Antony and Cleopatra — The Battle of Actium and the End of Hellenistic Egypt!

Antony and Cleopatra is the seventh and final book in the “Masters of Rome” series of historic novels by Australian author Colleen McCullough. This tome covers the years 41-27 B.C. of the late Roman Republic. At 567 pages, it is shorter than the previous books in the series. Gaius Octavian, now calling himself Caesar Octavianus, divi filius contends with his fellow Triumvir, Marcus Antonius, and Antony’s lover, Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt.(1)

In all of her books of this series McCullough’s characters speak in a modern tone (which at times becomes needlessly vulgar). Characteristically, she makes no attempt to have speakers sound Shakespearean or archaic, but in this last tome, she is a bit more chatty, uses more dialogues, and is generally less informative of other historical events taking place contemporaneously. We are basically in tune, almost exclusively, with the fewer main characters left standing following Rome’s civil wars, battles, and proscriptions.

Events covered in this tome include: events following the defeat and dramatic suicides of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus after the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.; the ensuing rivalry of Marc Antony and Octavian; the control of the seas and depredations of Sextus Pompey on Roman grain shipments; the land and maritime victories of Octavian’s alter ego, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa; the naval defeat of Sextus Pompey, Pompey’s youngest son,  and his death, the last of the great Republicans; Marc Antony’s misadventures in the East and his debacle expedition against the Parthians; Antony’s emotional deterioration and dependence on Cleopatra for money, supplies, and moral support; Octavian’s pragmatic and ruthless political partnership with his ambitious wife, Livia Drusilla; Antony’s divorce of the revered Octavia and the reading of his “treasonous” will by Octavian in the Roman Senate; the downfall of the Second Triumvirate and war in 33 B.C.; the shameful but decisive defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC; the invasion of Egypt by Octavian in 30 B.C. with the defeat and suicide of Antony; the conquest of Alexandria, and capture of Cleopatra, who also commits suicide; and the complete victory of Octavian, who in 27 B.C. is honored with the title “Augustus” by the Roman Senate.

Image of Cleopatra VII on reverse of a Silver Denarius coin, minted in 34 BC in Alexandria

Antony and Cleopatra is a better book (4 out of 5 stars) than McCullough’s three previous volumes dealing with Julius Caesar, simply because she is not dealing with her idol.(2-4) We are spared the continuous praise and adoration of the demigod, who both the people of Rome and McCullough deified. We are at intervals, but not repeatedly, reminded of Julius Caesar’s greatness and the insignificance of every other Roman, except Antony and Octavian. And so, we are thankful to deal with the conversational tone of this volume and the twists and turns of the tempestuous love and political affair of Antony and Cleopatra. In fact, the psychological portrayal of McCullough of this famous couple is plausible and supported by historic evidence. Although supported by the coinage I have seen of the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra’s physical appearance, that of a small, shriveled shrew of a woman is hard to conceptualize. Be that as it may, she seduced Caesar and then Marc Antony, the latter to a fatal degree. She is also portrayed as an intriguer and ambitious but inept ruler, who nevertheless controls Antony. All her cunning employed to gain for Caesarian, her son with Julius Caesar, the throne of Egypt and Rome! Antony is susceptible to her machinations because he has lost his self-confidence and his dignitas, after Caesar’s will named Octavian, and not him, as heir to Caesar. He had also failed to stop a 19-year-old from gaining power and becoming the First Man of Rome.

Image of Marc Antony on obverse of a Silver Denarius coin, minted in 34 BC in Alexandria

But now we are treated to Caesarion, who like his father Caesar, is a perfect youth — tall, blond, beautiful, brilliant, idealistic but extremely wise, even before he reaches his teens! Two-thirds of the way through the book, McCullough lapses into absurd adoration of Caesarion, Ptolemy Caesar Pharaoh. And Cleopatra, returning to Alexandria after a one-year absence, finds the youth drafting legislation at age twelve: “Even forewarned, Cleopatra’s first sight of her son took the breath from her body…all of which was nothing compared to the likeness of his father…the sensuous mouth with the creases of humor in its corner — Caesarion, Caesarion!”(5)

Octavian is an imitation; Caesarion is the real thing, “a true prodigy, like his father…as a tiny baby in arms, he had talked in polished sentences; no one could fail to see what a mighty mind dwelled inside the infant Caesarion.”(6) At age twelve, Caesarion, as Caesar’s biological son and living image, is turned into another earthly deity, Eros and Apollo personified, but alas, only five years later at the time of final reckoning, he will lack at seventeen, the wiles of Ulysses (or Octavian!) and the attributes of Mars. Destiny and history get in the way of McCullough’s novelistic love affair with Caesarion, as they did with Julius Caesar, and Caesarion is captured and dramatically stabbed to death by Octavian himself in his commander’s tent.

Image of Octavian (Augustus Caesar) on obverse of a Roman Silver Denarius coin

For McCullough the Republic was a dead end. It needed to be overthrown and an empire created ruled by autocracy and the enlightened despotism of Caesar and his godly descendants supported by the adoring masses, sharing the wealth of the empire. It is ironic that elsewhere McCullough had commented that fathers are very frequently succeeded by dangerous mediocrities, most derisively in the hated families of the Roman nobility, but she does not see it in the case of Caesar; as in fact it happened two generations later with the bestial reigns of the Julian Emperors, Caligula (A.D. 37-41) and Nero (A.D. 54-69). It is true that by 30 B.C. and the triumph of Octavian, the Republic was exhausted and the Roman nobility decimated by civil wars and proscriptions. And yet, it was the semblance, conventions, and forms of the old Republic within the later Empire that might have kept the empire thriving with relative freedom and prosperity, despite the monsters Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, until the strangulation death of the brutal Commodus (A.D 180-192).

In the view of McCullough, Republican rule was satisfactory for small city states, but autocracies are better for larger empires. I wonder where that leaves the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain (more akin to Republican rule than autocracy) in the last three centuries and the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries? These are the true types of enlightened self-government that brought liberty and unprecedented prosperity to millions of people throughout the globe, including McCullough’s native Australia. We are surprised, though, that toward the latter part of the book, for the first time in this series, McCullough used the word “democracy” (people’s rule), a Greek concept and word the Romans did not use, preferring res publica, for republic and the rule of laws (“government in the public interest”).(7)

Baroque painting of the Battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672

McCullough has an interesting theory that at the naval Battle of Actium, the flight of Cleopatra, followed by that of Antony, was planned, as the rulers of the East recognized they have been outmaneuvered by Octavian and Agrippa. They had been pinned down in the Bay of Ambracia, their fleet trapped, supply bases lost, their land army abandoned. Their plan was to flee to Alexandria, reorganize their forces and take a stand there on Egyptian soil.(8) But the stand in Alexandria was another debacle, more defeats, non-events, accentuated by the desertion of Antony’s last forces, and the suicide of the hen-pecked renegade Roman general, Marc Antony, and the “Queen of Beasts,” as Octavian called Cleopatra.

The denouement of Caesarion finally meeting Octavian is well thought out in terms of preserving Caesarion’s courage and equanimity in the face of death, but it casts doubt on Caesarion’s “brilliance” and political judgment. Caesarion only reaches understanding after Octavian clearly and dispassionately explains why he, Caesarion, must die, as a living threat to Octavian’s long fought ascendancy to power and security. Neither the adoring Cleopatra, for whom Caesarion was everything, or Antony, his guardian who also promoted Caesarion’s cause, properly advised Caesarion of the danger of presenting himself to the ruthless and pragmatic Octavian. It is ironic then that Caesarion, wise beyond his years, did not recognize in his own mind the danger he faced, “as living image of Julius Caesar,” and instead of escaping to India as planned, he naively marched to meet and bargain with Octavian! The result was he learned he must die and met haplessly his fate. It is reminiscent of McCullough’s dealing with the fate of “his father” Julius Caesar. She never recognized for all of Caesar’s political brilliance and “wisdom,” because of his vaingloriousness, his hubris, his unquenchable thirst for political power, his trampling of the mos maiorum, that he never understood how much he was resented by patriots as well as by moderate men. Sixty Roman knights and senators participated in the conspiracy and no one talked — and then in a final and ironic twist of fate, Julius Caesar fell and died at the base of the statue of Pompey the Great!

References

1) McCullough C. Antony and Cleopatra. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 2007.

2) Faria MA. The October Horse — Civil War in Ancient Rome and the Death Knell of the Republic. A book review of The October Horse (2002) by Colleen McCullough. Haciendapublishing.com, Nov. 17, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-october-horse–civil-war-in-ancient-rome-and-the-death-knell-of-the-republic.

3) Faria MA. Caesar’s Women — McCullough’s Idolatry and Politics in Ancient Rome. A book review of Caesar’s Women (1997) by Colleen McCullough. Haciendapublishing.com, August 14, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/caesars-women-mcculloughs-idolatry-and-politics-in-ancient-rome.

4) Faria MA. Caesar — The Conquest of Gaul, Civil War, and the Death of Pompey the Great. A book review of Caesar: Let the Dice Fly (1997) by Colleen McCullough. HaciendaPublishing.com, October 6, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/caesar–the-conquest-of-gaul-civil-war-and-death-of-pompey-the-great.

5) McCullough C. Antony and Cleopatra. Op. cit., p. 354-355.

