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4.4 out of 5 stars
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When they are done well, there is nothing like a fat historical novel. You enter a world that is alien and yet so very familiar. It fills you with wonder and the desire to return to that world and learn more.

While I am a bit of a snob when it comes to writing, I was told by so many people that this was a truly excellent novel by none other than the author of The Thorn Birds, which I scorned (without reading it) as cheap melodrama. So I got it and was not only not disappointed but utterly enthralled from page one. This is superb and masterful fiction, well researched, expertly plotted, and full of page-turning action and intrigue.

The story takes place in the sunset of Republican Rome, starting in 110 BC, with military threats to Rome in N. Africa (Jugurtha) and from the German hordes to the North (Boiorix). The main characters include Gaius Marius - a military genius who has seen his public career stalled due to his lack of patrician birth status - and Lucius Sulla, a poor and debauched aristocrat who will stop at nothing to advance himself. These men form an alliance that is as complex and multifaceted as it is effective. Marius' opponents are the good-boy Patriciate, who are for the most part hidebound aristocrat mediocrities undeserving of their birth right to their share in the power of Rome. But there is also the hilarous Patrician opponent Scaurus, who loathes Marius as much as he loves him and needs his military genius. Other Characters include Julius Caesar's parents, grand parents, and a host of politicians whose personalities are subtle and beautifully drawn. This is not melodrama but wonderful storytelling.

If you want to know what it was like to live then, this novel will really open that world to you. The Republic was a democratic experiment - deeply flawed, but with regular and peaceful transfer of power to an ever wider group - that lasted 500 years! As I walked around Rome recently, I delighted to think about what happened in the places I was walking by, which I learned about from this book. You get to know the fashionable rich, the declining old families, and the riff-raff of the Subura, where murderers, freedmen, Jews, and actor-prostitutes made their homes together. You witness the great military campaigns of the time, and follow Sulla as he "became" a Gaul in order to gather intelligence on Rome's most dangerous enemy yet, each with descriptions of the places that became well known towns such as Caracsone, Toulouse, and Verona. There is also the cruelty and superstition, which perfectly offsets the iconoclastic and progressive personality of the great (and arrogant) Marius. It is wonderful and fun and as far as I can tell - as an old college classics major - historically accurate.

I give this four stars only because it did not quite pass the bar of true literature for me, as do the great Yourcenar and the consistently excellent Gore Vidal as first-rate historical novelists. But that does not detract one bit from my enjoyment of the novel. I will read the rest of the series, for sure.

Warmly recommended.
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on 20 September 2004
To put it simply, I couldn't stop reading. A truly remarkable work of historical fiction based soundly in historical fact. As a fan of this type of literature, I heartily recommend this example.
Not a single character appears but is fully rounded and fleshed out; she happily delves back into a particular character's past then effortlessly brings you back to the current plot. The plots themselves are beautifully complex without being complicated. Her true masterstroke (amongst many) is in making each character human. The enemies of the books 'heroes' are not villains - simply differently minded. Even our protagonists are not above selfish or violent deeds. All is so well presented in the social and moral code of the time, without any modern comment, that you begin to forget you're reading a historical work.
Having finished this book, I was delighted to see that there are several more to follow. Until I get my hands on them I'm very happily reading the glossary!
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on 8 June 2006
If you are at all the tiniest bit interested in the history of ancient Rome, you must read the Masters of Rome series. Some of the practices of Roman society at that time were, in modern eyes, barbaric, but McCullough presents them in a matter-of-fact way, she does not judge anyone. Even the monstrous Sulla was, at times, likeable and you can't get away from the fact he was a genius. I liked that she did not just present the bare bones of Roman history, but each character comes alive at her hands. You learn why each character behaves as he/she does, and their decisions that will eventually shape the world. You can almost imagine strolling through the Subura, taking in the hustle and bustle of street vendors, touching elbows with Roman citizens from the poorest to the grandest, soaking in the smells and the hot sun, hearing the babble of many different languages. McCullough, who must have spent countless exhausting months researching this, presents her book as if to say: this was Rome - this was how her citizens behaved - these are the laws they formulated, the battles they fought, their hopes and struggles. You may not approve but that was life in 60BC - these people are not for you to judge, but take the time to learn their story and understand how the modern world was shaped.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 September 2007
Colleen McCullough was born in Australia. A neurophysicist, she established the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney She then worked as a researcher and teacher at Yale Medical School for ten years. She is the author of the record-breaking international bestseller The Thorn Birds and her series of books on Rome have also been bestsellers. Colleen lives on Norfolk Island in the Pacific with her husband.

Colleen McCullough has been one of my favourite authors ever since I read this book many years ago. Her research on the subject and her feel for the period of history she is writing about is second to none. The only slight criticism that I have with the books on Rome and it is probably outside the author's control is that the books are so detailed that the number of characters that become part of the story is so large that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of them all, but this is a small price to pay for the enjoyment the books give the reader.

