Authors & Reviews
Colleen McCullough (1937 - )
October Horse, The: A Novel of Caesar and Cleopatra
Reviews:The October Horse is the sixth and, according to the “Afterword,” final novel in McCullough’s retelling of the downfall of the Roman Republic. It begins soon after the battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C. and runs for six years, to the immediate aftermath of the battle of Philippi and the suicides of Cassius and Brutus. Her focus throughout the series is the ceaseless struggle among ambitions politicians to become — and to be recognized by all others as — the first man in Rome. The Latin word here is princeps, related to primus (first), and its history should be understood. Never an office of state, it originally meant not so much absolute solitary firstness as to be pre-eminent within the small circle of the elite: the collective “first men” (principes) of Rome, the leading senators. At their head was the Princeps Senatus, appointed by the censors for a five year term with reappointment an optioni. Exceeding the Senate’s first man, a succession of powerful leaders from Marius onward achieved ever greater dominance as the ancient res publica proved unable to govern itself or its empire. Marius, subject of The First Man of Rome, was the first of this new type of “first man,” and The October Horse treats the enormously greater primacy of Julius Caesar — and the correspondingly greater opposition it provoked. As in the series’ second novel, The Grass Crown, the title of this newest story derives from an arcane and ancient feature of Roman culture. There is more here than McCullough’s knowledge of obscure aspects of the mores maiorum, for the titles reveal the symbolism in her interpretation of the failing Res Publicaii. The equus October, on the other hand, was the winner of a sacramental chariot race run by Rome’s best war horses at the ceremonial conclusion of the campaigning season on the Ides (15th) of October in the Campus Martius just outside the sacred city boundary (pomerium). One of the two horses of the victorious team was ritually slaughtered and dismembered; his head and genitals were taken to the Regia, the office and residence of Rome’s chief priest the Pontifex Maximus, the former nailed to the outside wall and the bloody latter placed on an adjacent altar. This sacrifice of “the very best that Rome owned” was believed to ensure “her might, her prosperity, her everlasting glory. The death of the October Horse was at once a mourning of her past and a vision of the future.” (p. 1) This title is significant. Julius Caesar dominates the story until his death two-thirds of the way through. His spirit dominates the last third as it drives the young Octavian to succeed where Caesar had failed. McCullough related Caesar’s rise in Caesar’s Women and Caesar: Let the Dice Fly (1996 and 1997). Now she makes him an October Horse, in personality and accomplishments her peerless hero: princeps in insight as much as in power and far surpassing his predecessors and contemporaries. With Pompey he was one of Rome’s champion war horses. A visionary but ruthlessly ambitious politician, he outraced and trampled the rivals who stood in his way as he strove to achieve the greatness that as a patrician descendant of Venus he felt was his birthright. He had no doubt that his dignitas (personal worth) coincided with Rome’s and — his great flaw — he could not comprehend that others could not accept his greatness. As Pontifex Maximus he lived in the Regia. As a victim of murder, he was sacrificed at a session of the Senate on an Ides (of March, not of October). The Senate met that fateful day in 44 BC in a portico which was part of Pompey’s theater complex and stood outside the pomerium in the Campus Martius. Never reconciled to Caesar’s pre-eminence, the assassins justify their conspiracy by their belief that Caesar’s primacy is incompatible with Roman traditions. They are simultaneously earnestly loyal to their vision of the res publica, confident in their ability to rescue it from what they called Caesar’s personal control (dominatio), and self-centered. They form the “Kill Caesar Club” in 45, and draw Antony into its fringes almost from the start. Their blind attachment to institutions and beliefs as ancient and inadequate as the ritual slaughter of the October Horse proves them all immeasurably lesser men than their victim, obstructionists but with one exception not true rivals. Readers of Caesar: Let the Dice Fly will be familiar with