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Colleen McCullough (1937 - )

Caesar: Let the Dice Fly
Morrow, 1997
Barnes & Noble


It is 54 B.C. Gaius Julius Caesar is sweeping through Gaul. While his victories in the name of Rome are epic, the conservative leaders of the Republic are not pleased -- they are terrified. Where will the boundless ambition of Rome's most brilliant soldier stop? He must be destroyed before he can overthrow the government and install himself as Dictator. When Cato and the Senate betray him, Caesar resolves to turn his genius against his ungrateful country. Backed by a loyal and skilled army, he marches on Rome. But before reaching his goal, he must contend with Pompey the Great, a formidable adversary who underestimates the renegade Caesar. These are tumultuous times -- for Caesar, who endures personal tragedies even as he wages war; for Pompey, who must wrestle with his fear that his greatness is at an end; for Cicero, whose luminous rhetoric is shattered by threat of violence; and for the citizens of Rome, whose destiny lies in Caesar's hands. The fifth novel in Colleen McCullough's unforgettable Masters of Rome series, Caesar brings to life the passion and genius of an incomparable man. -Amazon.com.

- Amazon.com, 12/15/2005

Known to millions as the author of The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough has now received full recognition for the quality and accuracy of her research on Roman history, receiving a doctorate from a Sydney university. Caesar is the fourth title in her 'Masters Of Rome' series and chronicles the rise of Julius Caesar from his abortive invasion of Britain in 52 BC until his appointment as Dictator and the death, or should I say assassination, of his great rival Pompey in Egypt in September 48 BC. From Britain and Gaul to Syria and Persia the scope of the novel and the cast of its characters is as broad and weighty as the 664 pages of the book itself. In tackling such a huge and complicated scenario perhaps some depth of individual characterisation is lost - many are just names - but head and shoulders above these stand the isolated genius of Caesar, rivalled only by the tenacity, even fanaticism of those who love, or hate, him such as Pompey, Cicero, Cato, Vercingetorix, Brutus and Mark Anthony. Neither, as so often with history, are the women forgotten. I was aware of the relatively low importance of women in Roman society, (so what's new?) but in Caesar we see strong, intelligent women, powerful, matriarchal manipulators as well as victims and supporters of their men all seeking to achieve contentment and status in a society that offers them little. This is not an easy read, for the depth of detail needs concentration and I would recommend that those unfamiliar with Roman society and politics read the extensive glossary before getting confused with the structure of government and the often similar names. It is a scholarly work but with fact and fiction so skillfully woven together that it would be impossible for a reader unfamiliar with the period to tell which is which. I have always felt that the mark of a good historical novel is one which leaves the reader educated without their knowledge; even better, fired with the enthusiasm to find out more, especially the desire to divine the fact from the fiction. Caesar succeeds in this. Not only do I feel that my knowledge of the end of the Roman Republic is hugely expanded and put into clearer context with reference to other events but also I was inspired to go back to primary sources and look at the words of Tacitus and Caesar himself. The press release implies that Caesar is the finale to the series but the book ends with the statement that the next title will be The October Horse. I will look forward to it with interest, although the relevance and poignancy of the phrase will perhaps only be recognised after looking it up in the glossary of Caesar. -Lawrence Fielding From The Historical Novel Review (1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Lawrence Fielding, 12/15/2005