The First Man in Rome begins the series and the reader is introduced to Gaius Marius, one of Rome's greatest and most successful generals. Wealthy but from a low born family. A man who has pulled himself up by his boot straps and on the other side of the coin, Cornelius Sulla, a man from well bred stock. Both men have a driving ambition, both want to be the `The First Man in Rome'. There ambition drives them forward and will lay the foundations for the greatest empire known to mankind.

This is a book of human frailties and also burning ambition. It has a cast of some of the most famous names to grace Roman history. The start of one of the greatest fictional sagas written in modern times and a most for all lovers of ancient history.
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on 7 February 2004
This book is the first in the six part series called "The Masters of Rome" and this book starts deals with two of these men. Primarily focusing on Gaius Marius who is a wealthy but ancestrally poor man, which causes him to be slighted by the powerful men of Rome, despite his being the most able military commander of his time. The secondary character of this book is the charismatic Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla is the degenerate but patrician son of an extremely poor family and despite his good name looks to be unable to even enter the senate. The lives of these two men, who are so closely related to the Julius Caesar, are related in this wonderfully descriptive and historically accurate book.
Be warned; you will be hooked on these books, but on the bright side your knowledge of Ancient Rome will increase one hundred fold and learning has never been so fun!
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on 11 March 2004
Crammed with historical detail, poltical plots and enormous battle scenes. McCullough's greatest trick is to fill this book (and the rest of the series) with fascinating personalities whose motivations aren't those of twentieth century people, but are still totally believable. This is historical novel writing at its best - as good as Renault, Graves, and Patrick O'Brian.
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on 10 February 2002
This is a fantastic blockbuster. Set in the Roman Republic in the last century BC, it begins with the political rise of Gaius Marius and ends with Julius Caesar. The characters - a mixture of real historical figures, fictional creations, and many who are neither quite one nor the other - are beautifully drawn and observed, and none fails to engage. I became particularly attached to a relatively minor player, Metellus Pius "The Piglet". McCullough's historical accuracy is astounding and she gives her readers the full benefit of her extensive research without ever becoming pedagogical.
The works of other modern authors of fiction set in ancient Rome look trivial and sketchy beside this series - even Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, which I also rate very highly, is simply not in the same class. You have to go back to Robert Graves's "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God" to find something even remotely comparable.
I am amazed at how little critical and public attention this series has received in the UK, and would commend it to everyone who is interested in Roman history or who just loves a good yarn well told.
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on 13 February 2007
Colleen McCullough has obviously spent a lot of time ensuring that, to the last detail, this book is as close to the reality of events as can possibly be. She explains in great detail, the intricacies of the most august Roman families and the part they played in the ancient republic.

It centres around Gaius Marius a so called 'Italian hay-seed, with no Greek in him', and his determination to become consul (The First Man) in Rome, and also Lucius Cornelius Sulla; A young man from one of the oldest, most respected patrician families who - due to his father drinking away the family fortune - finds himself so poor that he can't even afford one slave (imagine it!) but is desperate to reclaim the status his family once held.

A word of warning though; if you haven't read anything on this period of Rome's history before, I recommend that you do. Having read Conn Iggulden's Emperor series previous to these, I felt that I at least had a basic knowledge of ancient Rome (seeing as Iggulden made no attempt at historical accuracy, prefering good, old-fashioned adventure) but at times, the barage of names, places and going-ons in and around the Forum Romana - from McCullough's Rome - had my head slightly rotating, if not spinning!

This book misses out on the whole five stars as I beleive that McCullough - in this first book of the series, at least - is still finding her feet when it comes to story telling. Having said that, there is nothing particularly wrong with the writing, she just occasionally goes off on a tangent; trying to explain too much and veering from the original point.
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on 31 January 2008
Colleen McCullough is a first-rate storyteller, and her historical novels are particularly good. "The First Man in Rome" is the first in a series of large, readable, well-researched and satisfying novels chronicling the downfall of the Roman Republic. This is fascinating period in history and one well covered by writers weaving stories round the larger-than-life protagonists and the events they drive and are driven by. Recent examples include the detective stories of Stephen Saylor and John Maddox Roberts, and Robert Harris's "Imperium": one of the joys for the reader interested in this time is to compare and contrast the way the historical figures and events are treated by the different authors. McCullough's books are larger and more detailed than those of the other writers noted here, of course, their size and scope reminiscent of the novels of the late and much-missed James Clavell. Like Clavell's they have one big risk attached to them - that if you start reading you will quickly be hooked and find that you have no choice but to devote a large chunk of your life to reading as many of them as you can lay your hands on! In the McCullough "Masters of Rome" series, of course, it is important to do this in the right sequence - you will also be impressed that an author can maintain such a high standard of writing and reader-involvement over quite so many thousands of pages.
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on 13 February 2002
This book had me so gripped that I had to read all the sequels too. It is superb. It takes you deep into the real ancient Rome, into the minds of brilliant and charismatic men, making Sulla come to life in an extraordinary manner. It takes rare talent to make one like and admire a man who murders as Sulla did but McCullough achieves this effortlessly. Unusually the wealth of detail, the extensive use of (long) names, and the wide range of events may keep the reader on their toes but they are not overwhelming, and one is never left reeling and saying "Enough!". I just want more. This is seriously addictive stuff. Just brilliant.
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