many of them, for the characters are exceptionally sharply drawn and a mixed bunch. Some have a vision of what they think Rome had been and should remain. Cato, a hard-drinking detestable skinflint with a beaky nose and shock of red hair, has a fanatical hatred for Caesar which renders him blind to the defects Caesar strove to remedy. We have no doubt why most contemporaries simultaneously dislike and grudgingly admire him. Ironically, Cato wins a partial victory in defeat; for in spite of his narrow-mindedness he is the best of these lesser men, and his suicide in 46 two years after the death of Pompey leaves Caesar without a worthy opponent. Excellence and superiority are relative qualities which require standards of comparison; nobody else measures up, but Cassius and Trebonius perhaps come closestiii. The novel, like the Roman world, is never the same after the deaths of Cato and Caesar. Jealousy and pettiness inspire many Republicans: Caesar’s monopoly has deprived them of the powers and privileges they felt they were entitled to as members of the ruling class and which on the whole is the unobstructed oppression of the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces, the wide-ranging misgovernment which Caesar intends to correct. McCullough’s characters are lively and unforgettable, but one may legitimately question whether fictional license hasn’t rendered them one-sided. For instance, Cato’s devotion to Stoicism was deeper and less fanatical than appears in the book, but no one will forget his grisly suicide dramatized from Plutarch and Appian. Brutus, whom regular readers will be predisposed to dislike as much as they do Cato, is driven by pecuniary concerns — outrageous principal on outstanding loans not principled outrage in politics. He is a strange and hesitant character: persecuted by his mother the ferocious Servilia — Cato’s half-sister and for years Caesar’s favorite mistress — and married to Cato’s daughter Porcia, her father’s equal in fanaticism and ugliness and who impels him to action against Caesar. Cassius is decisive and has a less than flattering opinion of his brother-in-law Brutus. Labienus is a monster and Metellus Scipio a haughty loudmouth. Even Cicero is secondary, strangely so, considering the quantity of information which his writings and speeches provide and which McCullough frequently utilizes. Having decided to relegate Cicero to the wings, McCullough does not much use his voluminous letters to Atticus and the other major actors. Cicero sheds his timidity after the assassination of Caesar in favor of a boldness which leads to rashness and from there to his murder on December 7, 43, a death little less grisly than Cato’siv. Caesar’s collaborators, it should be noted, are his subordinates not his colleagues — and on the whole as one-sided and correspondingly flawed as the Republicans. Antony is an ox of a man given over to physical pleasures, a reconstruction of this much-maligned figure which lacks conviction, as she overplays both his vices and the significance of his kinship to Caesar. (Antony’s mother Julia was second cousin of Caesar.) Antony had more ability than the author credits him with, but it is very difficult to be accurate in assessing Antony since he ultimately lost out to Octavian and the winner wrote the historyv. Antony is privy to the plot against Caesar from its very inception, tempted to betray the man to whom he owes to much out of resentment that Caesar fails to give him his duevi. Domitius Calvinus, Hirtius and Matius serve the interesting function of realizing Caesar’s greatness and thus appreciating what was irretrievably lost with his death. Caesar’s popularity with the vocal but politically powerless urban lower classes is clear. Perhaps surprisingly, we lack a description of his soldiers’ devotion to him while he was alive but we do see how Octavian capitalized on itvii. Lesser figures such as M. Aemilius Lepidus, C. Asinius Pollio and L. Munatius Plancus put in fleeting appearances which belie their actual roles in the times. But as this is a novel we can read it for what it is and not expect a complete history of the era. We have, then, a cast of good guys and bad guys — but also some lively women. I have already alluded to Servilia and Porcia,viii and the formidable Fulvia is on stage occasionally. Antony was her third husband (she was his fourth wife) and Plutarch remarked that by housebreaking him she prepared him for submission to Cleopatra. This brings us to the storied queen