6) Ibid., p. 360

7) Ibid., p. 438

8) Ibid., p. 473

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Dr. Miguel A. Faria, Jr., a medical historian, is the author of Cuba in Revolution — Escape from a Lost Paradise (2002) and of numerous articles on politics and history, including “Stalin’s Mysterious Death” (2011), The Political Spectrum — From the Extreme Right and Anarchism to the Extreme Left and Communism (2011); Violence, mental illness, and the brain — A brief history of psychosurgery (2013), etc., all posted at his website HaciendaPublishing.com. He has reviewed all seven volumes of McCullough’s Masters of Rome series.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. Antony and Cleopatra — The Battle of Actium and the End of Hellenistic Egypt! HaciendaPublishing.com, November 28, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/antony-and-cleopatra–the-battle-of-actium-and-the-end-of-hellenistic-egypt.

(Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough (2007). Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 567 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s Antony and Cleopatra. They are added here for the enjoyment of our readers. An unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


The October Horse — Civil War in Ancient Rome and the Death Knell of the Republic!

The October Horse (2002) is the sixth tome in the “Masters of Rome” series of historic novels by Australian author Colleen McCullough. It spans the turbulent years of Roman history from 48 B.C. to 41 B.C. Beginning with Julius Caesar’s campaign in Egypt and his romantic and political relationship with Cleopatra VII, Pharaoh of Egypt, the book proceeds with Caesar’s war against the Republicans in Africa, led by the indomitable Marcus Porcius Cato, Metellus Pius Scipio, King Juba of Numidia, and Titus Labienus. In Spain and on the high seas, the Republicans are led by Pompey Magnus’ sons, the maritime admirals, Gnaeus Pompey Jr. and Sextus Pompey. The book proceeds with the victories of Julius Caesar and his establishment of a virtual tyranny in Rome as dictator perpetuus, which ultimately ends with his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

The assassination conspiracy was led by the Republican Liberators, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, as well as Caesar’s former comrade-in-arms, Decimus Brutus and Gaius Trebonius, who deplored Caesar’s dictatorship and his virtual abolition of the Republic and the mos maiorum. The book proceeds with the emergence of young Octavian as Caesar’s heir and his struggle for power with Marcus Antonius; their alliance with the formation of the Second Triumvirate (with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as the third man in power); the enforcement of proscriptions that decimate the old families of Rome and bring money to the coffers of the Triumvirs; the vile execution of Marcus Tullius Cicero; the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C., and the suicides of Brutus and Cassius. Predictably, following the destruction of all the Republican forces and the death of the Liberators, the contention for supreme power resumes between Octavian and Marc Antony.

The idolatry of Julius Caesar by the author continues in this book, as she lavishes praise over her idol, his untarnished dignitas, his unbounded auctoritas, his perfect physique, his brilliant brain, etc., to the detriment of the book, and the entire Masters of Rome series, which has otherwise been well researched and dramatized.

Limestone head of a woman resembling Cleopatra VII. © The Trustees of the British Museum, London

This sixth tome in the series, then, continues where the previous book ended with Julius Caesar in Egypt after Pompeius Magnus’ tragic assassination by the complicity of Egypt’s ruling clique comprising the Lord High Chamberlain, the eunuch Potheinus; Egyptian general Achillas; and the tutor of the boy-king Ptolemy XIII, Theodotus. With civil war raging, Caesar supports the Pharaoh Cleopatra VII against her brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. McCullough does an excellent job explaining the interrelationships of the divided Ptolemaic House and the balance of religious and political power between the cities of Memphis and Alexandria, respectively.

Most interesting is the description of the Elephantine Nilometer used every year to gauge the expected life-saving inundations of the Nile, which predict whether Egypt will enjoy the Cubits of Plenty (i.e., inundations 18-32 feet), or suffer disasters under the Cubits of Death (less than 18 feet) or the Cubits of Surfeit (i.e., deluge with inundations over 32 feet).

It is in Egypt where we learn that the demigod Caesar at age 52 is vulnerable to human maladies. He suffers a gastric illness and then an epileptic seizure, which explains, at least in the mind of McCullough, why events went awry during the Roman involvement in the internecine war in Alexandria. Since much of this mayhem and destruction — particularly the partial burning of the Museum (i.e., the fabulous Ptolemaic Library) of Alexandria, the destruction of a million precious books, and much of the city and harbor — resulted to a significant degree from Caesar’s doings, it is glossed over with moral neutrality. This objectivity in passing moral judgment is not granted to the enemies of Caesar, the hated Republicans (the Optimates) and boni men, when they act to preserve their political power or even uphold the mos maiorum  (i.e., the unwritten constitution and the venerated and old traditions of the Republic).

Portrait of Julius Caesar on Roman Silver Denarius

Returning to Caesar’s noted but troubling affliction of epilepsy, it is obvious the author has a difficult time dealing with it. How can a perfect demigod, descended from the goddess Venus (and Aeneas) and the god of war, Mars, be afflicted with such a mortal’s malady as epilepsy? Events are arranged thus, so in the court of Alexandria a wise Egyptian high priest informs Caesar: “You have had an epileptic fit, but you do not have epilepsy.” McCullough explains the seizure was brought by his illness and fatigue.(1) Later in the book, she decided the seizure was due to hypoglycemia, and Caesar adds to his entourage an Egyptian physician who successfully prescribes him fruit juices at frequent intervals.

After demonizing the great Marcus Porcius Cato in several of her books, disparaging his intelligence, reminding us time and again of Cato being a “slow learner,” a “slow reader,” a “block head” (“not bright as Caesar”), suddenly a historic Cato springs forth from the pages of this historic drama! It happens following the defeat of Pompey Magnus (“the Great”) at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., during two relatively short but memorable events. One is Cato’s leading the epic march of ten thousand defeated Pompeian troops loaded with the sick and ato the Youngerwounded, not to mention camp followers and families, a real migration over the barren wasteland and coast of North Africa — i.e., from Cyrenaica to Utica in Africa Province. Cato the Younger has finally learned to lead men in crises, not because of any inner light as a staunch Stoic philosopher or military gift, but because, according to McCullough, Cato has read and digested Caesar’s dispatches to the Senate, later his celebrated Commentaries of the Gallic Wars!

Bronze Bust of Cato the Younger, 60 AD, House of Venus, Volubilis

The other event in which Cato comes to life is his competent administration and consolation of the people of Utica in the final moments before the collapse of the Republican cause in Africa: At Utica, Cato takes firm and decisive control, ends the perpetual squabbles of Republican leaders, and organizes the city’s defenses. Later, just before his death, he organizes the escape of the few surviving Republicans.

Nevertheless, as described in previous reviews,(2,3) the vituperations against Cato the Younger and all the Republican leaders, the hated boni, continued in this volume. For McCullough, the boni lack integrity, are driven by selfish motives, and their malice is all-consuming. Metellus Scipio, Pompey the Great’s father-in-law, is portrayed not only as a dull individual, but maliciously and without historic evidence is accused of “wallowing in little boys and pornography.” This is an unfounded accusations that calumniates a historic figure purely on the basis of the McCullough’s political bias, certainly not worthy of a noted author of historic novels, who has claimed, “In this Roman series I have severely limited my novelist’s imagination, and do not allow it to contradict history.”(4)

The Republicans, when speaking even among themselves vituperate, ” bark,” “howl,” “roar,” “growl,” “speak between their teeth,” and are envious block heads, who, with few exceptions, are maliciously and perniciously hostile to enemies and friends alike. Caesar’s men, on the other hand, commiserate in friendship and largely speak to each other with sympathy, kindness, and intelligence. McCullough can get quite nasty and vulgar, when making Republicans speak to each other. Consider what she makes Cassius say to Brutus to needlessly insult him in an invented quarrel and improbable temper tantrum: “Personally, I think you’re a gutless cocksucker — You’ll always provide the orifice! At least I’m the one who shoves it in, which makes me a man.”(5)

Likewise we should also remember from her earlier books most of the Populare demagogues — heading the list Fulvia’s first two husbands, Publius Clodius Pulcher and Gaius Scribonius Curio — have all been described as “brilliant.” And when it comes to Caesar, according to the author, the demigod walks with grace, thinks logically, speaks beautifully and acts correctly, according to the mos maiorum — while all along, historically, Caesar is doing quite frequently the opposite. Take for instance, when McCullough makes Caesar say, “government must have opposition, but not from the boni, who oppose for the sake of opposing, not on soundly based, genuine, and thoughtful analysis.”(6)

What nonsense is this? The Republicans, led by the boni, were fighting no doubt to protect their prerogatives, but also to preserve the mos maiorum and Republican governance, as well as to prevent usurpations and being cowed by military marches on Rome by demagogic generals! And a mere page later, in full contradiction to his previous statement, Caesar more sincerely exhilarates, “it is terrific to be dictator — saves huge amounts of time dealing with matters I know I’ve fixed in exactly the fairest and most proper way.”(6) And that Caesar has no more children with Servilia, Calpurnia, or Cleopatra is his choice — no fault of the perfect demigod. Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile, wrote in her review of this book, “Caesar said he wanted neither to be a King nor a God. In her new book, The October Horse, Colleen McCullough makes him both.” Precisely!

Following several military defeats upon the Republican generals, Cato at Utica finally decides all is lost and rather than submit to Caesar, he chooses to commit suicide. Caesar, with novelistic sophistry invented by McCullough, blames Cato for everything. “Without Cato there would not have been a civil war. It is for that I can not ever forgive him.” And when Caesar learns of Cato’s Socratic reminiscences and the Phaedro’s discussion the evening before his death, he supposedly rejoices: “Oh Cato with your longing for an immortal soul, your fear of dying; what is there to be afraid of in dying?”(7) Thus Caesar, who later stated he preferred a quick death, and got it by assassination, is supposedly braver than Cato, who faced death by choice and with his own hand!

Statue of Roman historian, Sallustius Gaius (86 – 34 BC) by Wilhelm Seib on the ramp of the Austrian Parliament building

According to McCullough, Sallustius Gaius Crispus (Sallust; 86 B.C. to 34 B.C.), a politician friend of Caesar and later a noted Roman historian, speaking to Caesar, “blames the whole Catiline Conspiracy on Cicero. He [Cicero] manufactured a crisis to distinguish his consulship above banality.”(8) Unfortunately on this point, McCullough’s scholarship failed her. She must not have read Sallust’s little book, Conspiracy of Catiline, with care. The historian correctly blamed Catiline for the turbid but definitely dangerous and treasonous affair, even though he was a political enemy of Cicero and populist politician. Sallust’s account is an unbiased and objective account of the conspiracy, which was a genuine peril to the Republic. Cicero as Consul in 63 B.C. had indeed saved Rome and earned the title of Pater Patriae (“Father of his Country”)!

As for Caesar’s assassination, the conspiracy was all about advancement of careers and hatred, and nothing to do with saving the Republic. According to McCullough, the idea of converting it to a patriotic act was a sham deliberately contrived for the self-advancement of the conspirators. It was pure envy of the demigod that propelled them to kill Caesar, who was a martyr, perfection personified, a demigod who deservingly became a god, Caesar divus!(9)

Marc Antony, according to McCullough, had at least a passive role in the conspiracy, so Octavian a mere 18-year-old youth and Caesar’s grand-nephew and legal heir, rightly picks up the god’s political mantle and becomes the next best thing on the Roman horizon. Octavian now receives the accolades Julius Caesar should have received. The rest of the Romans are bumbling bunglers, rapacious and short-sighted idiots and sycophants. One wonders how the ancient Roman Republic built enduring roads and breathtaking aqueducts and other wonders of engineering, excelled in oratory and the rule of law, came to dominate the Western World, and safeguarded Graeco-Roman civilization from the barbarian hordes threatening the thousands of miles of frontiers for so many centuries. Not to mention, it also provided the basis and infrastructure for the lasting empires that followed in the West and in the Eastern Byzantine Empire.

Bust of Octavian (Young Augustus)

Nevertheless, McCullough agrees with Octavian the end of the mos maiorum and the Republic is a good thing, and young Octavian, who now also promotes the deification of Julius Caesar as Caesar divus and calls himself Caesar, is the man — or rather the new demigod as divi filius  (“son of the god”) — to do it.

In conclusion, this tome can only be recommended with the same caveats I have more or less delineated for each of the previous books in this Masters of Rome series, or as entertaining reading, simply because of the suffusing political bias and prejudices saturating these historic novels, bias that remains a looming distraction in her histories. As I pointed out as early as the first review of her book series: “…her scholarship is outstanding, and her literary abilities certain; the problem lies elsewhere, apparently her politics and her prejudicial bias for the Populares faction at the expense of the Optimates and the historical veracity she claimed.”(10) To which we should add, her adoration of and infatuation with strong men and autocratic dictators, beginning with Gaius Marius, then Julius Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Caesar Octavianus divi filius (Octavian) — at the expense and to the detriment of other eminent historic figures.

Poster advertising the movie, Julius Caesar

It is of interest that in one of her tomes McCullough commented — i.e., decrying critically — on the general renditions of Hollywood movies on the Roman Republic. And yet in many aspects of their personas, Roman figures depicted in such romanticized film version as Julius Caesar (1953; based on Shakespeare’s play) — e.g., Brutus, Cassius, Caesar, Marc Antony, and even Porcia, played by James Mason, John Gielgud, Calhern Louis, Marlon Brando, and Deborah Kerr, respectively — the characters sometime come closer to the truth than in McCullough’s novels. Brutus, for example, is by far more accurately depicted in this movie than in McCullough’s book; and if still in doubt, check out Plutarch and other ancient authors! This magnificent film, in fact, I would recommend to the reader, as a partial counterpoint and different viewpoint to McCullough’s tendentious The October Horse.

Thus, as I complete the reading and review of the penultimate book in the series, I have no reason to alter my previous verdicts. In fact, her prejudices, historical bias, and her infatuation with Julius Caesar in the last three volumes — which surpasses by far that which she incurred with Gaius Marius, the hero of her first two books — have become even more serious, detracting more and more from her narrative and, regretfully, from her historical accuracy. The distortion of the conduct and true character of many of the opposing historic figures, usually the political enemies of her heroes, as I have outlined, is particularly disturbing. The student of history should therefore read additional non-fictional sources to clarify facts and personalities, and correct misconceptions that may have inadvertently crept in from depending solely on Colleen McCullough for accurate historical characterization and interpretation of historical events.

References

1) McCullough C. The October Horse. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 2002, p. 88.
2) Faria MA. Fortune’s Favorites in Ancient Rome — Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. A book review of Fortune’s Favorites (1993) by Colleen McCullough. HaciendaPublishing.com, July 8, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/fortunes-favorites-in-ancient-rome–sulla-pompey-crassus-and-caesar.
3) Faria MA. Caesar’s Women — McCullough’s Idolatry and Politics in Ancient Rome. A book review of Caesar’s Women (1997) by Colleen McCullough. Haciendapublishing.com, August 14, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/caesars-women-mcculloughs-idolatry-and-politics-in-ancient-rome.
4) McCullough C. Fortune’s Favorites. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 1993, p. 865.
5) McCullough C. The October Horse. Op cit., p. 697.
6) Ibid., p. 214-216.
7) Ibid., p. 304-305.
8) Ibid., p. 351.
9) Ibid., p. 361-408.
10) Faria MA. The First Man in Rome — The Apotheosis of Gaius Marius. A Book Review of The First Man in Rome (1990) by Colleen McCullough. Hacienda Publishing, Inc., Macon, GA, June 4, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-first-man-in-rome-the-apotheosis-of-gaius-marius.

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Dr. Miguel A. Faria, Jr., a medical historian, is the author of Cuba in Revolution: Escape from a Lost Paradise (2002) and of numerous articles on politics and history, including “Stalin’s Mysterious Death” (2011), The Political Spectrum — From the Extreme Right and Anarchism to the Extreme Left and Communism (2011); Violence, mental illness, and the brain — A brief history of psychosurgery (2013), etc., all posted at his website HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. The October Horse — Civil War in Ancient Rome and the Death Knell of the Republic! HaciendaPublishing.com, November 17, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-october-horse–civil-war-in-ancient-rome-and-the-death-knell-of-the-republic.

(The October Horse by Colleen McCullough. 2002. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 792 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s The October Horse. An unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


Caesar — The Conquest of Gaul, Civil War, and Death of Pompey the Great

Caesar: Let the Dice Fly (1997) is the fifth installment of the “Masters of Rome” historical novel series by author Colleen McCullough. This tome encompasses the period from 54 B.C., when Julius Caesar invaded Gaul and Britannia, and ends with the heinous and treacherous assassination of Pompey the Great in Egypt in 48 B.C. The book opens with Caesar leading his legions in the second expedition into Britain, “the land at the western end of the world,” accompanied by allied kings, Mandubracius, King of the Britannic Trinobantes, and King Commius, leader of the Atrebates of Gallia Comata (“Long-haired Gaul”). The campaign is directed north of the Tamesa (Thames) river against the undefeated Cassi tribe led by King Cassivellaunus. The Cassi fought valiantly using archaic chariots, reminding the Romans of the Homeric epics.

Although far away in the northwest, Caesar has kept himself informed of events in Rome by his paid agents as well as letters from his son-in-law, Pompey Magnus, who now married for six years to Caesar’s lovely daughter, Julia, has contentedly improved his grammar and his manners. But then suddenly Julia dies following childbirth and his political link to Caesar is severed. Moreover, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the third member of the First Triumvirate, died at the hands of the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C., ending whatever reconciliation was possible between the two great Romans, Caesar and Pompey.

We learn in this tome, the exceptional tale of Cato divorcing his charming wife, Marcia, from a marriage to which both have been devoted and remained deeply in love. Cato, stoic as always, agreed to a divorce to please his friend, the aging orator and advocate, Hortensius, who then married Marcia. I will say more about this curious affair later.

The adoration of Julius Caesar “the autocrat” continues in this volume and nothing detracting from his grandeur is permitted in McCullough’s hagiography of Caesar.(1-2) For example Caesar’s poignant and telling story of when he served in Spain as quaestor (69-68 B.C.) that upon coming to a statue of Alexander the Great, Caesar cried because at age 32 the great Macedonian had conquered the world, while he, Caesar, was a mere quaestor — is not told in this one or her previous books, because it would have diminished her hero and detracted from his imperturbable self-confidence. Ironically, the same statement could have been said in reference to Caesar’s rival, Pompey, who by age 24 was an accomplished general, and was soon, like Alexander, to conquer foreign enemies on three continents. Caesar’s epilepsy is also not mention as it would have diminished the perfection of the demigod.

