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Showing 1-10 of 105 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 285 reviews
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!
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on March 5, 2002
When they are done well, there is nothing like a fat historical novel. You enter a world that is alien and yet so very familiar. It fills you with wonder and the desire to return to that world and learn more.
While I am a bit of a snob when it comes to writing, I was told by so many people that this was a truly excellent novel by none other than the author of The Thorn Birds, which I scorned (without reading it) as cheap melodrama. So I got it and was not only not disappointed but utterly enthralled from page one. This is superb and masterful fiction, well researched and full of page-turning action and intrigue.
The story takes place in the sunset of Republican Rome, starting in 110 BC, with military threats to Rome in N. Africa (Jugurtha) and from the German hordes to the North (Boiorix). The main characters include Gaius Marius - a military genius who has seen his public career stalled due to his lack of patrician birth status - and Lucius Sulla, a poor and debauched aristocrat who will stop at nothing to advance himself. These men form an alliance that is as complex and multifaceted as it is effective. Marius' opponents are the good-boy Patriciate, who are for the most part hidebound aristocrat mediocrities undeserving of their birth right to their share in the power of Rome. But there is also the hilarous Patrician opponent Scaurus, who loathes Marius as much as he loves him and needs his military genius. Other Characters include Julius Caesar's parents, grand parents, and a host of politicians whose personalities are subtle and beautifully drawn. This is not melodrama but wonderful storytelling.
If you want to know what it was like to live then, this novel will really open that world to you. The Republic was a democratic experiment - deeply flawed, but with regular and peaceful transfer of power to an ever wider group - that lasted 500 years! As I walked around Rome recently, I delighted to think about what happened in the places I was walking by, which I learned about from this book. You get to know the fashionable rich, the declining old families, and the riff-raff of the Subura, where murderers, freedmen, Jews, and actor-prostitutes made their homes together. You witness the great military campaigns of the time, and follow Sulla as he "became" a Gaul in order to gather intelligence on Rome's most dangerous enemy yet, each with descriptions of the places that became well known towns such as Caracsone, Toulouse, and Verona. There is also the cruelty and superstition, which perfectly offsets the iconoclastic and progressive personality of the great (and arrogant) Marius. It is wonderful and fun and as far as I can tell - as an old college classics major - historically accurate.
I give this four stars only because it did not quite pass the bar of true literature for me, as do the great Yourcenar and the consistently excellent Gore Vidal as first-rate historical novelists. But that does not detract one bit from my enjoyment of the novel. I will read the rest of the series, for sure.
Warmly recommended.
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on June 28, 2014
An excellent start to an excellent series. Based on the most famous people of the late Roman Republic, the author builds a believable world based on the declining years of the Roman Republic. She populates her version of the Republic with believable people in situations that could have happened in that time. In spite of being knowing the real life outcome of the people she wrote about McCuillough wrote it believable enough to keep me reading. It's a great pageant of Roman history at it's finest in thousands of pages that does require an effort to finish. I just kept waiting for the next volume. The final one Anthony & Cleopatra was one too many. Never connected like all the previous ones.
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on September 18, 2016
MdCullouth is the best author when it comes to historical.novels. She does a thorough job of researching her topic and then writes the topic in glorious story form. I love all her books!!
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on August 29, 2015
I really enjoyed this book. McCullough's writing can take some getting used to at first but after a few chapters I was really enjoying it. The narrative built around this period is extremely fascinating and the author did a fantastic job keeping things lively and interesting. I would recommend this book for any Roman history fan.
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on April 7, 2014
No one brings Rome alive like Ms McCullough. This is the 2nd best of the bunch. She introduces events and characters that mattered to history in a believable, fact based, yet still entertaining way that does that most precious thing a book can. It draws you into another time. You see the strategies develop - but unless you follow Roman history closely - you don't know how it will turn out. The only criticism is the slow initial pace - but I guess that was necessary with the amount of groundwork that needed to be covered for an epic this large. I like how she lets the characters follow their own morals, and not the morals of our time. WARNING - don't buy this book if you have any major life events in the next year. Once you start - you'll end up reading the whole series. And that'll take a while. Enjoy.
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on September 12, 2010
I just finished the entire Masters of Rome series. I ordered this first book because a friend commented to me that it was the best series of historical novels she had ever read. My husband, who is trained in the classics, read the first novel well before I did and loved it He thought McCullough had done a great job both with the research and with imagining the rest of her story.. So I bought the other 6 books.
McCullough gives a real human dimension to historical figures and renders the daily life of ancient Rome superbly. I never imagined that I would be very interested in battle scenes but McCullough makes those thrilling. Her depiction of activity in the Roman senate is vivid. The great Cicero is a superb orator who spends a lot of time bemoaning the rigors of daily life Gaius Marius, Sulla and Marc Antony are all fascinating and larger than life

McCullough loves Caesar and who can blame her? Her recounting of his early like when he is raised in the Roman equivalent of an apartment building by his remarkable mother, Aurelia, is just the beginning of a detailed and fascinating portrait.

