The First Man in Rome | Critical Review by James Idema

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man in Rome.
This section contains 686 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by James Idema

SOURCE: "Vast Roman Saga: Colleen McCullough Tackles Marius and Sulla," in Chicago Tribune Books, October 7, 1990, p. 3.

In the following review, Idema offers a generally favorable assessment of The First Man in Rome, though noting its daunting length and large cast of characters with unfamiliar Latin names.

At the beginning of the last century of the Roman Republic, which was already deteriorating under pressures of economic stress and class conflict, two leaders emerged whose friendship helped preserve the republic for a time and whose rivalry hastened its subsequent collapse.

Colleen McCullough's prodigious novel, first in a series, is concerned with the 11 years of friendship, years during which the relentless drive for supreme political power by Gaius Marius, a war hero who had transcended his humble origins, was abetted by his confidant, Lucius Comelius Sulla, a brilliant and corrupt aristocrat. Although at the close of The First Man in Rome the two still seem inseparable, there have been enough hints of unease in the late pages of the novel to suggest, even to the historically naive, the doom of their relationship and what that entails for the republic.

That process—the disintegration of the ancient regime and the establishment of the Roman Empire—is the background of Colleen McCullough's proposed saga. The next novel, she tells us in an author's note, is tentatively titled The Grass Crown. How many after that? She doesn't say. How many pages in all? The mind boggles.

Sheer bulk is what inevitably first impresses a reader encountering this book, and one surely can be forgiven for wondering how he or she is ever going to get through it. Nor is one reassured, flipping pages, to note the densely labeled maps and diagrams and the 111-page general glossary and pronunciation guide.

Indeed, The First Man in Rome is not an easy book to get through, unlike The Thorn Birds, McCullough's immensely popular novel about Australia. But the story is both entertaining and compelling—persevering readers will want to pursue the next book to discover the fate of Marius, the title character—and the novelist renders the volatile political and social fabric of ancient Rome convincingly. (Politics were even dirtier in 110 B.C. than they are in 1990 A.D., and a lot bloodier.)

Several of the major characters in McCullough's enormous cast—the women in particular—come through as real humans facing real and recognizable problems. Sulla's wife, Julilla, is especially sympathetic. Another attractive character is Publius Rutilius Rufus, a wise old friend of the First Man, whose long letters from Rome to Marius on the battlefields are diverting as well as functional to the plot.

But McCullough bludgeons us with her scholarship. In a somewhat defiant tone, she reports in the author's note that she has "gone to the ancient sources" and done her own research. She has executed all the maps and drawings herself, including the portraits of leading characters, and she directs readers who might be skeptical about historical details to consult the glossary, which she also wrote. Trust her, she implies.

Actually, the glossary is a most worthwhile pursuit in itself. Not only is it full of appealing facts, but it is also written in amusing, accessible prose—a good deal more user-friendly than the main text. Here one will find everything from the composition of the Roman Senate to how the toga is properly draped to what Gaius Julius Caesar's dining room looked like.

But the book as a whole is burdened with excessive information, as though in striving for verisimilitude the author felt compelled to empty her files—and the threads of the story frequently become entangled in needless digressions.

Easily the most troublesome element of the text, however, is the use of proper Latin names. Most often they are triple names, sometimes quadruple, and with an epic cast of characters the effect is at first disconcerting, very soon numbing. To keep track of them requires extreme vigilance, because before long, with their repetitive meter, they begin to register like limericks.

The author explains in a special not why custom dictated this elaborate form of address among citizens of the republic but not why it must be imposed on her readers.

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This section contains 686 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Idema