Tag Archives: masters of rome

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Fortune’s Favorites by Colleen McCullough

Title: Fortune’s Favorites (Masters of Rome #3)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 1093
Genre: historical
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome #1)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 1152 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars

I love a panoptic. I really do. Nothing pleases me better than a truly epic story, crossing decades, with a cast of thousands. I have no trouble keeping track of it all, and so that never detracts from my enjoyment. Rather, it enhances it — I love to feel as though I’ve been dropped not into an isolated story, but into an entire world, fully realised and teeming over with real people.

Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (at least the first four books, which are all I’ve managed to read thus far) is a masterful example of this sort of literary indulgence.

The First Man in Rome, the first book in the series, chronicles the meteoric rise of Gaius Marius. He’s not a name most of us know anymore, unless you’re a devoted classical scholar. But he was a huge name in his own time, and he is, in fact, the reason so many of the things we do know about Roman history are the way they are — particularly with regard to the army. Gaius Marius is a New Man — meaning he’s the first man in his family to have entered the Senate. Though some of the Romans deride him as “an Italian hayseed with no Greek” thanks to his Picentine origins, Marius has his thumb on Rome’s pulse better than most of the Senate. He also has unparalleled military instincts — and he can tell where trouble’s going to come from (Africa, then the Germans). Fed up with the mismanagement of patrician generals, who have gotten tens of thousands of Romans killed with their ineptitude, Marius decides that no one but him can really set things right. He sets about restructuring the legions, improving the training of the troops, and knocking the self-important senatorial generals off of their high horses. His most controversial measure is to begin recruiting from a new source. Typically, Roman soldiers had to come from a certain rank — Roman, Latin, or Italian citizens who were landowners. Marius begins recruiting from the Head Count, the poor men who own no land, but who might just be in need of a good solid career. The old guard, of course, squabbles and fusses about this move degrading the sanctity of the armies — but with so many men of the proper rank dead, they really have no choice, unless they want to get invaded.

Marius is well past the traditional age to be consul for the first time (42), but when he’s in Numidia, warring against Jugurtha, he meets the Syrian prophetess Martha, who tells him that he’ll be consul not once, but seven times. This ought to be impossible; the traditional rules of Rome stated that ten years had to pass between consulships. Not fussed by that, Marius sets his sight on that goal and goes for it. He has a lot of enemies — mostly patrician men loathe to support a New Man from the provinces — and the political tangles are rendered in a fascinating way. McCullough makes a reader feel these battles, manipulations, and gossips every bit as keenly as the politics of the modern world — and we see these ancient Romans not as removed figures, but as very real people with very real foibles.

The secondary plot focuses on Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man escaping his family’s downfall. Though the Cornelii are patricians, Sulla’s father was a drunk who left his son in penury, reliant on his mistresses (a Greek and his stepmother) for his livelihood. But when he turns 30, the age when he should be entering the Senate, Sulla decides to turn his life around. It takes him a few years (and a few murders), but he manages to get into the Senate and embark on a promising career. His rise starts when he serves as quaestor to Marius in Numidia, demonstrating a keen mind and a talent for covert ops. Marius and Sulla become linked not just by their military ambitions, but by their wives — Julia and Julilla, two daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar. No, not that Gaius Julius Caesar — he won’t be born for a while yet. These women will someday be his aunts.

Finally, there’s Gaius Marius’s best friend, a sensible man loyal to him, though he doesn’t always agree with his politics: Publius Rutilius Rufus, who is related to almost every other important character in the books. Among the most important of them are Marcus Livius Drusus, a young politician who will become more important in the second book, and Aurelia Cotta, who marries one of the Julian sons (and she will someday be our famous Caesar’s mother). Much of the story gets relayed through Publius’s letters to Marius, and those letters have a wonderful voice to them. It’s a clever way of summarizing the gaps in the story without getting too bogged down or making it feel like a history lesson. Publius gives colour to some of the dryer parts of the timeline.

The story follows these men and women through the beginning of the end of the Republic, from 110 to 100 BCE. This period sees the subjugation of Numidia as well as an invasion from German tribes, and McCullough gives both depth and breadth to those events. The Jugurthine War gets wonderful detail, both in the lead-up to it, the personality of Jugurtha, and the complex politics that governed Rome’s intervention. This is really the war that kickstarts Rome’s period of rapid expansion. Up till then, they had mostly acquired territories almost accidentally; from this point forward, they will go after them with greater initiative. We see the tragedy Rome suffered at the Battle of Arausio, when Cimbri and Teuton tribesmen slaughtered over 120,000 Romans in a day, through the eyes of a few young legates (including Marcus Livius Drusus). And we see the politics, the ins and outs of Roman elections, the power of the tribunes (especially one Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a populist-turned-revolutionary), the nuances of religion, and the tensions between patrician and plebeian, between the Five Classes, in vivid, colourful detail.

There are points where the book drags, at least for me — they tend to be the sections more heavily focused on military history, rather than personal, and I confess that’s where my attention wanders a bit. I also wish McCullough gave more time to the female characters. They get a better shake later on — even the very next book features several rather more prominently — but there are definitely some wasted opportunities here. Julia and Julilla are counterpoints to their respective men, rarely granted individual voice, and the formidable Aurelia does not even appear until a few hundred pages in, and does not assert herself so magnificently until almost the tail end of the book.

Still, this book is fantastic in so many ways that I’m willing to overlook those shortcomings. McCullough does a magnificent job bringing Rome to life. This book is educational without being a textbook, which I also enjoy. The maps are astonishingly helpful, and the extensive glossary of terms (and by extensive, I mean almost 100 pages in itself) provides all the detail you could possibly want about these facets of ancient Roman life. Better than all of that, though, McCullough presents characters. The First Man in Rome has people in it — weak and strong and in-between, prejudiced and considerate, conservative and liberal, hot-tempered and cool-headed. Even the minor characters are nuanced and three-dimensional, and the major characters are so well-drawn that, by the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve known them forever. Reading The First Man in Rome is an all-over wonderful experience.

Recommended to: history geeks, fans of HBO’s Rome, and anyone who loves awesome stories.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews