on to the aftermath — which is less compelling. Octavian quickly sets himself up as the new Caesar, but he’s not as likable as our dearly departed friend, nor have we spent the time and energy with him to invest us in his cause. The reader ends up seeing him just as the preferable alternative to Antony, but a little alarming — preternaturally observant, scarily intelligent, and utterly ruthless.

As such, it’s hard to see how McCullough will make Antony and Cleopatra particularly engaging. From what I understand, she didn’t want to write it in the first place — the afterword to October Horse flat-out says she’s done, but her publishers or someone convinced her to keep going on through Actium. But with Antony so blatantly unlikeable, Cleopatra an incest-obsessed mouse, and Octavian lacking charisma as an alternative protagonist, it’s easy to imagine the final installment lacking the compelling qualities of the earlier entries. Still, October Horse remains a detailed and engaging epic, and if it’s the weakest of a series like Masters of Rome, it’s still a worthy read.

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Caesar, by Colleen McCullough

Title: Caesar (Masters of Rome #5)Caesar
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 928 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4+ stars

Finally! I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this one for ages, and I’m so pleased to have finally been able to advance my progression through the Masters of Rome series.

Caesar opens during the first Roman campaign in Britain — an interesting place to start, considering its weird place in history. More than reconnaissance, less than a full-scale invasion. Rome doesn’t take over any territory, but gets far enough in to show the British tribes what they can do, then restores an ally to his throne. But from another point of view, it was kind of a hot mess. Everyone was wet and miserable and just wanted to get the hell back across the Channel. What makes it a fitting point to start this novel is that it illustrates Caesar’s determination, as well as setting the stage for the complex network of alliances that will be crucial to the Gallic Wars. Caesar couldn’t have done anything in Britain without some of the Celtic tribes behind him — but that presumption is precisely what will ignite the flames of discontent in Gaul.

The account of the Gallic Wars is magnificent. The reader really gets to see Caesar’s genius at work. Though the tribes have a more inspired way of organizing themselves than they ever had in the past, they still consistently underestimate Caesar — how fast he can move his troops, how well he can organise, how brilliant his strategy is, and what lengths he’s willing to go to in order to succeed. Caesar’s greatest advantage, though, is in his charisma — in his ability to command the hearts of other men. His soldiers cheerfully go along with whatever he tells them to do, however brutal the circumstances: march a thousand miles, sure; build seventeen miles of siege works, no problem; eat weeds rather than abandon territory, with a smile. It bewilders his opponents both in Gaul and in Rome. His legates, too, adore him. Caesar demonstrates a knack for picking the right men — and for getting the wrong ones out of his way. No plague of useless tribunes for him. (It is heartbreaking, though, to know what I know about history, and to see how many of his staunchest advocates in this book will be among those to betray him. I’m looking forward to seeing how McCullough handles it in October Horse, though, particularly with regards to Trebonius and Decimus Brutus). None of these are talents the Gallic tribes have. They squabble amongst themselves, half of them want to be king even as they’re proclaiming loyalty to Vercingetorix, a few tribes aren’t really sure they want to rebel against Rome in the first place, plenty of them can’t be kept from falling to spoil at the first opportunity — and so they lack the impenetrable solidarity of Caesar’s legions. Caesar, inevitably, conquers.

McCullough does a great job rendering the military history interesting and easy to follow. She has a great talent for slipping in the lecture portions in such a way that, at least to me, it doesn’t feel like a drag. (Then again I always liked history lectures, so your mileage may vary). The book gets bogged down quite a bit after that, though, in the machinations of the boni to impede Caesar’s pathway to greatness. And perhaps it’s appropriate that this section of the book slogs and seems a bit impenetrable, since that certainly reflects the Optimates pretty well. I could’ve done with more time spent with Caesar during this portion, though — perhaps McCullough just should’ve switched back and forth between the two settings a bit more, rather than exhausting the Gallic front first.

The book is certainly unapologetically Caesarian in its sympathies. McCullough has about as much of a historical crush on him as I do. Masters of Rome portrays Caesar as a natural leader, a natural ruler, in all respects, but one with no intentional designs on a throne. The boni, by contrast, are narrow-minded, jealous little ankle-biters, intent on bringing Caesar down simply because they cannot stand bearing witness to someone so much greater than themselves. This may be lopsided, but… given my crush, I don’t much care. There is one quote, though, that resonated with me for its similarities to our modern political climate. This is Scribonius Curio, writing to Caesar to offer his support in the Senate:

I’m sick to death of the boni. I used to think that any group of men with the interests of the mos maiorum so much at heart had to have right on their side, even when they made appalling political errors. But of late years I’ve seen through them, I suppose. They prate of things they know nothing about, and that is the truth. It’s a mere disguise for their own negativity, for their own utter lakc of gumption. If Rome began to crumble around them physically, they’d simply stand there and call it a part of the mos maiorum to be squashed flat by a pillar.

