The First Man in Rome

Book review by Deane Barker tags: fiction, history, roman-empire

This is a “historical novel.” It’s sort of fiction, but sort of not. It’s a narrative of history, but apparently quite accurate.

The book mainly follows two men: Gaius Marius (a real person) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (also a real person), during the period of 110 - 100BC in Ancient Rome and its related battlefields. The two major events it covers are the conflicts in Africa during the Jugurthine War and the conflicts with the Gauls.

The basic plot is about the rise of both Marius and Sulla – Marius would eventually be elected consul six times, which was wildly unprecedented. He became a hero to Rome, and was “The First Man in Rome,” which is a title that he wants, but the author doesn’t quite define what it is. I think it was just an informal affectation?

There’s a lot of politics here. I got a little lost in the intricacies of Roman government. I never quite understood all the titles: consul, proconsul, tribute, praetor, quastor, legate, etc. You should be prepared to look that stuff up. (There is a lengthy glossary at the back of the book, but I was reading on Kindle, which made this hard to refer to and find my way back. Also, it was wordy, and I didn’t think it was particularly helpful.)

There’s also a lot of…drama. Lots of marriages and sex and murder and intrigue and long debates about class and social status and citizenship. The Romans lived like a soap opera.

The names are a real problem. There’s an entire appendix that covers the naming constructs of the Romans, and I recommend you read this before you start the narrative. There are a lot of men named “Gaius” and “Lucius,” and the names are lengthy and very hard to differentiate.

(Not even kidding: one person is named: “Lucius Licinius Lucullus.” I gather that “Lucius” was the “Bob” of that era.)

The book also skips around geographically. It’s centered in Rome, but there are extended passages in Africa and north (I think?) of Italy. Also, characters run around Italy quite a bit, so be prepared to consult a map (several are included).

Honestly, at any given moment, I had only a vague idea what was going on. Again, the names run together, and there are a lot of people to keep track of.

I would have really enjoyed some date and time stamping on chapters or sections so I could re-orient myself. (It would have to be sections, because there are technically only, like, seven chapters – each one was hundreds of pages long. But there are smaller sections, denoted with a little column graphic.)

I’m glad I read this because it introduced me to a lot of history and concepts. I spent a lot of time looking things up, and there’s value in that.

But, be forewarned, this novel isn’t for the faint-of-heart. To really get it, you will need to work for it.

(Honestly, I think the format might have been a problem. I took this on a trip to Europe on Kindle, and that format tends to “flatten” things and suck the life out of them. Later, I bought the hardcover for my library, and paging through that made me think it would have been a different reading experience entirely.)

Book Info

Colleen McCullough
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A softcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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