THE FIRST MAN IN ROME by Colleen McCullough
Kirkus Star


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With this ambitious behemoth (900+ pp.; over 100 pp. in the Glossary alone), McCullough lifts off a projected series of novels set in ancient Rome. Marked by her exuberant research into the prime movers of the Roman Republic, their times and places (there are some busy maps), this is the story of the careers of two Roman generals--Gains Marius (157 B.C.-86 B.C.) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 B.C.-78 B.C.)--as they prosper amid labyrinthian political infighting and power plays; the slaughters and strategies of war; plots thick and nasty; various violent demises; a modicum of domestic pleasures and pains; and quips that reach across the centuries (re. political patronage: ""It's normal. It's human. The ones to watch are the ones who are in politics to change the world""). In 110 B.C., the 47-year-old Gains Marius--that ""Italian upstart with no Greek""--chafes at being an outsider within the dual aristocracy of patricians and plebs. At the same time, eerily magnetic, brilliant, and sly Lucius Cornelius Sulla, endowed with lineage but no money, glowers for the same reason. Both will be rich (one through war, one through murders most foul) and, thanks to the Senator Gaius Julius Caesar Nepos (no, not that Caesar), each will wed a patrician daughter and rise through the political hierarchies. Marius and Sulla become close friends and partners (the author defends this supposition in the Glossary), and Marius will rid Rome of the German threat. Both deeds and plots are near-mythic in daring, At the close, Marius is at the apex of fame; Sulla as yet is not overtaken by evil. Although the author's narrative flows as easily as Father Tiber, this is not breezy reading. There are all those Roman names clanking with dipthongs, and in following the witty gossip of the politicos it helps to know your censor from your lictor. As for females, there are noble Roman matrons, a trollop or two; but brainy, power-loving male principals, feverish with war and politics, dominate. In all, however, a grandly meaty historical novel--a kind of painless Ancient History I, rich with gracefully integrated research and thundering to the beat of marching Roman legions. Quite possibly a new masculine readership for this Australian author.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Morrow