of Egypt and her relationship with Caesar.ix Only in bloodlines a Macedonian Ptolemy, Cleopatra is so thoroughly Egyptianized that she sees herself as an incarnation of Isis who both loves Caesar and in her infatuation is determined to ritually mate with him (as Osiris) so as to produce a new Horus. Her dreams even envision having both sons and daughters by Caesar who in Egyptian fashion would marry and establish a new dynasty. Caesar on the other hand has no intention of being used for Egyptian purposes, is forever instructing the queen on how to rule, and carefully foils her plans to make him the father of a Horus and initiator of a Ptolemaic-Julian line of pharaohs. She is more an infatuated teenager than a mature queen, though she is more perceptive by the time of her final appearance, and finally realizes she’ll never mean as much to Caesar as do Rome and his legions. In extended visits Servilia teaches her much about Roman ways.x Caesar is also a portent of the future. Himself suffering from low blood sugar and varicose veins (the latter explain why he wore the high boots of Rome’s ancient kings), he sees potential in his asthmatic great nephew Octavian and introduces him to Rome’s political public. Along the way Caesar gives him much sage advice, including the recommendation that he be careful not to exude an air of effeminacy. Octavian, slight and unimposing in build, responds by trying to swagger like a man and wearing high-soled boots to increase his stature.xi Shrewd, perceptive and determined, he dominates the novel’s final third and has some of Caesar’s visions for Rome. Admitting he lacks Caesar’s military abilities, he is fortunate in having the loyal M. Vipsanius Agrippa at his side. As both the corona graminea and the equus October failed to survive into the ensuing period, so the res publica gave way to the Empire. The assassins got one thing right, albeit unintentionally: the sacrifice of the best war horse of the day, Caesar, led to the rise of the champion of the next generation. Readers who know their history recognize in the young Octavian — whom Cicero and Antony dismissed as puer (“boy”, but with sneering overtones of “kid, punk”) — the future emperor Augustus. Factual errors are few and will disturb only the picky and professional historians. One that appears frequently is that people are said to go down the Nile from its mouth at Alexandria to Memphis, etc. Directions derive from the river’s flow, so travelers go upstream from the Mediterranean coast. Alexandria’s population is said to be 3 million (pp. 19, 674), which is six time the size usually attributed to it. Q. Caecilius Metellus Scipio and Cn. Domitius Calvinus did not have imperium maius in Africa and Asia respectively in 48—46; Scipio was proconsul and imperator, and Calvinus was legate.xii There is no evidence that Cleopatra’s mother Cleopatra V Tryphaena was a daughter of Mithradates of Pontus (p. 62), and the P. Rufrius whom Caesar makes propraetorian legate of Egypt (p. 96) is unknown. Narbonese Gaul was made a province probably in 120-118, not by Caesar (pp. 405, 410). The famous “Veni, vidi, vici” was written on the placards for Caesar’s great triumph in 46, not in a letter to Matius.xiii Decimus Brutus was to govern Cisalpine Gaul before the promised consulship of 42 (pp. 421f.). I know of no evidence that Pompey’s elder son Gnaeus married Scribonia and then asked his brother Sextus to take her if he was killed in battle (pp. 129, 366). Statilius Taurus’ praenomen was Titus, not Gaius (p. 709). One may doubt that Pompey and Cornelia intended to flee to “Serica” (China) after Pharsalus (p. 142). Cato’s speech of encouragement to his fatigued comrades is strikingly similar to the words of Odysseus, Teucer and Aeneas.xiv Cato’s callousness toward women is plausible, and the tangled marriage ties of the nobility are mostly right. L. Marcius Philippus (consul 56), depicted as a rather shallow Epicurean, deftly straddled the political fence: his daughter Marcia was Cato’s second wife; by his marriage to Atia, widow of C. Octavius, he became the stepfather of Octavian; and his son (consul in 38) by an earlier wife married a younger Atia — his stepmother’s sister! On the other hand, McCullough is almost certainly wrong in making Fulvia the maternal granddaughter of C. Sempronius Gracchus. She was descended from the Sempronius Tuditanus consul of 129.xv The location of Munda in southern Spain is uncertain: she puts it on the road from Astigi (Ecija) to Calpe/Gibraltar; this