So, yeah, McCullough’s writing this with a fair amount of historical bias, but I’m hard-pressed to fault her for that. The worst you can really say about her Caesar is that he’s aware of how extraordinary he is. And I’m a Slytherin through and through. That, to me, is not a fault if you’ve actually got the goods to back it up, and Caesar demonstrates over and over again that he does.

The final third of the book concerns Caesar’s war with Pompey, once the boni finally manage to provoke Caesar into taking unconstitutional action. A decision they regret almost immediately. What follows is a pretty epic series of blunders and miscommunications that contribute more to their downfall than anything Caesar could have done to them. In many ways, you see the same problems happening with the boni as you saw with the Celts — no one wants to listen to the purported leader, everyone has their own best idea, and everyone underestimates Caesar. It makes for a nice little diptych.

On the whole, Caesar is another excellent entry into the series. It shows him at what I believe will prove to be his height. My guess is that October Horse will give us his time with Cleopatra, and then he’s back to Rome — but his heart isn’t in it anymore. Even in Caesar, he’s thinking about it, how much he prefers the life of military conquest to political life, however good he might be at both. I’m interested to see how McCullough deals with his final years, particularly with regards to his Dictatorship, as well as the rise of Antony and Octavian.

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Caesar’s Women, by Colleen McCullough

Title: Caesar’s Women (Masters of Rome #4)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1996
Length: 928 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

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.

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Empress of the Seven Hills, by Kate Quinn

Title: Empress of the Seven Hills
Author: Kate Quinn
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 512 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.75 stars
Spoilers: Mild for Mistress of Rome; there are also some things which are not spoilers if you know your Roman history, but which would be spoilers if you don’t, say, know what Emperors come in what order.

A sequel to Mistress of Rome (and, less directly, Daughters of Rome), Empress of the Seven Hills follows the fortunes of Vibia Sabina, daughter of a noble senator and a selfish spoiled aristocrat, and Vix, son of a barbarian chieftain and a Jewish slave, as their lives intersect and become inextricably entangled with the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Vix, feeling stifled by the smallness of life in Brigantia, heads back to Rome, initially taking work in the household of Marcus Norbanus, whom he knows for a good man. The little daughter of the household that he remembered has grown up into a complex and fascinating woman, forthright and unyielding, determined to take charge of her own destiny. They have an affair, but when she decides to marry Hadrian — the Emperor Trajan’s ward, though not yet his heir — trouble arises and they part ways. Vix joins the legions, aiming to be a great general someday. Sabina uses Hadrian as a way to get out and see the world.

The reader then follows Vix on campaign, where he becomes more acquainted with another of Sabina’s suitors, a young bookworm named Titus (a treat of a character if you know your history, but I’ll keep mum for those who may not). Vix takes up with a local girl in their fort town, who has a young son named Antinous (more historical foreshadowing), and the reader gets to enjoy a lot of the ins and outs of life in the Roman legion. Vix and Sabina collide again when Hadrian comes to serve as legate for Vix’s legion, and their interactions (and the repercussions of those actions) drive a lot of the story as it moves from Germania to Dacia to Parthia. Vix’s and Hadrian’s competing ambitions also fuel conflict; Emperor Trajan thinks highly of Vix and starts pushing him up the ranks, which Hadrian (and his ambitious sort-of-adoptive-mother Plotina) resent.

There are some problems in this book. Quinn continues to use shifting points-of-view in odd and somewhat inexplicable ways. I couldn’t tell you why Vix is written in the first person and everyone else is in the third; it makes very little difference, as we get plenty of introspection from the other characters whose narratives are in third-person. There’s also a gender issue with the viewpoints that it took me a day or so to figure out why it was troubling me: Quinn only ever lets us see Sabina, her heroine, when she’s in the same vicinity as the primary male characters. We almost never get Sabina on her own, really. She tells us that she travels, that she sees amazing things, that she works hard to better the lives of common people… but Quinn never lets us see that. We just hear about it after the fact. Whereas she trusts her male characters to hold our attention on their own: we see Vix with the legions and Titus on campaign and in Rome, but we never see Sabina having those adventures that we’re told are so critical to her. It’s a little troubling. I would have loved to have followed Sabina on her travels, to have experienced the broadening world along with her. Instead, I feel cheated.