Bronze bust of Cato the Younger from the Archaeological Museum of Rabat, Morocco. Found in the House of Venus, Volubilis

Once again, McCullough’s dislike of the boni, the Optimate political faction, particularly Cato (photo, left), is intense. And now that his nephew Brutus has come of age and become one of Cato’s disciples, he too, is crucified with a vengeance on these pages. In the voice of Caesar: “That poor, pathetic, spineless boy of her [Servilia] is now a poor, pathetic, spineless man. Face ruined by festering sores, spirit ruined by one enormous festering sore, Servilia.” Brutus is not only portrayed as being disfigured physically but also morally, an avaricious coward: “And he likes money too much… He didn’t want to go to a province wracked by war. To do so might expose him to battle.”(3)

Pompey, Cato, Brutus, and the boni frequently awake the mythological Fury in McCullough. Pompey is a two-faced ostentatious fool who cares not one iota for his dignitas, but only for the aristocratic lineage of his wives. Never mind he had conquered more than any other Roman general and doubled the size and tribute of Rome, pacified the Mediterranean, and subdued Asia Minor and much of the Near East. Cato is a rancorous drunkard, a block head, who only wants to frustrate the “dreams” of the “quintessential Roman,” Julius Caesar. Cato wants Brutus to marry Porcia because of his fabulous wealth. Nevermind Cato the Stoic was the most honest, sober-minded, and most incorruptible man in Rome. In short, McCullough makes the characters fit her own preconceptions and political prejudices, to be what she wants them to be, not what historical context or common sense would have predisposed them to be. And thus she violates her dictum of preserving objectivity and historical veracity, as she insisted in one of her glossaries, “In this Roman series I have severely limited my novelist’s imagination, and do not allow it to contradict history.”(4)

Marble bust, so-called “Brutus,” Roman artwork, 30–15 BC. From the Tiber, Rome. Now at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in the National Museum of Rome

In this tome, McCullough, anticipating the role Brutus will play in history, becomes the incarnated Fury, lashing out time and again at Brutus. Brutus is described as a disfigured timid man who loves money as a means to the acquisition of power and has now turned to Cato his uncle (and idol) and to the boni because Caesar broke the betrothal between Brutus and Caesar’s daughter Julia, “the love of his life.”(5) And his own adulteress seductress mother, the wicked Servilia, speaks of her own son, Brutus, as “Anaemic, flaccid, impotent…,” castigating but also revealing that some of the peccadilloes and vulgar innuendos contained in a previous volume, Caesar’s Women, spilt over into this volume too. And I do mean vulgar because the sexual encounters and the language utilized in McCullough’s sexual scenes, particularly involving Servilia, are not sensual or erotic, but cut and dry vulgar.

Suffice to say, Brutus, as an ultimate mortal enemy of Caesar, is not the historic Brutus, the Republican patriot and assassin who followed the path of his revered ancestors — Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Republic, and Gaius Servilius Ahala (via his mother Servilia), who slew Maelius for attempting to restore the monarchy during the early Republic. And bookish Brutus had “pretensions to intellectualism was no deeper than the skin on sheep’s milk.”(6) In short, the republican boni, particularly Brutus and Cato, are thinly veiled monsters, who only want to frustrate Julius Caesar because they suspect (imagine, without cause) that the “quintessential Roman,” if unchecked, would end up overthrowing the Republic! A very prescient thought of the impending calamity, indeed!

Portia, wife of Brutus, by John William Wright (c. 1849)

Porcia, who has always been in love with her cousin Brutus and harbors republican sentiments, is not spared in the castigation. She is described as “dismally plain and not very feminine…flat chest, wide shoulders, narrow hips…and when she met her dear cousin Brutus, she emitted the same neigh of laughter Cato did, and showed the same big, slightly protruding top teeth; her voice too was like his, harsh, loud, and unmelodic.”(6) The conversations of the boni are always rancorous and vindictive, whereas those between Caesar and his friends are always constructive and thoughtful — that is, when they are not admiring or cajoling Caesar.

The necessary contradictions in McCullough’s Caesar are daunting. About the war in Gaul, Caesar says, “This year must see this futile, pointless, wasteful war finished for good.”(7) This of course is a reasonable statement, except that Caesar was conquering Gaul of his own initiative without direction or orders from the Senate, which only approved his conquests as a fait accompli. The subjugation of Gaul was, plain and simple, accomplished with much bloodshed and suffering to enhance his own dignitas and ultimately gain political power in Rome. Unlike Hannibal, Alexander, Pompey the Great, the Scipios, or even Napoleon, to whom military adventures were carried out for military conquests or for personal and national glory — Caesar’s military genius was cultivated solely for political gain and the attainment of supreme power in Rome. When Sulla marched on Rome, he had a legitimate grievance against the State. Caesar did not, and by crossing the Rubicon and marching on Rome, Julius Caesar placed his own welfare and dignitas ahead of the welfare of Rome.

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Noel Royer (1899)

The battle of Alesia is well told, the circumvallations and battlements are well explicated and the surrendering of Vercingetorix is poignantly depicted. Caesar in Gaul is indeed an outstanding general, except in McCullough’s novel he does not take risks! The general always knows what is best to do, plans well, and never makes a mistake, none of which was always historically true. His enemies were awed and lost battles to Caesar before they are ever fought. Caesar is even idolized by one of his main antagonists, the Chief Druid Priest, Cathbad, who is spiritual leader of the tribes of Gaul, the same tribes Caesar is actively exterminating for his own political gain. Cathbad is awestruck by the conqueror: “It is interesting that a man so welded to the political attitudes of his country can also be so truly religious.” Imagine this, not only is Caesar religious, but the genocidal general was sent by the Tuatha, the pantheon of the gods of Gaul, who loved Caesar! Imagine Cathbad, Caesar’s main antagonist in Gaul, swoons over the future dictator of Rome, ” Oh he did look every inch the conqueror!”(8)

And here is the Populare politician, Gaius Scribonius Curio (d. 49 B.C.), a Caesar adherent, exalting Caesar to his wife Fulvia, the granddaughter of Gaius Gracchus: “He is a complete autocrat… but ye gods, Fulvia, he was born a dictator… sprung fully armed from the brow of Zeus!”(9)

Map showing Caesar’s campaign against the Gauls and his major battles. Courtesy: March of History by Richard Wall

The fact is that Caesar used the southern migration of the Helvetii, which he intercepted, as an excuse to march his legions into Transalpine Gaul in 58 B.C. and painstakingly conquering it; but he took unnecessary risks and committed many blunders, which were converted into victories only because of the courage and discipline of his superbly trained legions. Caesar was seriously ambushed by the Belgae tribes, and the raids in Britain were almost disasters, saved once again by the discipline and training of his soldiers. As a great writer, Caesar’s dispatches, written in the third person, described the war and his successes but not his blunders, becoming excellent propaganda.

The conquest of Gaul then proceeds with novelistic license, but it is nevertheless enthralling reading. How can it not be? And yet, novelistic brilliance sparkles, not in the slavish praise and contrived goodwill of Caesar, but it unexpectedly shimmers in several but brief occasions in the person of Cato, despite McCullough it seems. One instance is the poignant story of Cato’s divorce and re-marriage to his beloved Marcia, and the whole Marcia-Cato-Hortensius-Philipus affair. The nobility and integrity of Cato breaks through in the episode of Cato’s annexation of Cyprus. And most surprisingly Cato’s humanity is brought forth in his visit and stoic advise to Hortensius, as the old man lay dying, and in his friendship, correspondence, and final moments also with his friend and son-in-law, the boni leader, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus (102-48 B.C.).(10)

How ironic that after continually slandering the hated boni and the Pompeians, it is not the blood and guts of Caesar’s battles, nor his sexual intrigues in Servilia’s bed, or the rough and tumble politics in the Roman Forum — but the personal stories and tragedies of the Optimate Republicans, including the death of Pompey, that at times make this tome shine in eloquent prose and humanity!

References

1) Faria MA. Fortune’s Favorites in Ancient Rome — Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. A book review of Fortune’s Favorites (1993) by Colleen McCullough. HaciendaPublishing.com, July 8, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/fortunes-favorites-in-ancient-rome–sulla-pompey-crassus-and-caesar.
2) Faria MA. Caesar’s Women — McCullough’s Idolatry and Politics in Ancient Rome. A book review of Caesar’s Women (1997) by Colleen McCullough. Haciendapublishing.com, August 14, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/caesars-women-mcculloughs-idolatry-and-politics-in-ancient-rome.
3) McCullough C. Caesar: Let the Dice Fly. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1997, p. 42.
4) McCullough C. Fortune’s Favorites. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 1993, p. 865.
5) McCullough C. Caesar: Let the Dice Fly. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1997, p. 160-163.
6) Ibid., p. 164-165.
7) Ibid., p. 328.
8) Ibid., p. 310-311
9) Ibid., p. 488
10) Ibid., p. 363-391

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Dr. Miguel A. Faria is the author of Cuba in Revolution: Escape from a Lost Paradise (2002) and of numerous articles on politics and history, including “Stalin’s Mysterious Death” (2011), The Political Spectrum — From the Extreme Right and Anarchism to the Extreme Left and Communism (2011); Violence, mental illness, and the brain — A brief history of psychosurgery (2013), etc., all posted at his website HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. Caesar — The Conquest of Gaul, Civil War, and Death of Pompey the Great. HaciendaPublishing.com, October 6, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/caesar–the-conquest-of-gaul-civil-war-and-death-of-pompey-the-great.

(Caesar: Let the Dice Fly by Colleen McCullough (1997). William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 664 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s Caesar. An unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


Caesar’s Women — McCullough’s Idolatry and Politics in Ancient Rome

Caesar’s Women (1997) is the fourth installment of the “Masters of Rome” historical book series by novelist Colleen McCullough. The complete series spans the period from 110 B.C. to 27 B.C. This tome covers the eight years of the Late Roman Republic from 67 B.C. to 59 B.C., including the revolt of Aemilius Lepidus; the Conspiracy of Catilina and the passing of the Senate’s Ultimate Decree; the curious episode of the Consul Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus (also an augur) withdrawing to his house to watch the stars and cancel the legislative acts of his very active fellow Consul Julius Caesar; and the sacrilege of Clodius Pulcher, and Caesar’s consequent remark that his wife must be above suspicion. The main characters are Julius Caesar (not unexpectedly given the title of this volume), who is mostly in Rome, intriguing and womanizing, while ironically presiding over Rome’s civic religion as supreme Pontifex Maximus; Marcus Licinius Crassus, the plutocrat; Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great advocate who becomes consul at the time of the Catilina crisis; Marcus Porcius Cato, the unyielding politician and stoic philosopher; Publius Clodius, the young iconoclastic rogue; Marcus Junius Brutus, the studious youngster and heir to the Caepio fortune, who is hen-pecked by his mother Servilia; and of course, Pompey Magnus, who is at this time unquestionably the First Man of Rome.

