Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The First Man in Rome, series by Colleen McCullough

Imperium and Lustrum, by Robert Harris, got me back into an ancient Rome groove, but the sudden availability of Istanbul Passage at my local library necessitated a brief detour. After that atmospheric Joseph Kanon read, it's time to get back to my Roman holiday. The First Man in Rome series by Colleen McCullough contains seven of the very best novels of ancient Rome. Having read all seven before, I decided to skip rereading the first two, First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, to start with Fortune's Favorites, which picks up about where Harris began with Cicero and Caesar.  

It was also useful to employ, once again, the enlightening technique of reading straight biography/history works alongside the novels - first the concise biography Julius Caesar, by Philip Freeman; then Augustus, by Anthony Everitt. While biographers tend to become admirers of their subjects almost as much as novelists, both Freeman and Everitt make careful distinctions between established facts and hearsay in the contemporary sources. That helped me know when McCullough was inventing and/or embellishing, or selecting between conflicting reports by contemporary Roman historical writers who were both less well-informed and less rigorous than modern historians. An additional twist when examining the lives of Cicero and Caesar is that much of what we know about them came from their own pens - both were prolific writers.
Fortune's Favorites narrates the rise and fall of many Roman politicians and military men who competed for the informal title of "First Man in Rome" during the turbulent late-republic years between Sulla's retirement from public life in 79 BC and the commencement of Caesar's Gallic campaigns in 58 BC. Largest among these was Pompey, whose military successes enabled him to chart his own path up the cursus honorum of Roman political life.

One of the many other contenders was Marcus Tullius Cicero, and it was interesting to see him from McCullough's perspective after the Harris treatment. Predictably, Cicero comes off better than Caesar in the Harris biographical-novels, while the reverse is true in Fortune's Favorites, whose parade of notables serves as merely a lead-in to the brilliant and dominating career of Julius Caesar.

Caesar (subtitled Let the Dice Fly) opens in Brittania (54 BC), in the middle of the Gallic Wars. The narrative moves both forward and back in time from that point, mainly in Gaul but continuing through the famous crossing of the Rubicon, the civil war against Pompey, and concluding with Pompey's murder in Egypt (48 BC).

The October Horse picks up from there, covering Caesar's dalliance with Cleopatra and his last years in Rome leading up to his assassination (44 BC). At that point the focus again splits to illustrate both sides of the war against Caesar's assassins, led by the "republicans" Brutus and Cassius. Mark Antony and young Octavian (the future Augustus) become allies to finally defeat them at Philippi, and the book ends as Octavian prepares to return west to Rome while Antony goes east.  

The final book in the series, Antony and Cleopatra, switches back and forth between Octavian in Rome and Antony in Egypt and Roman Asia. As indicated by the title, the queen of Egypt is also a prominent character, choosing to ally herself and her country with Antony against Octavian for ultimate control of the Roman world.

Like many biographical novelists, McCullough's protagonists tend to come across as larger than life - none more so than Julius Caesar. The reader of McCullough's novels gets a portrait of Caesar as the embodiment of the Roman ideals of auctoritas, gravitas, and especially dignitas, an untranslatable concept that combines our ideas of dignity, honor, legacy and personal responsibility. As the exemplar of these most-highly-prized personal values, McCullough's Caesar is also the culmination of all the Roman history that came before. It's not hard to draw parallels between this idealized Caesar and Ayn Rand's leading men, including the consuming jealousy of lesser mortals that ultimately led to the assassination in 44 BC.   

My "five criteria" are unnecessary with the First Man in Rome novels - they get highest marks in all categories. My only quibble is that McCullough characters tend to be idealized, romanticized, and simplified - and so tend to come off as not quite human. That's OK - these are historical novels, not character studies. I'd rather read more about the history and less about the inner emotional struggles.