Top positive review
26 people found this helpful
marvellous trip to a tumultuos old experiment in democracy
on 18 June 2011
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.