Servilia Caepionis (c. 100 BC – After 42 BC). Mother of Marcus Junius Brutus and Mistress of Julius Caesar

The women protagonists are those revolving around the life of Caesar: His mother, Aurelia; his mistress, Servilia (and other enterprising females in similar categories); his beautiful and dutiful daughter, Julia; his second and discarded wife, Pompeia Sulla; and the Vestal Virgins. We also have a glimpse at the lives and personalities of other Roman women of some historical importance: Terentia Varro (Cicero’s wealthy and imperious wife), Fulvia (Clodius wife, politically inclined and granddaughter of Gaius Gracchus), Clodia (Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer’s wife, mistress of the lyric poet Catullus, and possible poisoner of her own husband, an ex-consul and conservative senator).

Despite the title, this novel covers the historical period in question at least in Rome (from 67 B.C. to 59 B.C.), not just Caesar’s romantic adventures. Moreover, Caesar’s Women include not only mistresses but also the close female relatives in his family and social circles, women who duly influenced his political life. That is not to say there is no lustful sex, gossip, and romantic intrigues in and outside the bedroom. In fact, the sexual liaison between Caesar and Servilia crosses into the potboiler genre and regrettably hints at outright pornography.(1) I am no prude, and will admit that eroticism in small doses in a historic novel may be a treat if done with finesse, but sex and gross vulgarities in large doses may be a put off to many readers who may have previously enjoyed the first three volumes of McCullough’s historical acumen in novelistic form. For example, the reader will come across such sexual vulgarities and obscenities in Latin as irrumator, fellator, pipinna, cunnus, mentulla, verpa, which she sprinkles throughout her book, translates for our benefit, and fastidiously defines in a glossary that is significantly abbreviated in this tome. The reader should be prepared to encounter “juicy” female genitalia before penetration and the like. Moreover, descriptions of young prepubertal girls is a bit disturbing in that the author describes them with sexual overtones, as if they were sexual nymphs or mature adults — one can only smell the odor of pederasty in the air without the author actually crossing the line into overt pornography. For example, a 15-year-old Brutus is already in love with the 8-year-old Julia (Caesar’s daughter who often is kissed by her father on her lips), and whose lips are “faintly pink as delicious as strawberries.”(2)

My main criticisms stem out of McCullough’s ubiquitous political bias affecting her historical trustworthiness and which become even more accentuated in this volume.(3-5) McCullough has been denying the existence of ideology or political factions in ancient Republican Rome, but in this volume she finally deigns to admit the existence of an ultraconservative faction in the Senate, the boni (i.e.,”the good men”), whom she ardently detests and defines as a “clique.” Typical references to this conservative faction are: “The boni were brilliant at currying favor with the knights”; “Gaius Piso was a choleric, mediocre, and vindictive man who belonged completely to Catulus and the boni“; and referring to Catulus, Bibulus, Lucullus, Cato, and Domitius Ahenobarbus — all boni men — she rails, “odd how all the obnoxious ones stuck together, even in marriage.”(6) No such repetitive blanket, derogatory references were made of even the most obnoxious, populist demagogues — i.e., Appuleius Saturninus, Publius Sulpicious, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, etc., either in previous volumes, or of iconoclastic and irascible populists in this volume, such as Aemilius Lepidus (who marched on Rome), Clodius Pulcher, Decimus Brutus, Marc Antony, not even of the conspirator Sergius Catilina, and God forbid, not of the faultless Julius Caesar, McCullough’s “quintessential Roman.” 

Bust of Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Cicero is derided with a vengeance, and his deserving the title of Pater Patriae is cast in doubt with lethal subtlety, while the conspiracy and insurrection of Catilina is treated as if it was of no serious concern to the Republic. Thus the necessity for Cicero’s Senatus Consultum Ultimum (i.e., “The Senate’s ultimate decree to defend the Republic,” imposing martial law) is also brought into question. All the boni conservatives are simply block heads. According to McCullough, Cicero’s reputation has not only been inflated by time, but he was a timid “idiot” and an indecisive “turd”; Marcus Porcius Cato, known to history as the Stoic philosopher, is “thick and narrow”; Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, “whose ancestry was far greater than his intellect,” is like Cato “thick.”(7) On the other hand, the populist young thug Clodius Pulcher is not only “shrewd” and “brilliant,” but “what he says,” in the mouthpiece of Caesar, “is usually right.”(8) Here is a telling paragraph that refers to Clodius’ circle of “brilliant” populist rogues, including young Marc Anthony, who went around the forum and the Subura wreaking havoc and intimidating citizens:

“Until the execution of their stepfather [a Catilina conspirator], no one had ever taken the Antonii seriously. Or was it that men looked no further than the scandals trailing in their wake? None of the three owned the ability or brilliance of young Curio or Decimus Brutus or Clodius, but they had something in its way more appealing to the crowd the same fascination exerted by great gladiators or charioteers: sheer physical power, a dominance arising out of brute strength.”(9)

Inscribed bronze bust of Cato the Younger (95 BC – 46 BC)

And so we are left with disparate incongruity and laughable proposition that the gang of young thugs led by Clodius creating mayhem for the populist cause in Rome are “brilliant” youngsters, whereas the  conservative senators, who want to preserve the old ways and traditions of the Roman institutions — i.e., the unwritten constitution or the mos maiorium — of the Republic, are a “clique” of rancorous, obstructionistic old men, narrow, thick heads, led by Cato (who incidentally was younger than Caesar, and Brutus, Cato’s nephew, considerably younger). According to McCullough, the boni were not patriots but cantankerous obstructionists who only wanted to impede the good, conscientious reforms of the quintessential Roman — Julius Caesar. Why? Because they were jealous of the demigod’s intellect and looks, and unjustly insisted (their prescient accusations seemed to have escaped the author) that his goal was to ultimately betray the government, overthrow the Republic, and become dictator for life.

Curiously, in the previous volume, Fortune’s Favorites, Caesar lectures Pompey on the importance of abiding by the laws of Rome. Now in this volume, we have Caesar, once again, turning the table on history and common sense, explaining to Cato why he (Caesar) favored Sulla’s abrogation of the power of the Tribunes of the Plebs because they had been obstructionists and too pliable in the hands of the odious, conservative senators, the boni! McCullough also takes the opportunity to use one of her favorite metaphors as a double entendre by having Caesar, who had allegedly not only cuckolded Cato but had also been carrying on an affair with Cato’s half-sister, Servilia, humiliate Cato without mercy. He tells Cato the Philosopher: “I have more intelligence in my battering ram than you do in your citadel.”(10)

1st century AD Roman bust of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus “Pompey the Great” ( 106 BC – 48 BC), after an original from c. 55–50 BC

Young Caesar in his teens and twenties is a prodigy without equal; in his thirties now, he can walk on water, while everyone else sinks or floats! He is arrogant, cynical, punctilious, who demeans all that others have accomplished. And yet this is the time when Pompey the Great has conquered for Rome half a world in Spain, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates, making it effectively Rome’s Mare Nostrum, while Caesar has stayed at home. True, Caesar won his corona civica (Oak leaf crown) in combat and succeeded in being elected Pontifex Maximus, but compared to the accomplishments of Crassus, who helped Sulla win the battle of the Colline Gate and suppressed Spartacus, or Pompey, who has more than doubled the territories and wealth of Rome, Caesar has done relatively little. Yet Pompey is treated with derision. Crassus, except for his greed, is forgiven, as he is Caesar’s only friend and confidante. In her previous volumes, particularly The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown, McCullough had characters, such as Rutilius Rufus, give informative and historically accurate speeches that were literary and charming. No more: Cicero has lost his literacy and eloquence, and is no longer “completely reliable”; Pompey’s letters are written like a school child; only Julius Caesar can orate great speeches and write laws as literary masterpieces.(11)

In Caesar’s Women, McCullough continues to deny the existence of “political parties or factions in the modern sense.”(12) The Optimates, she prefers to relegate to a “clique,” preferring as I have mentioned, the term boni for the “ultraconservatives”; but she does finally use the term Populares to refer to some of her demagogic heroes.(13) The fact is that a great divide had been developing in Roman society since the time of the political turmoil that the Gracchi brothers had fomented during the years 133-121 B.C. In the end, the crescendo political strife would culminate with the conflict between Julius Caesar and the Senate that would rend the Republic apart and usher in the Empire.

There might not have been organized modern political parties, but there were definite political factions, two ideological camps — i.e., the Optimates (“the best men,” or conservatives) and the Populares (” the people’s men,” or liberals), vying for the reins of power. The Optimates were fighting to preserve their aristocratic privileges, as well as the mos maiorium, the old ways, traditions, and the unwritten constitution of the Republic, opting to maintain decentralization of power. They represented the interest of the Senate, the old Roman noble families (which had provided at least half of all the consuls in the previous century), and the new nobility (i.e., the nobiles, recently ennobled plebeian or patrician families that had produced men who had served as consuls and thus reached “consular” status).

Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), the Tusculum portrait, possibly the only surviving sculpture of Caesar made during his lifetime. Archaeological Museum, Turin, Italy.

