The First Man in Rome | Critical Review by Fred Mench

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man in Rome.
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Critical Review by Fred Mench

SOURCE: A review of The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, in Classical World, Vol. 86, No. 6, July, 1993, pp. 517-8.

In the following review, Mench commends McCullough's recreation of Roman history in The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, recommending both novels as supplementary reading for students of ancient Rome.

Classicists will dispute some details and some unusual interpretations of the dynamics of the period 110 to 86 BC, but most will regret only that there are no footnotes in these two excellent historical novels. McCullough supplies maps (Rome, Italy, and elsewhere), plans (e.g., Aurelia's insula), authentic-looking drawings of major characters, casts of characters, pronunciation guides for Latin names and terms (First Man), a consular list for 99-86 (Grass Crown), author's notes and a glorious glossary in each novel (94 pp. in First Man; 74 pp. in Grass Crown).

The extensive glossaries (with singulars and plurals for most Latin words) constitute a lively course in Roman history, though not everything is precisely correct; e.g. Plautus did not, as McCullough says, shift his locales from Greece to Rome. She gives conflicting accounts of Jugurtha's death s.v. Jugurtha and s.v. Oxyntas, and cursus honorum would be better translated as "sequence of offices" than "way of honor." But, in 1600 pages of story, based on original sources and secondary analyses, she is essentially correct on verifiable historical details and understands Roman government and plebeian/patrician (as well as nobilis) distinctions.

McCullough depicts historical figures we all feel a proprietary interest in (Marius, Sulla, Drusus) but parts company with many historians in interpreting motives and relationships. For example, most would not see Marius (titular character in First Man) and Sulla (who gains the titular grass crown in the sequel) as cooperating so amicably all through the Jugurthan and Cimbric wars and the Saturninus fiasco. First Man ends with Sulla's arm affectionately around Marius' shoulder, and, though their relations are "tensely wary" as Grass Crown opens, they warm again as both see the danger of Mithridates and support M Livius Drusus in his efforts for the Italian allies. In fact, this accord between Marius and Sulla lasts almost 600 pages (through most of the Social War); according to McCullough, Sulla begins to hate Marius for upstaging him at his procession as new consul to the Senate and resolves to ruin Marius for stealing the affection of the crowd from him. After that we have the Sulpician legislation, Sulla's march on Rome and the Marian proscriptions, ended by Marius' death.

As novels, both read well, though some detail (e.g., troop movements in the Marsic war) may bog readers down. Nonclassicists will refer frequently to those casts of characters provided. First Man has the big battles (military and political) straight out of history, but also much about less crucial players. For example, from the charming but steel-backboned Aurelia, mother of Julius Caesar and well-developed as a feisty young bride who owns and manages a 9-story Subura insula, we see a lot of daily life. P Rutilius Rufus, uncle to both Aurelia and Drusus and (contra Plutarch) a close personal and military friend of Marius, writes many of the letters McCullough uses well in both novels to communicate information compactly. Occasionally McCullough's help to the non-classicist reader is intrusive: a tribune of the plebs would never call out, "I declare a contio, a preliminary discussion." But McCullough tells the stories well and creates interesting characters—some witty, brave, warm, some evil and cruel, some you like and some you hate (and a few you have mixed emotions about, such as Sulla and M Aemilius Scaurus, Princeps Senatus). Classicists will recognize some very young characters who will be important on the historical scene (and McCullough's sequels?) decades later (e.g. Cicero as a talkative 13-year old, or a very young and precocious Julius Caesar).

Unlike the five Roman historical mystery novels I recently reviewed (CW 86.1), even in paperback the two McCullough novels may be too long to use as supplementary reading for Roman history classes, though anyone teaching the post-Gracchan period should at least recommend both novels to students who want to look more closely at the events of these 25 years. Much of the material is, of course, fiction, not verifiable history, but it may help that period come alive for students who otherwise find Drusus dull or the Social war unintelligible.

The sequel will be titled The Rising Sun (presumably Pompey or Caesar).

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This section contains 737 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Fred Mench