I’ve been reading this for what feels like years, or at least months and months, as this is the kind of book that you end up dipping in and out of – partly because reading it is a seemingly endless chore, and partly because of its girth. At 1,056 densely-typed pages (including the cast of characters, notes and glossary), it is a real beast. Fit in my handbag? Not likely, I pretty much had to get it its own special wheely suitcase. Which meant that when I was doing things like running to work or travelling abroad, it got put on the back-burner in favour of my Kindle. So maybe it has been years, but now it’s over. Hallelujah.
The novel is concerned with the rise to power of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Marius is low-born and as ambitious as he is wealthy; Sulla has the patrician heritage but not the money to succeed in politics. Their lives are changed when they marry the daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar (the grandfather of Julius Caesar himself), and their fates become intertwined on the battlefields of north Africa and northern Italy. Marius will also face very different conflict in the form of the political machinations of the Roman senate, as the old guard of Rome struggle to preserve the right of the patrician class to rule.
The book bristles with births, marriages and deaths, allegiances and betrayals, battles and even murder. However, it still manages to be deathly boring. I accept that with historical novels, you need a spot of exposition and character back-story, but in The First Man in Rome, that’s pretty much all you get. The plot points, which span 10 years, could be covered in a couple of hundred pages. But this is Colleen McCullough. She likes to wear her research on her sleeve, and no one at her publisher’s seems to have had the guts to tell her to edit. This is the first of seven volumes in her Masters of Rome series, and despite the fascinating subject matter, I won’t be reading the rest of them. Life’s too short.