The Populares were vying to overthrow the old order, so they could become the new masters via the centralization of authority resting on one man, who could use force if needed, and whose power base rested on the support of the lower classes of Roman society. The support of the lower classes was to be preserved by the Populares by the distribution of cheap (or free) grain and games (i.e., “bread and circuses”), the breaking up of latifundia for free land redistribution, and if necessary the most radical measure bandied about — the cancellation of debts. Their champions were the ten Tribunes of the Plebs working through the legislative Assemblies and utilizing their veto power. The legions were to be loyal to the strong man, the popular general at the helm, and not the Senate. (We know how that worked out, not only in the late Republic but also later in the Empire.) All the ingredients were there for the fatal brew, and I can think of no better raison d’être for the inception of political combat and the ushering in of civil war than those two aforementioned, distinct political and ideological camps preparing for war.

As I have stated before, McCullough’s persistent denial of the existence of the Optimates vs. Populares political contest (which despite this denial is still obvious in her books) must be attributed to McCullough’s effort not to make her irrepressible political leanings too obvious in these historic novels for which she has claimed total objectivity and veracity.(1,4,5) McCullough, were she one of her own characters, would be in the vanguard of the popularist onslaught leading at the helm with Clodius and Fulvia in the overthrow of the mos maiorium and the Republic — and to place Caesar as the “First Man in Rome,” even before his conquest of Gaul!

Julia (76 BC – 54 BC) from Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum. The inscription reads: “Julia; Gaius Caesar’s daughter; Pompey’s wife.”

McCullough does have an enchanting moment in her novel that deserves mention: the love match and betrothal of Pompey the Great and Julia. The embellishment of this romance makes this story more charming than the more probable reality of an arranged political match. She is well justified in the embellishment as Caesar really loved deeply the two Julia’s in his family, daughter and aunt, and Pompey ended up loving his various wives with a remarkable intensity and uxoriousness. This is the best segment of the book and it concerns Pompey and Caesar’s daughter, Julia, more than it concerns Caesar!

In the Author’s Notes, McCullough writes: “I have done my research: thirteen years of it before I began The First Man in Rome, and continually since (which sometimes leads to my wishing I could rewrite the earliest books!).”(14) But the problem with this volume lies not in scholarship but in her over prurient style, infatuation with her subject to the detriment of other historic figures, and her political leanings permeating and marring her work.

I have given the previous three volumes thumbs up  (i.e., 4 stars out of 5), despite annoying flaws and persistent criticisms. Alas, this book regrettably fails to live up to the expectations of the previous volumes (3 stars). It fails, first among other things, because of the author’s blinding adoration of Julius Caesar, which surpasses the infatuation she had previously incurred with her primer amor, the demigod Gaius Marius, and secondly, because of her insuppressible and increasing political bias and animus permeating and detracting from her work, as I have tried to convey in the above critique. Regrettably, I cannot recommend this book as a stand alone, single volume, but it is still a necessary volume for those of us who have read the previous installments and must continue to plow through the “Masters of Rome” series to the bitter end.

References

1. McCullough C. Caesar’s Women. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1997, p. 45-47; 59-61.

2. Ibid., p. 8, 12.

3. Faria MA. The First Man in Rome – The Apotheosis of Gaius Marius. A book review of The First Man in Rome (1990) by Colleen McCullough. HaciendaPublishing.com, June 4, 2013.

4. Faria MA. The Grass Crown — Ancient Rome: Marius vs Sulla and the Marsian Wars! A book review of The Grass Crown (1991) by Colleen McCullough. HaciendaPublishing.com, June 6, 2013.

5. Faria MA. Fortune’s Favorites in Ancient Rome — Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. A book review of The Grass Crown (1991) by Colleen McCullough. HaciendaPublishing.com, July 8, 2013.

6. McCullough. Op cit., p. 32, 62-63.

7. Ibid. In the voice of various characters or the author: Cato “thick,” p. 348; Scipio’s “intellect,” p. 364; Cicero “a timid idiot,” p. 268, 357 and “turd,” p. 366.

8. Ibid., p. 313, 443.

9. Ibid., p. 387

10. Ibid., p. 399-400.

11. Ibid., p. 409.

12. Ibid., p. 656. In the Glossary, McCullough insists under “Faction” that “Political ideologies did not exist nor did party lines.”

13. Ibid., p. 375-386.

14. Ibid., p. 635.

Reviewed by Dr. Miguel A. Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine. He is an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI), and an Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002-05; former Editor-in-chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002). Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995); Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997); and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). His website is https://HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. Caesar’s Women — McCullough’s Idolatry and Politics in Ancient Rome. HaciendaPublishing.com, August 14, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/caesars-women–mcculloughs-idolatry-and-politics-in-ancient-rome

(Caesar’s Women by Colleen McCullough (1996). William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 696 pages)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s historic novel titled, Caesar’s Women. A shortened and unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


Fortune’s Favorites in Ancient Rome — Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar

Fortune’s Favorites is the third installment of the fascinating “Masters of Rome” series of historical novels by famed Australian novelist Colleen McCullough. The 878-page book opens in 83 B.C., as the triumphant general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, returns from the East after his successful campaign against King Mithridates VI of Pontus. The book ends with events taking place at approximately 69 B.C. surrounding the rivalry and rise of Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus, while young Julius Caesar is biding his time and foreshadows a political and military career superior to them both, a worthy descendant of Venus and Aeneas!

In this novel, McCullough continues to enhance her work with magnificent maps, a useful glossary, and realistic, hand-drawn sketch portraits of many of the main characters. Her well-researched novel, written in crisp and eloquent prose continues to enchant and makes us marvel at the ancient Roman world, which draws so many parallels with our own. Outright mistakes or errors of fact are few and usually minor. For example, McCullouch claims that after the first century of the Republic most consuls were plebeian, when in fact most consuls in the early Republic were patrician rather than plebeian, which is why a subsequent law was passed legislating that at least one of the two consuls had to be plebeian.

After Sulla’s return from the East with his victorious armies, a second civil war ensues as Sulla battles the remaining Marian forces (i.e., the Populares) in Rome now led by the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and, after Cinna is assassinated by his own troops, commanded by the consuls Gnaeus Papirius Carbo and Young Gaius Marius.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138-78 BC)

Sulla defeats his Populares enemies and their Samnite allies with the assistance of his great military lieutenants — i.e., Pompey Magnus (” the Great”), Marcus Licinius Crassus, Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus, Metellus Pius, and Licinius Lucullus. With final victory at the Colline Gate near the northeastern portion of the Servian Wall — Sulla attains supreme power, becomes legally appointed dictator, eliminates his political enemies by his infamous proscriptions, and for the next 3 years sets himself to reconstitute the old Roman Republic along conservative lines and the mos maiorium.
 
As dictator, Sulla used his powers to enact a series of reforms restoring the power of the Senate, trimming the prerogatives of the Tribal and Plebeian Assemblies, and defanging the demagoguing Tribunes of the Plebs, whose powers had increased immensely over the centuries. In 81 B.C., his work completed, Sulla stunned Rome and the ancient world (with very few other examples even in modern times) by resigning his near-absolute powers as dictator of Rome. He had done all he could to empower the Senate, restructure a more efficient government and court system, and restore order and constitutional government in Rome.

In retirement, Sulla lives a life of dissipation, conducting wild parties and entertaining his theatrical friends, living up to his added cognomen (surname) Felix. Sulla seldom intervenes in politics. In poor health and aged beyond his years, Sulla dies at his country villa near Puteoli. Just before his death in 78 B.C., Sulla completed his memoirs, which are now lost but were used by ancient writers, including Plutarch in writing his Lives. Sulla wrote his own epitaph, “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.”(2) McCullough shortened this line: “No better friend. No worse enemy.”(3)

The war in Spain conducted by Metellus Pius and Pompey the Great against the exploits of the renegade guerrilla fighter Quintus Sertorius is dramatically and accurately recounted, as is the famous story of young Julius Caesar and the Cilician pirates.(4)

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BC) in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

After Sulla’s death, his lieutenants Crassus and Pompey vie for power. The Senate — as always suspicious of military strongmen who may threaten the Republic and imitate Sulla’s successful march on Rome — antagonizes both men. The two men are drawn together by that antagonism and a young Julius Caesar, astutely recognizing he would need both men in the future and already machinating for power behind the scenes, becomes peacemaker between Pompey and Crassus and forges their political partnership. The book ends with the highly successful first joint consulship between the naive Pompey and the avaricious Crassus (70-69 B.C.). The boon, prosperity and halcyon days of their joint consulship, presage the lull before the storm.

