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The First Man in Rome (1990)

by Colleen McCullough

Series: Masters of Rome (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,907533,619 (4.05)130
McCullough's epic tale of ancient Rome explores the power struggle between an ambitious military man and a man who lost his fortune to pleasure.
  1. 30
    The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough (guurtjesboekenkast)
    guurtjesboekenkast: In dezelfde Serie
  2. 00
    The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie (Cecrow)
  3. 00
    The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives by Plutarch (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Plutarch's biographies of six key figures, including Marius and Sulla.
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Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
I started to get more interested in ancient Rome (particularly the Republic) after the HBO series started. I read Tom Holland's excellent Rubicon and knew I needed more--especially on Marius and Sulla, two of the most fascinating characters of this or any historical period. When I learned of McCullough's series, I began with this one and was immediately hooked. I've read all seven, but my favorites are the first 3 or 4.

I really appreciated the way she was faithful to the known history but filled in the unknown areas with reasonable and interesting guesses (e.g., Sulla's first wife probably wasn't Julius Caesar's other aunt, if he had more than one, but she was a Julia). There are dozens of interpretations that she makes (and usually explains in the notes at the end) that are usually so well thought-out and ring true to the known history. Her take on Caesar's epilepsy was particularly interesting and reflects her expertise as a medical doctor (a perspective most historians can't draw on). Her explanation of how Marius made J.C. the flamen dialis, a priesthood that would have prevented any kind of military or significant political career, was ingenious. It's clear (and she points out as much in her afterwords) that some things may not have happened the way she portrays them. But you never get the sense that, like some historical fiction writers, she's changing the history to fit her story. Instead, she tries to understand sometimes conflicting facts to arrive at a plausible rationale.

But, mainly, it's the characters that give this series life. Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and Julius Caesar are living, breathing human beings. She gets inside their heads, and you really get the sense that you know and understand these historical giants, who all were contemporaries of one another and of other legendary figures--Marc Antony, Cicero, Pompey Magnus, Crassus, Spartacus, Brutus, Cassius, and on and on.

I was never that interested in Roman history as a student, with its emphasis on the imperial period. But I think I find something tragic and bittersweet about the end of the republic, which, after all, was a functioning form of democracy more than 2,000 years ago. These men all held the ideal of the republic dear, but they just couldn't help destroying it, blinded as they were by their own hubris, greed, and ambition. It's a fascinating and exhilarating story, and the best way I can think of to understand this important period of Western history. ( )
1 vote alexlubertozzi | May 24, 2021 |
Reading it for the 3rd time. ( )
  LuckyWitter | Apr 22, 2021 |
I really tried with this one, as it was a recommendation from a trusted friend. I struggled with it off and on for 8 months before finally deciding to throw in the towel. As other reviewers have said, this book is way longer than it needed to be and not nearly engaging enough to justify that length. The 10 page letters I found to be particularly annoying and dull. If I wanted a dry, matter-of-fact explanation of events I would have picked up an actual history book! To me, the point of historical fiction is to take a real time and place in history and make you feel like you're there, actually experiencing it along with the characters. This book was all telling and no showing. ( )
  sarahb6 | Sep 2, 2020 |
Ancient Roman history at the macro level divides neatly into the Republic and Empire eras. McCullough's seven volume historical fiction series tackles the transition between them. Among the options for her logical starting point, she chose the rise of Gaius Marius to consul, which supplies plenty of drama. It also works as an early beginning to the story of Julius Caesar, dominant figure of the transition. It is his family's deal struck with Marius that eventually makes it possible for a Caesar to ascend to the heights of Roman power.

On a sliding scale for historical fiction, this lands unusually close to the actual history end. This first volume predominantly belongs to Marius, but also serves as a kind of origin story for Sulla who will eventually become his rival. These names I knew; some I did not, and mostly resisted the Internet so the novel could reveal their importance. The research is fantastic, and (as far as I've determined) where it takes some liberties it does so in the vein of a best guess. Invented characters are few, and there's a minimum of invented drama, but still plenty of excitement to go around in the careful round-robin coverage of political, personal and military events. There's a hundred pages of glossary at the end to defend her interpretation. All of these are positives for me, but they may not appeal if you only want a rollicking story. McCullough likes sticking to the facts, and reality can be stranger and messier than fiction.

The writing unfortunately isn't at the level that I normally enjoy. McCullough is sometimes too obviously sharing her research instead of smoothly integrating it, and the dialogue can be borderline juvenile, although neither flaw is taxing. It's very strange to me that Marius and Jugurtha, for all of their mutual history and respect, never speak face to face; is that likely? Helpful maps are inserted where the author thought them relevant, but require extra bookmarks to find them when they matter again. The book's greatest feature is that it successfully makes its setting come alive: the ancient city of Rome and environs feel like real places, the historical figures like real people with all of their pettiness and humanity to balance their accomplishments. It felt like I heard what the Romans heard, smelled and saw the same things they did as they went about their business. It's a world I'll be pleased to return to in "The Grass Crown". ( )
1 vote Cecrow | Mar 30, 2020 |
Filthy. I put it down after less than thirty pages. ( )
  tiasreads | Dec 11, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
"Those willing to hunker down for a stretch of close reading will be rewarded with a memorable picture of an age with many aspects that share characteristics ontemporaneous with our own."
added by bookfitz | editPublishers Weekly (Oct 1, 1990)
 
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Frederick T. Mason,
dear friend, splendid colleague, honest man,
with love and gratitude
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Having no personal commitment to either of the new consuls, Gaius Julius Caesar and his sons simply tacked themselves onto the procession which started nearest to their own house, the procession of the senior consul, Marcus Minucius Rufus.
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McCullough's epic tale of ancient Rome explores the power struggle between an ambitious military man and a man who lost his fortune to pleasure.

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