There are also, as there were in the other two books, issues of historical inaccuracy. This still sort of bewilders me; Quinn has clearly Done The Research in so many aspects, and yet there are things she states as facts which just plain aren’t. These aren’t the items of authorial license — I’m not talking about shifting timelines around or condensing families. That sort of thing, I have no trouble with; authors have to do things like that in service of the story. I have trouble when people get social history blatantly wrong. It’s her perennial insistence that a gladiator died in every match (nonsense; they were too expensive to waste like that). Or when she claims that patricians and plebeians couldn’t intermarry (true in the earliest days of the Republic; false after 445 BC — almost 600 years before this book takes place). Probably these things wouldn’t be jarring to everyone, but since I’m sure a substantial part of her audience consists of classicists, it’s also probably not just me.

This book, though a sequel, doesn’t seem as strongly connected to the previous book as it ought to be. I didn’t read Mistress of Rome that terribly long ago, but details were escaping me, and Quinn never retreads that ground quite thoroughly enough. I think anyone coming to this book without having read Mistress of Rome at all would be a little lost, particularly with regards to Sabina’s and Vix’s parentage and why it matters. She also withholds the character list until the end of the book, which seems a bit odd to me (though that may, I credit, have been an editor’s or publisher’s choice).

And yet, despite those problems… it’s compelling. Quinn does something that’s actually pretty difficult: she gets you tremendously engaged with characters who are not always (or even often) likeable people. Sabina is a little too cool and calculating, and while it makes her fascinating, it also makes her difficult to empathise with. Vix is exactly the opposite: hot-headed and impulsive past the point where it would be charming, and borderline abusive at times. But I got wrapped up in them anyway. It’s part plot and part dialogue, I think; Quinn definitely has the knack for crafting voices, and that can go a long ways towards enlivening a character. The plot clips along through interesting times and political complexities. I want to know how they’re going to end up where they’re obviously going, and how they feel about it along the way.

Similar to Marcella in Daughters of Rome, Sabina strikes out for what she thinks she wants, and then finds out that the reality is less malleable to her will. Still, there’s something charming about her unconventional affectations, and something pitiable as she gets in over her head. Vix is a little bit tougher for me. I can tell I’m meant to love him, despite his all-too-obvious flaws — and yet there’s always something that gets in the way of it. His fury with Sabina is entirely disproportional to her supposed crimes against him, and it underscores his narrow ability to comprehend the world outside of his own head — not a trait I find attractive. He makes no attempt even to understand where Sabina’s coming from; he mostly just throws temper tantrums and storms out when she tries to explain that she’s acting in, really, the only way she can. She pushes the parameters of what her society allows in a woman, but that’s still not good enough for him, and he behaves pretty poorly as a result. He starts getting better (read: less of a total jerk) towards the end of the book, however, and I’ll be interested to see if his arc continues in that fashion, even as circumstances turn against him, as they seem sure to. He’s certainly an interesting character, but I can’t quite fall in love with him the way the book seems to expect me to (and I’m generally quite well-inclined towards the brash soldier archetype). And there is something compelling in their love story which goes beyond the mere attraction of opposites, in the way that they keep colliding into each other, even when they don’t mean to, even when they deliberately try not to. There’s a force behind it all, something tinging of destiny, and that does lend them some star-cross’d appeal.

There are quite likeable characters, though they get less screen time: Emperor Trajan is a personality you just can’t help but smile at, and then Titus and Sabina’s baby sister Faustina are both pretty great. For all Titus’s protestations that he’s a dull plodder, he’s a character with wonderful insight into the situations and people around him, and his steadiness is a necessary balance between the other extremes. Another thoroughly unlikeable character isn’t meant to be likeable: Plotina is a terrific villainess, particularly as Quinn draws us along as she progresses from just a typical overbearing mother-in-law type to a truly corrupt tyrant descending into real madness. Her son-in-law Hadrian, definitely an antagonist, is complex: he wants to be well-regarded and to be a popular and effective leader, but he is all too aware that he is just plain not a good person. He’s violent, selfish, and cruel — but also desperate for approval. Watching him keep all of that in check is an interesting ride, and I sometimes wish saw him through less biased perspectives — Vix and Sabina, who hate him, and Plotina, who idolises him, don’t precisely give the reader the fullest view of the character, as they are all unreliable narrators where he is concerned.

Overall, Empress of the Seven Hills is a solid entry into the genre of Roman historical fiction. Quinn paints a thorough picture of an under-examined period of history, and tackling it from characters of varying status and background allows her the room to really explore the details and nuances. I anticipate a sequel; the book ends with Vix literally informing the reader “But I’ll tell you that later,” so I can’t imagine Quinn isn’t going to continue the story. These books lack the epic scope and deft hand of the Masters of Rome series, but they’re still perfectly enjoyable.

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