This is the fifth installment in McCullough's series of novels on the late Republic. The First Man in Rome, opening about 120 BC, began the saga; to date its successors are The Grass Crown, Fortune's Favorites, and Caesar's Women. Caesar's second expedition to Britain in 54 BC begins the book, which then moves through the final years of his conquest of Gaul, recreates the political struggles in the Senate between him and the uncompromising conservatives (the boni), and concludes shortly after the battle of Pharsalus in 48. Put geographically, the story proceeds on a diagonal from the midlands of Britannia at if not beyond the northwest corner of Rome's possessions through Gaul, Rome and Macedonia to Pelusium near Alexandria at the southeast corner of the Empire. Six hundred pages cover a mere six years, but readers ought not be put off by a pace apparently slower than the methodical plodding of the Roman legions. McCullough moves her readers as swiftly toward her conclusion as Caesar marched his soldiers on campaign. The book makes excellent reading and will appeal to a wide audience. At least one more novel is promised, said in the "Author's Afterword" to be titled The October Horse. As is true of its predecessors, this story concentrates on politics and the military and thus is not a rounded history of the period. In its focus on personalities and political scheming it resembles Robert Graves' retelling of the early Empire in I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Just as anyone who has read Graves can never quite escape his presentation of Livia, her son the morose Tiberius, and her grandson Claudius, so McCullough's readers will find it tough to get away from her portrayals of Marius and Sulla in the earlier novels and now, Caesar and his contemporaries. Military buffs will enjoy the maneuvers and battles. McCullough treats the fractiousness of the many Gallic tribes and their refusal to unite under the Arvernian Vercingetorix. The Aedui in particular weakened the Gallic effort in 52, and Aeduan deserters cause Caesar personal grief and then contribute to a near-disaster at Dyrrhachium in 48. The BBC serialized Graves' books some years ago, and someone should do the same with McCullough's novels. Caesar would properly be the middle movie of a trilogy, as by itself it needs background and ends with the great issues unresolved. Many passages have marvellous cinematic potential, but rather than pondering which Hollywood star we envision playing what role, let us look at the novel's major features. Maps are on the endpapers and in the text, a thorough Glossary explains all manner of terms, and a list of the ancient place names found in the story gives their modern equivalents. McCullough throughout refers to the Roman calendar, which by the time of the novel was at least six weeks ahead of the solar year. Unless readers note this, they'll be curious about armies going into winter camp in April and harvests being gathered by mid-February. This accurate anomaly ought to be corrected in the sequel, as Caesar had the problem remedied in 46 and the revised Julian calendar took effect in 45. Factual errors are few and minor. Only a true nit-picker will quibble with such points as (1) whether Caesar's Legion V Alaudae (the "Larks") was already with him in late 54 or not formed until 52; (2) whether Hortensius' house had frescoes modelled on those of the palace of Minos at Cnossus -- there's no sign the Romans knew of them; (3) whether a mosaic would have shown "King Aeneas" fleeing Ilium; he was at best a "prince" since not in the direct line of kingship; (4) whether proscriptions first occurred under Sulla, i.e. in 82-81; they were Sulla's answer to those perpetrated by Marius in late 87-86. McCullough's greatest single strength is her gift for characterization, her ability to revivify the individuals who make this turbulent era fascinating. Whether these character sketches are accurate is of course a different question, but as this is a novel the author is permitted a certain leeway. All through, she utilizes the ancient sources but creates dialogue (often spiced with Latin expletives) and additional features such as military dispatches. One Roman after another jumps to life far more than in the letters and speeches of Cicero and the biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius.. Often one character analyzes and explains political situations, motives and tactics to another; some of the best come when Caesar's veteran legates explain their commander to newcomers on the staff. As an example, Decimus Brutus remarks to Antony that "There's no one like him. There never has been and there never will be" (p. 288). A frustrated Atticus: "sometimes, Cicero, you're an insufferably puckered-up prude!" (p. 150; cf 172). Three words dismiss Sulla's daughter Fausta as "lumpy, dumpy, frumpy" (p. 135). Here are a few samples of portrayals of those in the supporting roles. Labienus hates all Gauls, and is disliked by his fellow legates on Caesar's staff and old-line Romans as a ferocious "monster", and "a true barbarian" with "a nose ... hooked, with nostrils that looked as if someone had enlarged them with a knife" (pp. 3-5, 82, 87, 302). Caesar recognizes his military abilities but plans to discard him when the fighting is over. In his last appearance, now serving with Pompey, he brutally executes several hundred of Caesar's troops captured near Dyrrhachium (p. 569). Perhaps surprisingly, Cicero is a relatively minor figure, though the author convincingly shows him agonizing over the possibility of war and trying desperately to prevent it at the last moment, yet timidly but stubbornly refusing to see Caesar's point of view. Caesar dismisses him as a "poor old rabbit" whom one can''t dislike "even at his silliest" (p. 476) which recalls Christopher Robbin on Winnie the Pooh, "Silly old bear." Cicero's shrewish wife Terentia has "a superbly ugly face" which "grew uglier" in a quarrel with him (p. 151). The jovial, handsome, hard-drinking Antony is sorely in need of discipline and is the butt of Caesar's humor (266; cf. 564). Elsewhere Antony reclines at dinner, "flexing the muscles in his thighs, a sight which would have had most of feminine Rome swooning" (p. 308); "rarely had Rome produced a specimen to equal him, with his height, his strongman's physique, his awesomely huge genital equipment, and his air of unquenchable optimism" (p. 393). Put in charge of Italy in 49, he was "always jolly, always affable, always approachable, always ready to quaff a bucket