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Colleen McCullough (1937 - )

First Man in Rome, The
William Morrow & Co, 1990
Barnes & Noble


Classicists will dispute some details and some unusual interpretations of the dynamics of the period 110 to 86 BC, but most will regret only that there are no footnotes in these two excellent historical novels. McCullough supplies maps (Rome, Italy, and elsewhere), plans (e.g., Aurelia's insula), authentic-looking drawings of major characters, casts of characters, pronunciation guides for Latin names and terms (First Man), a consular list for 99-86 (Grass Crown), author's notes and a glorious glossary in each novel (94 pp. in First Man; 74 pp. in Grass Crown). The extensive glossaries (with singulars and plurals for most Latin words) constitute a lively course in Roman history, though not everything is precisely correct; e.g. Plautus did not, as McCullough says, shift his locales from Greece to Rome. She gives conflicting accounts of Jugurtha's death s.v. Jugurtha and s.v. Oxyntas and cursus honorum would be better traslated as "sequence of offices" than "way of honor." But, in 1600 pages of story, based on original sources and secondary analyses, she is essentially correct on verifiable historical details and understands Roman government and plebeian/patrician (as well as nobilis) distinctions. McCullough depicts historical figures we all feel a proprietary interest in (Marius, Sulla, Metellus Pius, Drusus) but parts company with many historians in interpreting motives and relationships. For example, most would not see >Marius (titular character in First Man) and Sulla (who gains the titular grass crown in the sequel) as cooperating so amicably all through the Jugurthan and Cimbric wars and the Saturninus fiasco. First Man ends with Sulla's arm affectionately around Marius' shoulder, and, though their relations are "tensely wary" as Grass Crown opens, they warm again as both see the danger of Mithridates and support M Livius Drusus in his efforts for the Italian allies. In fact, this accord between Marius and Sulla lasts almost 600 pages (through most of the Social War); according to McCullough, Sulla begins to hate Marius for upstaging him at his procession as new consul to the Senate and resolves to ruin Marius for stealing the affection of the crowd from him. After that we have the Sulpician legislation, Sulla's march on Rome and the Marian proscriptions, ended by Marius' death. As novels, both read well, though some detail (e.g., troop movements in the Marsic war) may bog readers down. Non-classicists will refer frequently to those casts of characters provided. First Man has the big battles (military and political) straight out of history, but also much about less crucial players. For example, from the charming but steel-backboned Aurelia, mother of Julius Caesar and well-developed as a feisty young bride who owns and manages a 9-storey Subura insula, we see a lot of daily life. P Rutilius Rufus, uncle to both Aurelia and Drusus and (contra Plutarch) a close personal and military friend of Marius, writes many of the letters McCullough uses well in both novels to communicate information compactly. Occasionally McCullough's help to the non-classicist reader is intrusive: a tribune of the plebs would never call out, "I declare a contio, a preliminary discussion." But McCullough tells the stories well and creates interesting characters - some witty, brave, warm, some evil and cruel, some you like and some you hate (and a few you have mixed emotions about, such as Sulla and M Aemilius Scaurus, Princeps Senatus). Classicists will recognize some very young characters who will be important on the historical scene (and McCullough's sequels?) decades later (e.g. Cicero as a talkative 13-year old, or a very young and precocious Julius Caesar). Unlike the 5 Roman historical mystery novels I recently reviewed (CW ), even in paperback the two McCullough novels may be too long to use as supplementary reading for Roman history classes, though anyone teaching the post-Gracchan period should at least recommend both novels to students who want to look more closely at the events of these 25 years. Much of the material is, of course, fiction, not verifiable history, but it may help that period come alive for students who otherwise find Drusus dull or the Social war unintelligible. -[Mench; CW 86.6 (1993)]

- Fred Mench, 12/15/2005

Colleen McCullough's Roman Novels by Steven Zoraster I have read the first 5 novels of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series: First Man in Rome, Grass Crown, Fortune's Favorites, Caesar's Women & Caesar. Since I don't read a lot of fiction, that says something positive about her books. McCullough is, apparently, a very good historian of the period she is exploring, which covers, so far, the period from 110 BC to 48 BC. I picked the words "depict" and "explain" in the previous paragraph, because McCullough, although wonderfully imaginative and creative, and certainly knowledgeable, does not write great literature. All too often she loads the reader down with more information than can be digested at one time. (Some of this failure may be my own fault. Maybe nobody is ever going to make me understand the interactions between the Roman Senate, and the various popular voting assemblies of the people, such as the Comitia Centuriata, the Comitia Tributa and the Concilium Plebis.) Furthermore, although from time to time she does an excellent job of evoking a scene or event or even a battle, frequently she simply tells the readers what people are thinking, or what she wants us to believe they are thinking. So, why I have I read all her Roman novels? Well, I will use those same words again. McCullough can depict and explain many events in ancient history through fiction, which writers of non-fiction books have trouble explaining. She does basic things like have a young Pompey the Great befriend and protect a young and incompetent soldier, named Cicero in her second Roman novel, The Grass Crown, which provides justification for some of the political alliances formed in her later novels. And she has thought through and presented events like the Social War which, while almost certainly not exactly the way they really happened, managed to give me some feeling for the kind of things that must have happened to cause that war, and to explain its outcome. There is another part of McCullough's writing which keeps me buying each Roman novel as they come out. I think she absolutely enjoys writing these books. She likes the period, and she loves the characters she is writing about. That enjoyment comes through, especially in the ways that she plays with her characters, throwing them this way and that way on the waves of history, or on the waves of their own ambition. It's always at least plausible, and usually fun, and it's all the more fun because I can see what she is doing, and I still like it. A final point. With each new book, McCullough is moving into time periods with more and more recorded history to account for. She does better in the earlier books, I think, because she has more freedom to think up reasons for things happening, or just to think up things for her characters to do which are fun to read about. For example, I don't believe there is any evidence for Sulla acting as a spy among the migrating German tribes as she has him do in The First Man in Rome, but gee, that's kind of a fun way to show how resourceful he is, to have an excuse for Sulla to lecture Marius (and the readers) on the habits and history of the Germans, and to help show why Marius would have counted so much on Sulla. Unfortunately, in her later books, she has to have Caesar go here, and be there at particular times, and I think that she is having to work harder, which makes those books a little less fun to read. Steven Zoraster 2/22/99

- Steven Zoraster, 2/22/1999

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