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Peter Green

Sword of Pleasure, The
World, 1957


suitability: OK for mature high school students plot: Sulla's autobiography This novel begins in Sulla's final year of life, after a stroke has made him realize his mortality. Sulla writes his autobiography to justify his deeds and to perform his last duty to his country. As Sulla reflects on his life, he claims he chose "the way of justice." The author's dedication features a quotation from T.S. Eliot about doing the right deed for the wrong reasons, which leads the reader to suspect that Sulla is deceiving himself. The author shows factors which led Sulla to become a dictator. His earliest (and strongest?) influence is growing up in poverty on the Aventine Hill. The stink and odors of rot and refuse disgust him and perhaps lay the foundations for his distrust of the plebeians. A second motivation is watching the murder of Tiberius Gracchus at the age of five. Ten years later, when he is old enough to realize the issues involved, he watches the death of Gaius Gracchus. From these two episodes, Sulla learns to fear demagogues. A third factor is his scorn for the business class, with its greed for money. Part of this is the disdain of an aristocrat for a merchant. Sulla also detests the equestrian influence on foreign policy, such as the Jugurthine War, which he thinks is waged to protect Rome's economic interests. A fourth influence is his dislike of the patricians, who disdain him until he has power. Even then, he realizes they patronize him, and misunderstand his reforms. One night at a private banquet, Metellus Pius reveals their real nature, how they are obsessed with becoming consuls, stopping at nothing to attain this office. The aristocrats (the author never uses the term patricians) consider justice and law as instruments of their private vengeance. Their real loyalty is to each other (the "old boys' club"?). Sulla's friendship with actors plays a small role in his life. Actors do not judge him by his birthmark, but by his personality. Nicopolis the courtesan and Metrobius the actor keep Sulla informed about what is really happening in Rome and give him sound advice (e.g., be pleasant to your father's second wife and she will leave you enough money to be independent). This period of Sulla's life is handled with enough reserve that a mature student could read these passages. Historical personages mentioned include Pompeius (whom Sulla despises), Lucullus (whom he trusts), Livius Drusus ( whom he first admires but later rejects because of his espousal of citizenship for the Italian allies), Catulus, and Mithridates. The most important Roman personage is Marius. Sulla at first respects him as a general and fighter, but is disillusioned during the Jugurthine War and later during the war against the Cimbri and Teutones (Marius almost lost the battle at Vercellae, this book claims). Marius is a complex character, however; he respects the republic more than the aristocrats; e.g. refuses to kill Sulla when he has him in his power because Sulla is the consul. Sulla the aristocrat despises Marius the peasant, but can't escape the ghost of Marius, which whispers in Sulla's aged head, "you will use the sword ..for your pleasure and advancement." Pompeius is another important character in this novel. Sulla is angry at himself that he has misjudged Pompey. Misled by Pompey's physical beauty, Sulla thought the young general was "an Apollo, rather than the Narcissus which he really was." Sulla muses that Pompey seemed the personification of Roman tradition..."I loved him and he used me, I trusted him and he betrayed me." When Pompey remarks about the rising and setting suns, Sulla realizes that others will use his methods for their own agendas. The four wives of Sulla reflect his changing status. His first wife is chosen for him by his father as a sick joke: a lame woman for a birth- marked man. His second wife Cloelia is an idealistic patrician who is warm and loving, and who later forgives him his abuses. His third wife Caecilia Metella, an aristocrat who marries him partly for himself, and partly to help her clan, is a realistic woman. Later in their marriage, she says that Sulla deludes himself thinking he can buy or command affection. His fourth wife Valeria, who touches him for luck at the games, is a comfort to him as his health declines. The author seems to portray Sulla as an idealist gone astray: "he knew Rome's antiquated constitution was to blame and dreamed of what one man with a purpose could accomplish. " The ex-dictator claims that he confiscated property and executed men by due process of law. He thinks of himself as a surgeon excising a cancer. Sulla claims that the only motive for holding the reins of power is to ensure passage of his legal reforms. Some of his laws are mentioned and the reasoning behind them, which is related to incidents from his life (e.g. the curbing of tribunician power from observing the Gracchi). Sulla believes that he is impartial and absolute, above all classes. Is Sulla a tragic hero? When he obtains the power to effect reforms, his physical decline begins, his third wife withdraws her affection, and the patricians reveal their real agenda. Only Sulla cares to return Rome to her original ideals, but now he realizes that it is too late; Rome, like Sulla, is dying from within. In addition, Sulla has become what he most despised, another Marius; worse, he is hated more than Marius, because he kills dispassionately and cold-bloodedly. The lust for wealth, which he blamed on the equites, has penetrated all levels of Roman society from lowest to highest. He can't legislate against greed or put faith in people's hearts. "The will to virtue had failed." The Sword of Pleasure is good for the general reader who is interested in this period of social upheaval.The issues of the time are mentioned, e.g. the rise of the business class, the decline of the patricians, and the growing importance of the army. The handling of the battle scenes is competent and strategy is explained well; the author describes the battle of Vercellae, the Social War, the siege of Athens, the war against Mithridates, and the battle of the Colline Gate. A Latin teacher might notice that the author never mentions Caesar, never uses the words equites or patricians (always the aristocrats), says Rome had a constitution, calls Marius a peasant when he was an eques, and mentions Cicero's speech against Chrysogonus without naming its author. Some quotes from The Sword of Pleasure to give potential readers a feel for this novel: •"It is better to build on hatred than to destroy in the name of an idea" •"The sword rusts, the thought endures" •"I want to be remembered for my laws, not my battles" •"Laws can only be broken and remade by a man who has learned to obey them" •"Men do not desire the good. They hate it because it shames them." As this reviewer mentioned earlier, The Sword of Pleasure might be OK for mature high schoolers. The author gives no graphic details of Rome's fast set, and Metrobius is presented as a friend. His Greek doctor has been warning him for years that he is "living too fast" but Sulla says he regrets nothing. As an attempt to explore the "soul" of an ancient dictator, this is well-written and researched. My suggestion: read this, then compare with the first three of McCullough's series for her interpretation of Sulla. Roz Harper 9/99

- Roz Harper, 11/27/2005

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