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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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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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