or two of unwatered wine..." (p. 505). We'll surely see much more of him (in both senses) in the next novel! Fulvia is simultaneously a nursing mother of Curio's child and a sharp political analyst, then a grieving widow for the second time (pp. 118, 150, 356, 393, 423 26, 505 07). It is doubtful that she is the granddaughter of C. Gracchus. Cleopatra is hemmed in by palace politics and Roman civil war. This is just enough to tantalize readers, who should frequently encounter Fulvia and the queen in the next novel, by which time Fulvia will be Antony's wife getting him accustomed to the idea of obeying a woman, as Plutarch later remarked. The optimates, particularly the crowd about Cato, are an unlikable bunch. Pompey's last father-in-law Metellus Scipio is a highly noble dolt (128ff., 396ff.) The consul of 49 Lentulus Crus is arrogant and insubordinate to Pompey. The three Marcelli, two brothers and a cousin consuls in 51 & 49, are equally pigheaded aristocrats. Cato's womenfolk are his wife Marcia (pp. 384 92), sister Porcia, wife of the almost-comic L. Domitius Ahenobarbus (p. 392), and unfeminine daughter, also named Porcia, labelled a poorly-dressed "elephant" who like her father neighs and whinnies when she laughs (pp. 165f., 382 84, 402). She and Marcus Brutus are in many ways kindred souls. This Brutus, famous as the later assassin, is severely afflicted with acne and bearded both to hide the blemishes and because he can't shave. Further, Brutus is caught between his uncle Cato and his terrifying (and lascivious) mother Servilia. once the mistress of Caesar who now takes on a lover in spite, and whose daughter Junia Tertia (Tertulla) is said to be Caesar's illegitimate child (pp. 94, 160; 342 46, 527f). The occasional fictional character adds interest. In particular we can note Rhiannon, the Helvetian princess (and abandoned wife of the Aeduan noble Dumnorix) who becomes Caesar's mistress and mother of a son. Since Caesar is several times said to be handsome, she is smashingly beautiful, her long hair simultaneously her glory and her downfall (pp. 50 55, 614). She is also said to be first cousin of Vercingetorix, the hot-headed patriot who leads the massive Gallic effort to overcome Caesar in 52 (pp. 90-98, 108ff., 185 300). Caesar, Pompey and Cato dominate the story. Pompey and Cato epitomize Caesar's Roman enemies, and the author convinces us not to like these "sanctimonious farts" (Trebonius on Cato, p. 25; Caesar on Pompey, p. 449). Pompey suffers "from a terminal case of overinflated self-importance" (Caelius' observation, p. 153), and steadily overestimates his own abilities and importance to the boni. He flies into a temper tantrum at their constant refusal to accept him as preeminent in politics and as supreme commander on campaign. The scene is worthy of King Henry II of England raging against Becket. He is still berating them for the defeat at Pharsalus as he flees Greece for Egypt at the very end of the book (pp. 426 35, 528 612). Ahenobarbus, another bonus, compares him to the ill-fated Agamemnon. In short, Pompey is increasingly a spent force, in decline as Caesar is on the rise, and eventually he realizes it. In the race to be First Man in Rome Pompey comes up a head short. This leaves Cato and Caesar towering over all their contemporaries. Most Romans found Cato obnoxious, and McCullough ensures that we do as well. An alcoholic who drinks to get drunk (pp. 11f., 132f.), he has a hateful personality, a loud braying voice, an ostentatiously simple lifestyle, and narrow-minded political views. But our original impression turns out to be incomplete, even unfair. As was true of Pompey, though for different reasons, he is almost pitiful. Two loves eat away at his soul: for his dead brother Caepio and for his wife Marcia. Contrary to his own creed, let alone readers' expectations, he is said to have fallen passionately in love with her and then to have divorced her to allow his ally Hortensius to have her simply to get this complicating emotion out of his life (pp. 373 80). Marcius Philippus and Hortensius observe that Cato had the worst palate in Rome, so as a deathbed joke Hortensius bequeathes him an enormous wine cellar stocked with fine vintages. Whereupon Cato proceeds to give most of it to Philippus so he would agree to let his daughter Marcia remarry Cato. The lovers' reunion in a garden in the depth of winter is not what we traditionally think of Cato. (Pp. 366 90) The scene has great cinematic potential. Throughout, Caesar is the hero and in the right. We meet him at the end of a marginally successful campaign in Britain just as he receives news of the deaths of his daughter Julia and mother Aurelia. Even at his emotional lowest he is the wonder of his officers and troops. Caesar's legates often chip in with assessments of their beloved commander, but their own personalities rarely emerge. Trebonius, Decimus Brutus and Quintus Cicero are real persons, the last a competent commander and resentful of instructions from his big brother. Trebatius Testa, Hirtius, Pollio and the others are little more than names. On a few occasions we hear the voices of centurions and common soldiers ("my boys" Caesar regularly calls them) as well. McCullough shows the bonds between general, staff and rankers much better than do many professional historians. Of Caesar's political allies, Curio is by far the most completely portrayed (pp. 118, 314 18, 351 60, 410 12). Caesar is also omnipresent. Scenes are about him even when he is not there, as McCullough has him lurking in the thoughts of persons far away. His outstanding quality is his unshakable conviction in his own greatness. Gauls and senatorial rivals alike should recognize that they cannot beat him and thus ought to surrender (cf. pp. 310-12, 328). His sense of self-worth (dignitas) drives him onward: he will not be stopped from becoming First Man in Rome (cf. pp. 85, 110, 306 311, 328). The total victory at Pharsalus proves to him that his destiny and Rome's are one (p. 586). Yet he repeatedly denies the accusation which his opponents, Cicero among them, constantly make, that he wants to become king. At the end of the book Roman enemies are still refusing to quit: Labienus, Cato and others are gathering a fresh army in Africa to challenge the verdict of Pharsalus. - Thomas H. Watkins, Department of History, Western Illinois Univ., Macomb, IL 61455

- Thomas H. Watkins, 12/15/2005

The San Francisco Chronicle's review of Caesar

- Robin McEvoy, 12/14/1997

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