Top positive review
Thrilling narrative, brings to life the characters and political intrigues of the Late Republic
on September 16, 2017
Historical fiction can be divided into two types: panoramic works that cover a broad swath of time, like the novels of James Michener and Ernest Rutherfurd; and works that treat a brief time period in great detail, like the novels of Hilary Mantel or Robert Harris. Colleen McCullough’s “First Man in Rome,” the action of which comprises the period from 110 BCE to 100 BCE, is of the latter type.
The initial book in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, “The First Man in Rome” tells the story of Marius and Sulla in the first years of their magistracies. The actions in this first book take place two generations before Julius Caesar, and we meet Julius Caesar’s grandfather and father (Julius Caesar himself is born is 100 BCE, the final year covered in this first book). Impressively, there is more to the book than just the story. McCullough calls herself a “one-woman band” because she has not only written the text, but has also created remarkable illustrations and maps found throughout the book. The 750-page story is also followed by an extensive and informative glossary (not to mention a pronunciation guide).
To appreciate McCullough’s assiduously researched novel, it is advantageous to possess some knowledge of Roman history (like knowing about cursus honorum, lustrum, patricians and plebeians, nomen and cognomen, Lares, Penates, the Gracchi brothers, Marcus Livius Drusus and Cato, for example). I found it helpful to look up unfamiliar concepts to gain a better appreciation of the narrative. There are many characters in the book, sometimes similarly named, and to keep them all straight, it is beneficial to know a bit about the historical relevance of the main characters.
McCullough’s novel is not only a thrilling narrative, but it brings to life in rich detail the characters and political intrigues at the heart of the Late Republic. You can learn more about – and gain a deeper appreciation of – the Late Republic from this novel than you can from a standard Western Civilization textbook or from non-fiction books covering the period such as Tom Holland’s “Rubicon.” I can’t wait to read the second book in the series!