is where it appears in the authoritative Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, but other modern authorities locate it somewhere east of Astigi. The First Man of Rome told the career of Gaius Marius, Caesar’s uncle by marriage to Caesar’s father’s sister Julia, and, as noted above, first of the new breed of first men. The series now ends but without a conclusion, for in 42 BC Rome does not have a first man. Caesar is dead but Octavian is only 21 and on his way up. McCullough assigns him the early forms of many policies which in fact he later possessed, and this build-up pleads for a sequel. As McCullough observes, the death of Caesar was “a liberation” of “chaos” (p. 485). If her publishers can entice the author to compose a next volume we will be the richer, for we will gain a doubtless colorful and insightful recreation of the titanic struggle between Octavian and Antony and — though one hesitates to think how many pages this would involve — finish with Octavian as Augustus princeps. He was the last and greatest of Fortune’s Favorites (to borrow the title of another novel in the series): the first man of Rome in a way that neither Marius nor Caesar nor anyone else had ever been or would ever be. Augustus was the princeps, and the term has evolved to become a permanent position though not quite an office, a euphemism for emperor. All his wiser successors modeled themselves on him. Thomas Watkins Blacksburg, VA TH-Watkins@wiu.edu ENDNOTES i To give two examples: Scipio Africanus was appointed Princeps Senatus in 199 and reappointed in 194 and 189; M. Aemilius Lepidus was first appointed in 179 and reappointed five times. ii The hero who liberated soldiers or civilians from a siege received the corona obsidionalis, siege crown, from those whom he had rescued. Spontaneously demonstrating their gratitude and that they owed their lives to this one man, the saved made the crown from vegetation growing on the site — whence its alternative name, corona graminea or grass crown. iii Caesar points to Cato’s significance and asseses himself (p. 328). McCullough’s characters rather than the author herself often assess one another. Other instances are Octavian on Caesar (p. 323) and Cimber on Antony (p. 325) iv See my review of Caesar: Let the Dice Fly for some page references to these and other figures. v Antony is a mixture of handsomeness and ugliness: a neck “so thick that it looked like an extension of his head;” his “nose and chin tried very hard to meet across his small, full-lipped mouth, one curving downward, the other upward: women whom he had honored with his amorous attentions likened kissing him to being nipped by a turtle” (p. 237; cf. 450 for Antony’s physique as a lupercus). For a balanced biography of Antony, see Eleanor Huzar, Mark Antony: a biography (Minneapolis, 1978). See also C.P.R. Pelling, Plutarch: Life of Antony (Cambridge, 1988) esp. pp. 10-18 and 26-37. The triumvir Lepidus is another leading figure of the time who suffers in obscurity; see R. Weigel, Lepidus the Tarnished Triumvir (London and New York, 1992). vi See pp. 404ff. and passim. vii For Calvinus, see pp. 6f.; Hirtius and Matius, pp. 495, 505-07, 514. Popularity with the masses: pp. 512, 537 and 554f.; soldiers’ devotion, see Caesar, Civil War 2.48-53, 64; Suetonius, Caesar 67-70. For Octavian: pp. 517ff. viii These ladies fight continually and their spat is almost light relief. Servilia and Cato are half-siblings. Her son Brutus loves and eventually marries Cato’s daughter Porcia, who was thus his cousin. See especially pp. 165f., 382-404. ix Plutarch, Antony 10.3. Cleopatra’s famous love affair with Antony belongs to the years after Philippi; it would be in a sequel. Much less is known of her affair with Caesar, which in turn allows much room for fictional imagination. x See esp. pp. 41, 83, 98, 106-111, 205f.. xi See the “Afterword” for McCullough’s medical diagnoses; pp. 360 and 552 (and elsewhere) for Caesar’s advice and Octavian’s comic appearance in the platform boots. xii Pp. 9-11, 174. See Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic 2.275, 277f., 297. xiii P. 214; see Suetonius, Caesar 37.2. xiv P. 134; Homer, Odyssey 12.208ff.; Horace, Ode 1.7; Virgil, Aeneid 1.195ff. xv Pp. 238 and elsewhere. See C. Babcock, American Journal of Philology 86 (1965), pp. 1-32; R.A. Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (London and New York, 1992), pp. 83-89.
- Thomas Watkins, 12/15/2005
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