896 pages, William Morrow & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0688093686
Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome is a magnificent, towering portrait of the men (and, to a lesser extent, the women) who unknowingly brought about the destruction of the Roman Republic while trying to save it. With an enchanting eye for detail (her description of the great lengths Romans will go to even while at war in order to protect the secret of a prized snail population is delightful), McCullough breathes life into some of Rome’s most famous and infamous characters. Gaius Marius is a provincial military man, a “hayseed with no Greek” in the eyes of most patrician Romans, desperate to prove himself because he knows, with every fiber of his bull-like being, that he is the best man in Rome. Protecting a dirty little secret that it has been foretold that Marius will be consul seven times – an unprecedented feat, given that you had to wait ten years between terms in office – and will become the Third Founder of Rome, Marius has the military brains and the vast fortune, but not the upbringing to rise to his destined station.
All that changes when the head of the impoverished-yet-impeccably noble Caesar clan, Julius (no not that Julius; he comes later in the series) offers an alliance with Marius: marriage for cash. In one fell swoop, allied with the Caesars (descended directly from Venus herself), Marius is on the rise. Also rising, from even greater depths, is the wolf-like Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Of almost as noble of birth as the Caesars, Sulla is even more destitute, forced to share his bed with women who love him desperately. Too creepy to be called sinister, depraved but not quite evil, Sulla is only too willing to use poison to achieve what ends he may. Sulla is one of McCullough’s great characters, and he far more complex than Marius.
Eventually, Marius and Sulla go to war in Africa against Rome's rival, Jugurtha, and victories there lead to Marius' command of the Roman armies against the horrifying Germans who storm out of the distant north. More than a mere military history, although McCullough has a gift for describing the horrors of battle without too much gore, The First Man in Rome also throws the reader into the middle of Senate intrigue. Led by Scaurus, the Princeps Senatus, the Roman patricians do not sit idly by as Marius rises to power. Throwing even more heft into this novel is the powerful cast of female characters. Roman society did not officially honor its women with votes, elected office, or titles, but it is clear to all and sundry that Roman women are players to be reckoned with, and this side of the story is what elevates McCullouch's efforts above and beyond so many other novels about Rome.
One advantage McCullough uses to her advantage in this, the first novel in her Masters of Rome series, is that there are relatively limited surviving historical records of this time period. We have much more extant history from later years. McCullough uses this freedom to flesh out her characters and her story as she will, and the result is wonderful. A detailed glossary, maps, and even sketches of the main characters all provide the details necessary for this time period. A must for any fan of historical fiction or of the Roman world (And to think, my mother found this on the FREE table at MediaPlay!)