Sixth and last in McCullough’s series detailing the death throes of the Roman Republic (Caesar, 1997, etc.): an intelligent page-turning epic that seamlessly mixes love, gore, and ambition.
Here, the focus is on the last years of Caesar’s life as enemies plot to kill him, and the young Cleopatra bears his son. The mood now is that of a Mediterranean Götterdämmerung: the skies are sunny, the sea wine-dark, but an end is imminent: it won’t be long before Caesar, who has worked hard to preserve and make Rome great, will be cut down by lesser mortals. McCullough, whose research is exemplary, as always, tells the story with contemporary flair and persuasive psychological insights, taking up the action in October 48 B.C. Determined to destroy Caesar and restore the old Republic, Pompey, Brutus, and Cato are mustering their armies in the eastern provinces. They don’t understand, as Caesar does, that Rome must change or die: the old ways are too reactionary for a grand city with an enlightened role to play in the world. Reluctantly, Caesar heads to Alexandria to secure Cleopatra’s support and acquire funds and materiel. While Cleopatra falls in love with Caesar and bears his son, Caesar plots and plans: he changes the calendar so that it follows the seasons rather than the moon, expands Roman citizenship, and enacts progressive laws. Though Pompey is killed and Cato commits suicide, Brutus, once back in Rome and egged-on by wife Portia, is soon part of the conspiracy—as is Mark Antony—to kill Caesar. The familiar events from Shakespeare are tweaked so that the death of Caesar becomes even more tragic as the conspirators begin destroying all he had accomplished. They raid the treasury for themselves and fail to take care of the legions. But they soon must contend with the opposition of Caesar’s unlikely heir, 18-year-old Octavius. As ambitious as his uncle, he brilliantly outwits them all as the battles and bloodshed continue.
A rousing and richly satisfying take on some of history’s real beings.