This is a series of books so epic, the word “epic” doesn’t really do it justice. The seven gigantic books (average length seems to be about 700 pages) sweep through over a hundred years of Roman history, from Julius Caesar’s forerunners Marius and Sulla, up to Caesar Augustus.
I started this series years ago, when The First Man in Rome (1990) originally came out in paperback, and I just could not get into it. I didn’t know a whole lot about ancient Roman history then, and it was off-putting in the same way Russian novels are off-putting — so many characters, each with three long names, yet only a handful of first names to distribute among the lot of them, so you get your Gaius Cornelius Rufus and your Gaius Lucius Ahenobarbus and so on and so on. I gave up.
Flash forward to the present day, when McCullough’s magnum opus has finally finished with the publication of Antony and Cleopatra in 2007 (she originally intended the previous book, The October Horse, to be the last in the series, but apparently succumbed to fan pressure to write one more book about the great tragedy that Shakespeare couldn’t resist, closing the saga with Antony’s and Cleopatra’s deaths and Octavian/Augustus’s rise to undisputed power). Meanwhile, I haven’t been idle either — I’ve been watching HBO’s Rome, as I may have mentioned a million or so times, and getting fascinated with Roman history.
So I decided a great summer reading project would be to plough through McCullough’s series. Every avid reader has a concept of what includes good “summer reading” or a good “beach book.” Some people like their beach books to be light, fun, frothy reads that don’t demand too much intellectually. I can see the value in that, but my main requirement for summer reading is that books have to be engaging enough to retain my attention, but not SO engaging that I’m going to race through them avidly in a day or so. A long, well-researched, but sometimes dull historical saga is ideal because I can dip into it for twenty minutes by the pool while the kids are swimming and know that it’ll still be there in the beach bag when I go back to it. I won’t have been driven by the urge to stay up all night finishing it, thus leaving me without a beach book the next day. So this series perfectly fit my definition of summer reading.
However, to move things along a little faster, I decided to skip a reread of The First Man in Rome, which had already defeated me, and to skip the next two books in the series, The Grass Crown and Fortune’s Favorites. I chose to start the series when Gaius Julius Caesar, a character with whom I had some familiarity, moved onto centre stage with the fourth novel in the series, Caesar’s Women (he does appear as a young man in some of the earlier novels, but I decided arbitrarily on Caesar’s Women as my starting point, which has him returning to Rome in his mid-thirties and starting his affair with Servilia, Brutus’s mother). I then continued the series through Caesar: Let the Dice Fly; The October Horse, and the final volume, Antony and Cleopatra.
There’s so much to say, I hardly know where to start, but let’s say this first: as historical novelists go, Colleen McCullough is a powerhouse, and lesser practitioners of the art, like me, can only look on in awe and wonder. She is the type of historical novelist who sees herself as a historian as well (because apparently it’s not enough that she’s a neuroscientist too); she does original research with primary documents and then reads, apparently, everything any historian has ever written about the era. And she’s the very strict type of historical novelist, which I do appreciate: she doesn’t take liberties with the historical facts where they are known, although she’s open to interpreting characters and their motivations.
Now to the downside: if she’s amazing as a historical novelist, as a novelist per se, she’s, well, mediocre. She knows everything about her subject, which is great, but the bad part is that it kind of shows. She’s not subtle about parading her stunning knowledge of Roman history and culture, nor does she weave it seamlessly into the narrative. Her most egregious transgression is her use of dialogue. Most of the dialogue in these novels is hideously unwieldy to the extent that you cannot imagine it coming out of any human mouth in any era of history. She uses dialogue as a vehicle to convey facts that the characters would never actually need to tell each other, but that Colleen McCullough wants to tell her readers. I actually bookmarked a few gems while reading but then returned the books to the library without copying them down, so I can’t give you an example, but her characters spout paragraphs of historical and biographical information that obviously both people in the conversation would have known — it’s clearly there to inform the reader, and you can’t imagine anyone, ever, saying those words (even in Latin).
To add to the clumsy dialogue, her characterization often slides into caricature — especially with characters she doesn’t like much. She’s pretty uncritically adoring of Julius Caesar, but hard on both Mark Antony and, to a lesser extent, Octavian, resorting to cartoonish gestures to sum up character traits she dislikes and wants to make sure we dislike too. (Also, you could play a fabulous drinking game with these books and the number of times she mentions the size of Antony’s male organ — except that, given the length of the books, you’d never get drunk, because you’d be taking one drink on Tuesday and the next on Friday. But let’s just say it’s referenced a little more than is strictly necessary). Also, there are passages of military and political history I found so stultifyingly dull I almost dozed off (perhaps that’s why the many references to Antony’s endowments and other such titillating details: keeps you awake).
Despite this, over the course of so many pages she does begin to build some characterization, and the characters did, for me, begin to come alive as real people, though often clumsily rendered. Of course with a story like this, where you know the history, the point is never to find out what happens (“What? Caesar dies?! And Cleopatra ends up with Antony??”) but to see how the author handles it, whether she can make the history we all know so well as fresh as a brand-new story. With these novels, I didn’t get as far as feeling real emotion over Caesar’s murder or Antony’s suicide (both of which killed me in the TV series Rome), but the books kept my attention to the end.
McCullough uses an omniscient point of view, slipping in and out of the heads of different characters, but she sometimes makes very odd choices: we get hundreds of pages from Julius Caesar’s point of view, for example, but the moment of his murder on the Senate floor is told by a narrator as distant and remote as a camera lens. We get no hint of what Caesar’s thinking in his last moments, though it would be fascinating to know more about that and maybe a little less about how the Vestal Virgins filed and organized the wills of Roman citizens.
I’m being hard on McCullough, and there’s plenty here to be hard on, but there’s also plenty to enjoy, and if you like Roman history, there’s no way you should miss these novels. They’re not literary masterpieces, but they are towering works of historical fiction and are mostly engaging and readable. Plus, after six weeks ploughing through these novels, I actually felt a sense of loss when I finished. I didn’t know where to turn next, literarily speaking; I’d been secure for so long in the knowledge that I knew where my next reading ‘fix” was coming from, I felt like my supply had been cut off. And I actually missed the streets of Rome, and all the Gaiuses and Gnaeuses and Julias and Marcias — even if I was still hungry for a quick glimpse of Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo.