The First Man In Rome - Colleen McCullough

The First Man In Rome
Colleen McCullough
Arrow Books
ISBN: 0099462486 (Amazon link)

Julius Caesar is the best known figure in the fall of the Roman Republic, but when I started reading serious histories like Scullard's, I became much more interested in the earlier, tradition shattering careers of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. These two contrasting characters - a low-born provincial soldier of immense wealth and a decadent, penniless aristocratic - both rose to positions of unassailable power in the late Republic, setting dangerous precedents for Caesar's later career, and it seemed this fictional treatment of their lives had too much promise to pass by.

I was a bit dubious about picking up a novel by the author of The Thorn Birds, but I decided that in terms of plot, McCullough would be hard pressed to go wrong. The factual history is shot through with excitement - African war, politics, German invasion, politics, more Germans, politics, grain crises, politics - and the key figures' personal lives are equally colourful. McCullough isn't just swapping in an exotic backdrop for a romantic melodrama though - she knows her history inside out and is writing a much more ambitious novel than I had expected. The First Man In Rome is less a novel and more a fictionalised history of how Gaius Marius, "an Italian hay-seed with no Greek", became Consul for an unprecedented seven years, aided and abetted by Sulla, later to become Dictator himself. The scholarship on show is impressive, and this is both the great strength and great weakness of this novel.

I'm interested in this period of history, and so I'm quite willing to follow the author through the complexities of family relationships and power struggles that comprise Republican Roman politics, but the effect of reading history in a thin, crispy fictional shell intrudes on the story - an impression reinforced by the inclusion of several maps, illustrations of all the major characters (from statuary where possible), a lengthy glossary and a pronunciation guide. It seemed difficult for the author to seamlessly integrate so much factual material into the novel, and she frequently resorts to the tactic of having one key player write "As you know Bob..." letters to another outlining the plot so far. Admittedly, this is effective, and makes sense in context, particularly in the case of Rome-bound political animal Publius Rutilius Rufus keeping his friend Gaius Marius [1] informed while he's on campaign. There are other more obvious infodumps on display however, and while I admired the learning, I started to wish for a lighter touch with the source material, and more characterisation. There's a huge cast involved here, and while McCullough does an adequate job of maintaining their separate identities - no easy feat with good patrician Roman names being re-used at every opportunity [2] - there's little sense of even the main players being fully rounded people. Even the central and most highly-developed characters of Gaius Marius and Sulla struggle to come alive on the page, and for all the high-drama of the set pieces, only rarely did I experience a visceral reaction to a character's situation. This is particularly evident in some of the side-plots, where McCullough introduces some plausible invention of her own to add some romantic tension to the macho mix of politics and war. This has mixed results, with some of the episodes being enjoyably colourful, but adding little to the tapestry of the plot, while others more directly related to the key players just didn't move me, despite their tragic outcome.

There are some great scenes in The First Man In Rome, and some interesting characterisation - notably Sulla - but my overall impression is one of heavy, lacklustre writing. Given the richness of the setting and the quality of the research, the occasional clunky passage is something which could be overlooked over a typical page-count, but this novel runs to about 900 pages, and over 1000 including the appendices! There are at least 5 other books in this series, making the whole work a dauntingly indigestible prospect. In terms of mastering her material and marshalling it into a novel, McCullough is right up there with Graves, Renault or Massie, but she lacks their skill in abstracting an essential human story from the material and telling it with a sharper edge than any mere history can. To be honest, there are novels using Rome as a backdrop for genre stories which are better reads - Steven Saylor's excellent Roma Sub Rosa detective series comes to mind.

Overall? An ambitious and impressive work, definitely worth reading if you like the period, but let down by awkward prose and a wrist-strainingly high page count. I'm hoping for a defter touch in the sequel, The Grass Crown, as McCullough has the promise to produce something very special.

[1] Publius Rutilius Rufus and Gaius Marius as friends? I thought they were supposed to hate each other after Numidia? McCullough has obviously studied the period, so I doubt this is a mistake, but I do wonder if she has twisted facts to suit her own purposes? Come to that, Marius and Sulla have a much more convivial relationship than I expected - I was expecting more animosity over Sulla's capture of Jurgutha. More spite and malice in these two relationships would have sharpened this novel up nicely!

[2] I know it sounds dull, but my Roman Who's Who helped a lot.

Posted: Sun - March 28, 2004 at 05:35 PM