The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough(Cover picture courtesy of The Incurable Bluestocking.)

Throughout the Western world, great kingdoms have fallen and despots lay crushed beneath the heels of Rome’s advancing legions.  But now internal rebellion threatens the stability of the mighty Republic.  An aging, ailing Gaius Marius, heralded conqueror of Germany and Numidia, longs for that which was prophesied many years before: an unprecedented seventh consulship of Rome.  It is a prize to be won only through treachery and with blood, pitting Marius against a new generation of assassins, power-seekers and Senate intriguers—and setting him at odds with the ambitious, tormented Lucius Cornelius Sulla, once Marius’s most trusted right-hand man, now his most dangerous rival.

It goes without saying that we get to see things from the POVs of our old favourite characters Marius and Sulla but I for one welcomed the introduction of other characters.  Livia Drusa was a fantastic female character and her situation really gave me more insight into the plight of aristocratic women in Rome.  And of course who can forget the precocious young Gaius Julius Caesar, who is feared by Marius because of old Martha’s prophecy that he would surpass his uncle?  As with how it actually happened, Marius’s declining health and mental state led to Sulla’s meteoric rise up the ranks of the Roman hierarchy.  The way Colleen McCullough chose to tell the story was very telling: Marius, whose star is fading, receives very little page time while Sulla takes the main stage.

While I can see where this new expanded set of characters might confuse some readers, if you’ve read The First Man in Rome you’ll have no trouble following the many intrigues of The Grass Crown.  The Social War is sort of the main war in this book and it’s certainly not simplistic.  What fascinated me the most was the different approaches the many Senators took to the war and how they proposed to stop the Italian rebellion and discourage future rebellions.  Pompey Strabo Carnifex, true to his name (‘Pompey Cross-Eyed Butcher’ in English) was a truly horrible character that demonstrated the worst the patrician class had to offer.  There are just so many different, complex characters that if I start on them now this review will turn into an essay.

In essence the characters drive the story, whether they’re Roman or not since we get to see things from all points of view.  The plot is not fast-paced by any stretch of the imagination and yet Colleen McCullough’s writing is just too good to put down.  She truly cares about historical accuracy and her writing immerses you in the cutthroat world of ancient Rome.  From the halls of the Senate to the blood-soaked streets of Rome all the way to the far east of the empire, you’ll feel like you’re really there with the characters watching the events play out.  And that, my friends, is a special talent very few writers possess.

With the end being such a cliffhanger I had no choice but to dive straight into the next book, Fortune’s Favorites.  Truly, Colleen McCullough has an addictive writing style.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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