This book is once again an exhilarating read but politically savvy readers must beware! My general criticisms, as related in my previous reviews of her earlier works — The First Man in Rome(5) and The Grass Crown(6) — unfortunately remain applicable. Once again, I opine this third historic novel in the series would have been a classic masterpiece had not the author continued her idolatrous admiration for some of her main Populares (i.e., “men of the people”) faction protagonists to the detriment of other worthy but historic figures, who happen to belong to the conservative faction, the Optimates (i.e., “the best”), including politicians, generals, and statesmen, who in the context of history deserve a more unbiased and balanced treatment in her novels. This is particularly so given that the author continues to claim historic veracity as she wrote in her glossary, “In this Roman series I have severely limited my novelist’s imagination, and do not allow it to contradict history.”(7) I have suggested in my first review that when she decided not to use the terms Populares and Optimates in her books, she is at least making an effort not to make too obvious her irrepressible political bias in these historic novels.(5-6)

19th-century Italian marble bust of the young Julius Caesar

McCullough heaps adulatory praise on the fictitious character, Lucius Decumius, who is a neighbor of Aurelia (Julius Caesar’s mother) in the Subura. The unsavory character is a neighborhood godfather, a paid assassin, and guardian of the Brotherhood of the Crossroads. Decumius becomes Aurelia’s unlikely friend and bodyguard in the poorer neighborhood where the family of Julius Caesar resides. Caesar, even in his twenties, still calls him “dad!” Decumius becomes throughout all three of her first novels a likable fellow and a minor hero.(7) And yet McCullough continues to disparage members of the old conservative families, particularly the Caecilii Metelli and the Pompeii clans, whom she assails with a vengeance, sometimes with a veneer of humor, at other times with unadulterated venom. The examples are legion: Metellus Pius, in truth an accomplished general, officious Pontifex Maximus and perhaps the kindest Roman of his generation, is portrayed as a stutterer and referred to as “the Piglet,” after a fictitious incident relating to his father. His kinsman, Metellus Caprarius, is simply called “the goat”; Pompey Strabo, is assailed without mercy as “The Butcher” and imparted with horrible sanitation and unhygienic practices within his army, resulting in an epidemic that causes his own death. In comparison young Julius Caesar is a “cleanliness fanatic,” whose women must be checked by his slave before he touches them, and has all body hair painfully removed by a manicurist to prevent body lice.(8) Pompey the Great is repeatedly referred to as “Kid Butcher,” tainted with the sin of his father and also, perhaps, because of the illegal execution of the consul Carbo, even though a more merciful general than Pompey would be difficult to find, judging by the standards of the age.

Head of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, “Pompey the Great,” (106-48 BC)

McCullough’s Pompey is a conniving and unmerciful betrayer enamored of (and caring only) for himself, a partial caricature of the man, not the whole Pompey of Plutarch or history.(9) She claims, “he has the temerity to call himself magnus.”(10) In truth, Pompey was given that title by Sulla, and as Plutarch notes, Pompey did not use the title officially until years later.

McCullough has done her research though, and there is usually some level of truth behind the epithets or defamations. The problem is that they mostly occur on one side of the aisle, denigrating Roman generals or magistrates of a conservative political persuasion. Consider a typical contrast: The junior conservative (pro-Sullan) consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus gives a “diatribe and cries angrily” to the Senate, but his senior partner, the unstable, demagogic, and later renegade, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, speaks “firmly to an attentive Senate.”(11) The accomplished Roman general Licinius Lucullus is accused of being attracted to underage girls and even partaking in debauchery at Sulla’s villa during the strong man’s retirement. There is no evidence of this perversion on the part of Lucullus. During his own retirement, after leaving politics, Lucullus became and was famous for his sumptuous dinners giving rise to the term Lucullan feast, but debauchery was never noted to my knowledge. Plutarch certainly does not mention it.(12)

Of the Roman patricians, McCullough, it seems, has only praise and decorous words for those families, which have bred powerful Populares politicians or a troublesome and iconoclastic demagogues — e.g., the Marii, the Julii, the Claudii and the Aemilii Lepidi. Of young Sulla, we have already said a mouthful in my review of The First Man of Rome.(5) Suffice to say, at various times the Sulla of history also became almost distorted, not only imbued of evil but also disillusioned and mostly unhappy, not the Sulla who always believed that Fortune smiled on him and cognominated himself Felix. In this book, Sulla is depicted as an old man full of resentment, more accursed than propitiated by Fortune — even on his day of triumph after the Battle of the Colline Gate.(13) Even the sketch of Sulla in his old age (based on an authentic bust of him) is utterly unrecognizable. McCullough’s sketch evinces a diabolically, rancorous, and ridiculously ugly old man (Sulla was only 60 when he died); the authentic bust is much more charitable and although still revealing an elder man, there is firmness and resolution in this real Sulla. And yet to be completely fair, I must admit McCullough surprised me, when she weaved a remarkable narrative of Sulla’s work as dictator and master of Rome. Suddenly we find in Sulla a Roman patriot and a statesman — a man who did care for the preservation of the Republic and his dignitas, beyond everything else. McCullough paints an almost pretty picture and ends up nearly completely rehabilitating the man — that is until his abdication and drunken departure from Rome and in his subsequent life of debauchery and dissolution in retirement! Gaius Marius was given a medical excuse (i.e., insane “and no longer himself”) for his murderous rampage; Sulla’s personal sins were not given the benefit of the doubt in the novels but were magnified to excess.(5-6) But let’s face it from the author’s point of view: Marius, after all, was a popular leader, and “an Italian hayseed with no Greek”; Sulla was on Optimate leader and a Roman patrician.

Bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix in old age

Besides the personal political bias, a fundamental and underlying theme to the first three novels is that Rome was or had become a bloated mercantile aristocracy imbued with official and financial corruption by her magistrates and her well-to-do business class, the knights (i.e., Equites). The problem is compounded by Rome having become a land-based, depopulated empire in which the small farmers have joined the legions and lost their land. Latifundia run by slaves and absentee landlords is rampant, as is the greed of the even more corrupted Senatorial class, who without calling them so, are by far Optimates, the boni (“the good men”), thus reactionaries and ultraconservatives, who want to preserve the status quo of the Republic (i.e., mos maiorium) at all cost. Thus the road is being paved for the justification of Caesar’s future actions, the casting of the die and his fateful crossing of the Rubicon, to bring about the death knell of the Republic.

The Roman Senate had been the rock of stability that for five centuries had led Rome through innumerable crises — including the invasion and sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 B.C.; the Italian wars; the Punic Wars; the campaigns to expulse King Pyrrhus of Epirus from Italy (Pyrrhus’ advisor and envoy described the Roman Senate as “an assemblage of kings” and exhorted him to sue for peace); the wars against Macedonia; the campaign against the Seleucid King Antiochus the Great; not to mention slave revolts and more mundane problems such as grain shortages, financial crises, etc. Yet, McCullough has nothing but scorn and reprobation for that august advisory body and venerated institution with tremendous auctoritas in Rome. In the thoughts of Pompey the Great, who ultimately dies for Republican rule and the Senatorial cause after his return from the arduous campaign in Spain, “The Senate could be bought as easily as cakes from the bakery, and its inertia so monumental that it could hardly move out of the way of its own downfall.”(14)

We are led to believe the corruption of Roman officials  — i.e., embezzlement, bribery, and extortion by incompetent generals, quaestors, praetors, even consuls and proconsuls and the whole Senatorial class of the Republic — knew no bounds, and yet these were the same men who were tough as nails, relentlessly competitive, and willing to spend fortunes for the cursus honorum (advancement in political life in the pursuit of auctoritas), brave to the core and willing to lay down their lives for Rome at any time and to preserve their dignitas at all costs. Surely there was corruption and venality in the upper and ruling classes but not to the degree McCullough suggests. Otherwise how does one explain five centuries of incredible expansion and military and political brilliance unprecedented in history? One wonders how the Roman Republic grew so rapidly into a land and maritime empire that conquered the western world; kept the vast barbarian hordes at bay; created a civilization with incredible marvels of engineering, bridges, roads, sewers, aqueducts, monumental architectural wonders; and debated and promulgated magnificent laws. And then transferred these achievements to an Empire that continued to prosper for centuries, at Rome and later at Constantinople. The Roman Empire continued to marvel at the earlier Republic and thus preserved at least in appearance, if not in substance, the semblance of Republican governance with figure head senators and consuls — and the preservation of the rule of law. In our own day in the United States we have a Senate derived from its Roman namesake; our Senators debate, argue, vote, and “filibuster” like the Romans; lawyers litigate and prosecutors prosecute like their ancient Roman counterparts, and we are not immune to bribery, embezzlement or extortion, although today’s methods may be more refined.(15-16) I wholeheartedly recommend this splendid book with the aforementioned caveats.

References

1) McCullough C. Fortune’s Favorite. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 1993, p. 865.
2) Durant W. The Story of Civilization, Volume 3, Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York, NY, 1980.
3) McCullough. Op. cit., p. 435.
4) Ibid., p. 620-638.
5) Faria MA. The First Man in Rome — The Apotheosis of Gaius Marius. A Book Review of The First Man in Rome (1990) by Colleen McCullough. Hacienda Publishing, Inc., Macon, GA, June 4, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-first-man-in-rome-the-apotheosis-of-gaius-marius.
6) Faria MA. The Grass Crown — Ancient Rome: Marius vs Sulla and the Marsian Wars! A Book Review of The Grass Crown (1991) by Colleen McCullough. Hacienda Publishing, Inc., Macon, GA, June 6, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-grass-crown-ancient-rome-marius-vs-sulla-and-the-marsian-wars.
7) McCullough. Op. cit., p. 92-93.
8) Ibid., p. 440.
9) Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Translated by John Dryden, Modern Library, Random House, New York, NY, p. 739-801.
10) McCullough. Op. cit., p. 492.
11) Ibid., p. 482-489.
12) Plutarch. Op. cit., p. 592-626.
13) Ibid., p. 162.
14. McCullough. Op cit., p. 723.
15. Faria MA. Faria: The Electoral College in the U.S. Constitutional Republic. GOPUSA.com, August 24, 2011. Revised article available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/faria-the-electoral-college-in-the-u-s-constitutional-republic.
16. Faria MA. The Political Spectrum (Part II) — The Center: A Democracy or a Constitutional Republic? Hacienda Publishing, Inc., Macon, GA, August 24, 2011. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-political-spectrum-part-ii-the-center-a-democracy-or-a-constitutional-republic.

