Masters of Rome (series), by Colleen McCullough

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.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Masters of Rome (series), by Colleen McCullough

  1. Steph

    I’ve been watching – and really enjoying – ‘Rome’ and so I picked up Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra at the library last week. I had to take them back, I just couldn’t get into them at all.

    But I do plan to re-read Margaret George’s Cleopatra book, which I see you also recommend! 🙂

    • Jens Hoeg

      I agree eith much of the original review. Colleen McCullough has some dificiencies as an author. Conversatio may be pretty artificial, not not as bad as portrayed. Also, many persons may not really come tyo life, but many do. Colleen McCullough does not reach my favourite historical novelllists, Patrick O’Brian, by a long shot. O’Brien writing on the navy during the Napoleonic wars is superb in letting conversation become natural, letting letters come at the right time and integrate smoothly with the story. Has any of you ever tried Samuel Shellabarger: Knight of the Castille, Prince of Foxes, Lord Vanity? If not do! Here characters really, reallyu comes to life. But Colleen McCullough’s novels are very good reading. They may be, in fact are, the best around concerning Rome. They are so fact packed that they are often easy to lay down. This is not necessarily a sign of poor quality, but rather at times very convenient. What they truly lack are those passages that become classic for you to the extent that you pick up a book from the shelf just to read those 2-3 pages that convey a scene or an event perfectly and which you read again and again and again. Looking for such scens and Roman history you need to go to the Macro and Cato “Eagle Series” by Simon Scarrow. Here you really get inside persons and you are relly there when the swords clash and the pila fly high. And they cannot be put down! But you cannot have it all, and Colleen McCullough ranks very high as historical novellists. No doubting that.

  2. Chris

    As a major fan of this series and having re-read the whole fabulous saga several times, I was disappointed in your review. This is the go-to set of books for detail, colour and flavour of the times. Yes, sometimes it’s a little more work than you want, but I come out of it enriched and satisfied… every time. It beats the Rome series hands down and leaves it in the dust.

    This series isn’t for those looking for a quick light-weight read. Its serious, often heavy and rich with content.

    • Eric

      I agree… I read the series twice and I am about to finish Anthony and Cleopatra. Is there a plan for her to write beyond this book that you know of?

  3. I enjoy heavy, richly details historical novels too, which is why I did enjoy these. I didn’t find they were too much work by any means; I just thought that dialogue and characterization were handled poorly compared to some other authors that I like, who I think do this kind of thing a little better. But opinions always vary when it comes to books, and obviously a lot of people agree with you as the series has been so popular!

  4. Paolo Giuseppe Mazzarello

    Somewhere in Gaul, Vercingetorix mustered more than a hundred thousand warriors. He burnt the lands all around so Caesar would not have had food passing through them. Caesar did not pass through those lands: did not love inhospitable places. On the contrary, with his army he crossed over the Cevennes. Vercingetorix found him on the other side, where did not wait for him. The Romans descended on Avaricum, were hungry and crossed over its walls employing a mobile platform with some towers. Caesar did not like the fact that Vercingetorix went out the superelevated Alesia and so circumvallated, palisaded all around. The reinforcements reached Vercingetorix through a wood but the trees naturally slowed down the Gallic cavalrymen and Caesar took advantage of it. He loved nature and its phenomenons. In Rome, the republican Institutes were in decline: Caesar was a nobleman, very attached to them and suffered very much. In Gaul, he was only a Roman proconsul, succeeded but disregarded senate. He fell in love with the Helvetic princess Rhiannon and they had a son. He couldn’t do without doing it. In Rome, the optimates couldn’t do without doing anything. Caesar won the Gallic war and the senators wanted to discharge him from the force and then to charge him. They declared the state of emergency. He descended on Italy with his army, people applauded him. In Alesia, his legionaries had applauded him on the battlefield. He gave them a bonus, did not behave like today’s CEO. The optimates left Rome and went across the Adriatic Sea. They were terribly envious of Caesar. However they did not take away treasury money: were noblemen, too. Pompey was the leader of their army, was addicted to them. In Pharsalus, they fought the last battle against Caesar who had been regularly elected senior consul in Rome. Caesar was a widower, had had an affair with the pain Servilia, had the modest second wife Calphurnia. Rhiannon had been killed, their son was missing. The Caesar’s daughter Cinnilla had died and his mother had died hard depressed for it. In Pharsalus, his past lieutenant Labienus was with Pompey and sent his cavalry against him. Caesar did not care it and moved his infantry against the enemy infantry. The Labienus’s cavalry was disconcerted, withdrew to defend its infantry, then the Caesar’s cavalry swooped upon it. In Rome, we already see the Caesar’s grandnephew, the kid Octavius. The future years will be peaceful, a blessing on the international markets. People will be interested in business rather than cursus honorum. They will be the years of Caesar Octavius Augustus. He was an implacable accountant. His great oncle knew to check accounts but was not implacable. Gaius Julius Caesar was great because left everybody thinking about the future rather than thinking about everything he had done.

