The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough

The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough(Cover picture courtesy of Avon Romance.)

When the world cowered before the legions of Rome, two extraordinary men dreamed of personal glory: the military genius and wealthy rural “upstart” Marius, and Sulla, penniless and debauched but of aristocratic birth.  Men of exceptional vision, courage, cunning, and ruthless ambition, separately they faced the insurmountable opposition of powerful, vindictive foes.  Yet allied they could answer the treachery of rivals, lovers, enemy generals, and senatorial vipers with intricate and merciless machinations of their own—to achieve in the end a bloody and splendid foretold destiny…and win the most coveted honor the Republic could bestow.

After reading so many Young Adult books of late, reading something as heavy as The First Man in Rome was a refreshing challenge.  Trust me, even if you know your Roman history well, this is a book that you should not read when you’re tired.  You will forget all of the plot points.

I first fell in love with Colleen McCullough’s writing after reading The Song of Troy because her portrayals of historical characters were amazing.  She made it feel that not only was I alongside these famous people, but that I truly understood them.  Well, she does the exact same thing in The First Man in Rome.  From Marius’ brilliant leadership in the battlefield to his dismal political career, I really feel like I know the legend as a man.  We see the soft side of him when it comes to Julia, his more ruthless streak at the end of the novel and his never-ending ambition to become the First Man in Republican Rome.  He’s a larger-than-life character and yet he seems extremely accessible.  Contrast that to the brilliant, but debauched young patrician Sulla who develops the ruthless streak he was known for later in life.  These two have an unlikely friendship, but it’s one that I absolutely love because it shows that not everything is in black and white.

If you don’t know much about Roman history, I can see where you would get confused by The First Man in Rome.  Thankfully, Colleen McCullough includes a well over 200 page index that tells you everything from the English translations of Latin curses (very creative!) to the history behind many of the events characters refer to.  But if you’re like me and have someone like Mike Duncan to thank for your knowledge of ancient Rome, you’ll just breeze through The First Man in Rome.  In terms of historical accuracy, I can’t pick away at it.  Everything is well researched and McCullough does an excellent job of defending her hypotheses in places where there are gaps in the historical record.

I wouldn’t call this a fast-paced book, but it’s not meant to be either.  It’s meant to be a sprawling novel in order to draw you in to the cutthroat world of Roman politics and to explore the lives of the main players.  The strange thing about Colleen McCullough’s books is that they have this sort of grand, epic feel to them that I can’t quite explain.  It’s like you know they’re on par with classic novels, but there’s no sense that McCullough was trying really hard for that ‘classic novel’ status.  Her books feel like epic novels in an effortless sort of way and that’s really part of the attraction of her writing: it’s larger-than-life, yet accessible to most readers.  That’s why, despite the intimidating length and amount of time I need to spend on them, I’ll certainly be continuing her Masters of Rome series.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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  1. Phillip McCollum

    I really need to pick up some of Colleen’s books. I like to say I’m a historical fiction fan, but yet I’ve never read anything she’s written. Thanks for the reminder! Do you have any recommendations on where I should start?

    • Carrie Slager

      You could probably start with her take on the Trojan War: The Song of Troy. (The link is to my review.) It is truly amazing and it’s only about 600 pages if my memory serves me. Or, you could even start with The First Man in Rome, which is close to 1000 pages. It’s the first book in her Masters of Rome series.

      Apparently her novel set in Australia, The Thorn Birds is good, but I can’t personally recommend that one. My impression is that it’s more of a romance novel.

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