I can't wait to read more about ancient Rome
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on February 28, 2009
I wanted to read this book to break my reading pattern and experience something new. I was expecting a long story (the paperback edition has over 1,000 pages) and I was prepared to hang in there until I finish the book.

The start is slow. You have to look at maps, endure a winding introduction of the main characters by observing the complicated ceremony blessing the new consuls which takes place at the start of the year. But once you go through this, the pace of the story picks up gradually and it grabs you. Colleen McCullough is amazingly skilled at bringing the old world back to life. And what a world that is!

The surprise I had with this book is that it is not only a great story, but it is a great history. I learned so much about Rome in a way that it would not be possible by just reading history books. Colleen is fantastic at reviving the atmosphere in Rome more than two thousand years ago. You walk on the streets of this great capital of the world and discover that what we think as modern was invented and lived long time ago in Rome. This city, this realm of great people was probably the first true democracy in the sense that it functioned not only as a political system, but as an economic system and a way of life that it is strikingly similar to our world today. It was by far so much better and more advanced than anything in the world in that day.

The complex web of negotiations of the lobbying system that we find in Washington, the Capitol, the White House was alive and well in Rome. Great men achieved power and immortality by the means of communication, brilliance and influence rather than by the user of raw military power. You get flashes political tricks that will be perfected in the last two centuries, of attempts of dictatorship, use of masses through promises that remind you of era of Lenin and communism and of fascism. You get to see that an incredibly sophisticated financial system was invented long time ago: banking, transfers, safe deposits, cheques, trade, and manipulation of commodities market through political means, etc. It is all there. You have also real estate investment, and more. The life in Rome was so, how should I say, cosmopolitan. People were renting in Rome like we do today. Yes, there were slaves then, but there were free people trying to do business moving to Rome seeking success in the same way people come to the big cities drawn by dreams of riches and fame and lucrative jobs. For instance, in a large apartment, that is "insula" in Roman terms, owned by Aurelia, you find people from Egypt, Greece, Macedonia, Israel, Italy, Numidia, etc.

When I read this I just had a realisation of how much value was lost by humanity when barbarians brought Rome to ruin (or maybe Rome brought itself to ruin). Maybe it was a way of God saying: "this experiment is not working, let me start all over again". Another thought that occurred to me was that most of us take anything for granted and believe it is always going to be a constant advance in the standard of living. We think WWII was the last disaster, but it may well not be that. We could end up in ruin and Earth has to wait another few thousand years until the next world can achieve greater heights. People with power in Washington and other capitals of the world would better read more about Rome. It could happen all over again.

The story is backed by research and true facts. Maybe people who have different historical opinion would argue around some details. But overall everything has roots in facts recorded by historical documents accepted as reliable sources of information. Colleen McCullough took these artefacts and blew a magic star dust over them and brought the old world back to life.

Wonderful book, if you commit yourself to read it, you will be rewarded with action, excellent story and a lesson of history about what is probably the greatest civilisations of all times: Rome.
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on January 21, 2009
I thought that the two main characters drove this story and both were multi-dimnesional, deeply evolved, realistic, interesting people. Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla rise to power in Rome following very different paths with very different personalities. This book delves deeply into what these two figures may have been like and closesly examines the political workings of Rome around 100 AD. The lives of the nobility of Rome are the main subject of the book describing Marius and Sulla's rise to power. It is clear that the book was meticulously researched and this shows in the many details McCullough provides for the reader, along with the extensive glossary and appendage.

There were a few problems I had while reading this book. Some exciting and historic events are described in a summary fashion with no real time depiction. For example, a battle that Marius waits two years to wage is done in about couple pages with a description of the death totals. Also, the role a couple characters play as spies on the Germans sounds extremely interesting but it is not really explored at all, other than their brief summaries of what they learn. The book focusses on the elite of Rome and their political interactions sacrificing some of the excitement that could have been a larger element of the book. Another difficulty was keeping all the Roman names straight (example: Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus). There are many very similar, and sometimes actually the same, names in the book that make reaing a chore at times.

Overall I give this book a 4 for its insight into ancient Rome and strong characterizations.
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on August 24, 2017
A masterly review of a period of history which has parallels to what is happening today in the U.S. The writing is excellent and holds your attention through a very long book or more properly, a long series of books. What a muddle we humans make of our world! and how history repeats itself.
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