Reviewed by Dr. Miguel A. Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine. He is an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI), and an Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002-05; former Editor-in-chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002). Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995); Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997); and Cuba in Revolution:Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). His website is https://HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. Fortune’s Favorites in Ancient Rome — Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. HaciendaPublishing.com, July 8, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/fortunes-favorites-in-ancient-rome–sulla-pompey-crassus-and-caesar.

(Fortune’s Favorites by Colleen McCullough (1993). William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 878 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s Fortune’s Favorites. A shortened and unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.


The Grass Crown — Ancient Rome: Marius vs Sulla and the Marsian Wars!

The magnificent “Masters of Rome” series of historic fiction by novelist Colleen McCullough continues down the annals of the Roman Republic with the notable careers of Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Aemilius Scaurus, Metellus Numidicus, Metellus Pius, and Marcus Livius Drusus. This second tome at 894 pages also contains magnificent maps, improved glossary, and sketch portraits of many of the main characters. The scholarship still astonishes as does the crisp writing and exhilarating reading in this historic drama. The informative and elegant correspondence to and from Rutilius Rufus, now expanded to Scaurus and Sulla, continues in The Grass Crown.

So-called “Marius” bust, marble, Roman artwork of the 1st century BC, restored by Alexander Trippel, now in the Vatican Museums

Nevertheless, we are still obliged to point out deficiencies in this second historic novel as we did with the first one for the same reasons. The apotheosis of her main protagonist, Gaius Marius, continues to the detriment of other historic figures, despite the author’s claim to historic veracity and her outstanding scholarship. Her politics and her prejudicial bias for the Populares faction at the expense of the Optimates distorts the personalities, motives, and true attitudes of the historic figures and detracts significantly from the historical veracity she claimed in her works.

The First Man in Rome spanned the period 110-100 B.C.(1) The Grass Crown spans the years 97-86 B.C. and covers extensively the Social War between the Roman masters and their former Italian Allies (Socii) between 91 to 88 B.C.(2) The life-death struggle in the peninsula brings to life the characters of the Roman leaders, Catulus Caesar, Licinius Lucullus, Mamercus Aemilius and particularly Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who receives from his legions the coveted corona graminea (“the Grass Crown”) for valor in saving the Roman army from certain defeat and hailed imperator by his troops in the field for defeating the enemy in front of the Samnite stronghold of Nola. The Italian insurrectionists led by the courageous Marsian leader Quintus Poppaedius Silo and the belligerent, Roman-hater, Samnite chief Gaius Papius Mutilus are heroically portrayed. The conflicts with King Mithradates VI of Pontus and King Tigranes II of Armenia are also outlined and vividly described. Most poignant, and unenviable of all are the personal and family entanglements of Marcus Livius Drusus and his friend-turned-enemy, young Servilius Caepio, and their sisters, their double marriages, their children, and concurrently Marcus Livius Drusus’ indefatigable political efforts to secure Roman citizenship for all Italians, which led to his fateful assassination. For the most part, all of this narrative is historically accurate, and the novelistic license of speeches is within the range of plausibility and actions comport with historic truth, significantly enhancing the suspense and drama of the novel.

If an ennobled and beatified Gaius Marius and a demonized, degraded Sulla are definitely the main protagonists in The First Man in Rome, a lovable Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Princeps Senatus, almost steals the show in her second book along with Marcus Livius Drusus, as we have intimated. This is true for at least the first part of The Grass Crown. The complaints of the Italian Allies and their subsequent revolt against Rome is convincingly and poignantly narrated. The domestic political struggle of the Senate, the Order of the Roman Knights or Equites (Ordo Equester), and the people continue to entertain, inform, sometimes polarize, and frequently disrupt the machinery of the government of the Republic to the consternation of the Senate and those Romans, Patrician or Plebeian, who upheld the mos mairorium —i.e., the old forms and traditions of the Roman Republican institutions. 

Lamentably, the historical reputation of the conservative nobility, be they Patrician or Plebeian,  as in her first book, The First Man in Rome, continues to be deliberately besmirched by the fictional embellishment of the author — all the way from the retrospective references to the Gracchi brothers and their political opponents, the conservative Scipios (i.e., Scipio Aemilianus Africanus and Scipio Nasica) — to the time of Marius and Sulla. We wonder how with this corrupt Roman nobility, incompetent leadership, self-interested Senate and mediocre generals and consuls, the aristocratic Roman Republic achieved the conquest of the Western world, halted the barbarian hordes, constructed engineering marvels, such as bridges, roads and aqueducts, codified magnificent laws, and lasted 5 centuries in which Roman citizenship was coveted and treasured, civilization spread, and commerce flourished. Even after Augustus triumphed nearly a century later, the forms (although not the substance) of Republican government with consuls, Senate, divided powers, etc. were maintained and lasted another 300 years. ithridates VI of Pontus

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

Marius and Sulla collaborate in the Social War against the Italians but once this savage conflict is settled, and new hostilities arise in the East in the form of the barbarities and invasions by Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, legal command of the new war is given to Sulla because Marius, now advancing in age and in declining years, is no longer fit for command. McCullough partially incapacitates (and excuses) Marius with a series of strokes, thus explaining his irresponsible, mad, criminal behavior in his final years. Plutarch does not ascribe Marius’ belligerency and cruelty to stroke. In fact, Marius’ illness is not described by Plutarch as a stroke or an affectation of his mind but to his latent personality. And when he was not given overall command of the Roman army in the Social War or the war against Mithridates, it was because of his age and declining years (not only was he old but also corpulent): “Marius who was thought tardy… the people bade him to go to the baths at Baiae, to cure his body worn out, as he himself had confessed, with age and catarrh.”(3) Be that as it may, from McCullough’s “strokes,” Marius recovers twice, and this turns out to be a disaster for Roman history.

Sulla was elected consul in 88 B.C. with his colleague Quintus Pompeius Rufus. He won the corona graminea, the highest military honor awarded by the Roman legions in battle, toward the end of the Social or Marsian War. It was awarded to Sulla for personal bravery, when during the battle the Roman army, facing annihilation and threatening to rout, Sulla forced a rally of the troops, counterattacked, and by his personal efforts saved the Roman army in the field in front of the fortified Italian enemy city of Nola. The crown made from woven grasses from the battlefield was solemnly placed on his head by the leading centurions upon acclamation by the legions.

The Social War was ending with victory for Rome and reconciliation with the Italians was being accomplished by extending them the coveted Roman citizenship. A new confrontation was brewing in East, where King Mithridates of Pontus had succesfully organized a conspiracy that resulted in the massacre of 150,000 Romans, Italians, and their slaves throughout the Hellenistic world.

Bust of Mithridates VI (120-63 BC) Eupator, King of Pontus, in the Louvre

Sulla was made commander-in-chief of the army and made preparations to march East to confront the new hostilities commenced by the troublesome Mithridates VI, perpetual thorn in Rome’s side. As if this was not enough, as Sulla prepared to depart from Brundisium, he learned the demagogue Publius Sulpicious Rufus, Tribune of the Plebs, in cahoots with Gaius Marius, reversed Sulla’s command and gave it to Marius. Immediately, Sulla took six of his legions and made the fateful decision to march on Rome, an unprecedented action in the history of the Republic, to reassert his constitutional mandate as Consul and commander-in-chief. He was supported by one of his gifted commanders, Lucius Licinius Lucullus. He easily defeated and routed his Marian opponents and entered the city victorious. Marius and his son escaped, but Sulpicius was assassinated by one of his slaves. Sulla reestablished order, strengthened the power of the Senate and then proceeded with his plan to depart with his army and defeat the various Mithridatic forces massed in Greece and Asia.

After a series of adventures and misadventures Marius escaped to Africa and was reunited with his son, Young Marius. With Sulla now in the East fully occupied in fighting Mithridates, Marius and his followers, who had been reassembling, seized the opportunity and returned to Rome in 87 B.C., where Marius allied himself with the leader of the Populares faction, the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who was busy in Rome dismantling Sulla’s reforms.

Marius seized the opportunity in the rampant civil strife and returned with a small armed force to Rome, pledging his support to the consul Cinna. With Cinna’s cooperation and using force and unprecedented violence, they reestablished themselves in Rome and began exterminating Sulla’s friends. Marius proved he would do anything to fulfill his prophesied and much coveted seventh consulship, which he achieved in 86 B.C. Mad, revengeful, and now criminally insane, Marius turns loose his personal bodyguard and slave army, his savage but loyal Bardyaei, on the defenseless citizens of Rome, wreaking death and destruction in the city. But with his third and final “stroke,” only 17 days after attaining his last consulship, Marius dies leaving his Bardyaei on the loose and his son, Young Marius, and the Consul Cinna in command. The city hopes for Sulla to return and put an end to the anarchy.

References

1) McCullough C. The First Man in Rome. 1990. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY.
2) McCullough C. The Grass Crown. 1991. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY.
3) Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Translated by John Dryden. Modern Library, Random House, New York, NY, p. 515.

Reviewed by Dr. Miguel A. Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine. He is an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI), and an Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002-05; former Editor-in-chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002). Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995); Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997); and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). His website is https://HaciendaPublishing.com.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. The Grass Crown — Ancient Rome: Marius vs Sulla and the Marsian Wars! HaciendaPublishing.com, June 6, 2013. Available from: https://haciendapublishing.com/the-grass-crown–ancient-rome-marius-vs-sulla-and-the-marsian-wars.

(The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough (1990). William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, NY, 896 pages.)

The photographs used to illustrate this exclusive article for Hacienda Publishing came from a variety of sources and do not necessarily appear in Colleen McCullough’s The Grass Crown. A shortened and unillustrated version of this article appeared also in Amazon.com book reviews.

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.