    • Mourice

      I disagree about the his criticism of the dialogue. That’s what’s most entertaining about these books. The dialogue is absolutely incredible. He obviously did not really read the books but skipped through them speed reading. The only historical novel that comes anywhere close to being as good as these books is Aztec by Gary Jennings.

      • Not sure who you mean by “he” — if you mean me, the author of the review (good tip: look at the pic on the page banner), yes I read the books in great detail and did not skim them — as I said, they were my main reading for a whole summer. I guess dialogue is a matter of taste and what sounds natural to one person may sound stilted or forced to another. I’ve never read Gary Jennings so can’t compare, but for my taste anything by Sharon Kay Penman or Margaret George is far better written than McCullough’s Rome series — however, McCullough did fabulous research, I’ll give her credit for that.

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  6. I loved all these books especially the first two, whose rich detail was a joy. I would love one on Augustus. Please Coleen xxxxx

    • Kyle

      I agree, what can we do to convince her to keep going with the Masters of Rome series?

      • masters of Rome is brilliant it keeps many of us alive her understanding of man the noble savage is perfect I am searching for first two books Grass crown & ..

        I am reading fortunes favorites for 2nd time and enjoying same

        read thorn birds also many times

  7. AS a professional archaeologist dealing with the period. McCulloch is unsurpassed for recreating the period. Many so called “Academics” don’t vene come close to her. I get my students to read her novels “Masters of Rome”

    Dr Guy Leven-Torres MA(Hons).

  8. I’m just half way through “The First Man of Rome” and in contrast to you Trudy, this is my “winter reading” project…. to complete the entire series by spring, which shouldn’t be difficult because I can not put this book down. I just wanted to let you know, I love your review.

  9. davsgril

    i ate the whole series, the first two were amazing, the others good.please can we have another, pretty please with ribbons 🙂

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  11. Marian

    I found the first books amazing. The later books cover more well known history but the first ones covered a period and characters that were a revelation to me. I read all of the books in the series during a period in which I was having treatment for cancer and it was a comfort to be able to turn to one of these books while in the outpatients department waiting for treatment. It took my mind off it and helped to keep my morale up. I was amazed at how well Colleen McCullough had researched her subject. She knows so much about Roman politics, social structure, culture, customs, law etc etc. I learned so much, though that was not my purpose in reading the books. They were just very gripping and a good meaty read.

    • Barbara Qua

      I hope you are well now Marian. Like you I learned so much fron the early novels, which gave such a feeling for how life in the Roman army probably was. Also how natural and immediate she made Roman life and politics.

      • Marian

        Thank you Barbara. I’m well now thanks to the NHS. I finished my treatment over 12 years ago. I focussed my comments on the first books because Overreader’s review said s/he had skipped them because it was unknown territory and s/he found the first one harder to get into. I think s/he missed a treat. I’d read “The Thorn Birds” some years before and always thought of Colleen McCullough as a writer of lightweight material (romantic fiction which is not really my thing). I was astonished at how erudite her work on the Romans was and how much research and immersion she must have done. It was such an accomplished and admirable achievement as well as being very absorbing. If I’m honest I don’t like the Romans (at least the movers and shakers among them – apart from a few exceptions) but they fascinate me. Reading about some of them felt like reading about the mafia. Living under them must have been frightening for many people I imagine, though people did not live as long then anyway so maybe they had less fear than I imagine. It’s hard to tell as history is written by the victors.

  12. I’m on my third reading of the serie and still can not place all the characters in my mind.

    The avantage of ageing is that I forgot a lot of details in the description that Colleen put in, infortunstely that’s the
    Only advantage.

    Is there a complete list somewhere of all the characters?

    • I don’t know, but it sure would be helpful!

    • Kyle

      To all my fellow Colleen McCullough readers–I have read the Masters of Rome series 3 times and will probably read thru them a fourth time. Do any of you have any recommendations on an equally epic series within the same ilk?

      • Marian Hone

        I don’t know of any books series quite as epic as Colleen McCullough’s, though the TV series I, Claudius is as epic and brilliant. It’s based on the books of Robert Graves (“I Claudius” and “Claudius the God”). Other good books on the Romans include; “Augustus” by Allan Massie” and “Tiberius” by Allan Massie. I’d also recommend the trilogy “Imperium”, “Lustrum” and “Dictator” by Robert Harris and Stephen Saylor’s “Roma sub Rosa” mystery series set in ancient Rome. Also enjoyable are Lyndsey Davis’s series of books set in Rome based round the lead fictional detective Falco and David Wishart’s series set in Rome based around the detective Marcus Corvinus.

  13. epic series within the same ilk?

    Conn Iggulden, Gengis Khan, War of the roses
    Elizabeth Chadwick, England
    Sharon Kay Penman, England
    Larry McMurtry, AmericanWest
    Bernard Cornwell, England, American, Europe
    Alexander Kent, English Royal Navy
    James A. Michener, American and other
    Edward Rutherford, England, Irish, and other

    Michel Folco, France middle ages, in french

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