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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 4 May 2017
This is the first in a series on Roman history. It deals with Gaius Marius' rise to power, and the emerging career of Sulla. It deals with the African campaign against Jugurtha and the fighting against the Germans (although probably not all of them).
I read The October Horse in the past, and must have liked it enough to order the first book in the series, but The First Man in Rome is a definite disappointment. This falls very much into the same trap that gets every one of the Game of Thrones books. Just when something good happens, just when the pace picks up, the narrative kills the drama stone dead. The story in itself is great, but it could so do without the endless descriptions of the various wives before they marry, the political detail could do with being reduced, and the letters, oh god the letters. Too much, really. There are repeated incidents during the many political scenes where one of the characters shouts 'get on with it.' And that's really what I as a reader felt about this book, sadly on too many occasions.
Today's historical fiction authors all face the same two problems, and they're called Conn Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell. If you can't match either of their standards, you're in big trouble (apart from the disastrously boring Rebel, part 1 of Starbuck).
Sadly not a great start to this series, which if memory serves, does get better, although I'm not sure if I want to inflict the others on me just to find out.
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on 25 June 2017
Definitely another good edition of the ongoing saga of Rome
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on 8 June 2017
Very good value
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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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on 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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 February 2007
McCullough is superb on ancient Rome and genuinely does bring it to life without resorting to any spurious and trite fictional claims that the Romans were just like us. She has read all the sources and sticks to them, simply fleshing out the characters and events so that they make narrative sense. This isn't by any means an easy read, since she delves into the intracacies of senate debates and internal politics, but it is quite unlike anything else that has been published on Rome.

This is the first volume of her massive 6 book series, and probably covers the least-known period of Republican history: the rise of Marius and Sulla, and the transformation of the Roman army, arguably the first steps towards civil war and the fall of the Republic.

There are times where (in this book) the characters slightly tend to the soap opera, but they are few. Overall, a superb read. This only lost 1 star because the middle books are even better!
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on 3 February 2010
After reading another well known Rome fiction series (the Emperor series by Conn Iggulden), i picked up the First Man in Rome and found it hard to put down for more than a few hours. From the first page you read until the last, you are sucked into the Roman world. You start to feel the same feelings as the characters are feeling at that moment in the book. The author goes into painstaking detail about everything from the characters appearance and life to the decor of the rooms they are in. Whilst the book is classed as a fiction book, it is a history lesson too. I am currently on book 6/7 of the series and have learned an epic amount of Roman history just from reading these books. If you are interested in Roman history and like reading Roman fiction literature, i strongly recommend this book and the rest in the series.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 November 2010
Many reviewers have commented on McCullough's scholarship. (Especially on Amazon.com. Why is it their reviews are always much better-written, more interesting than ours? Are they better educated, or are we dumb? Or is it that we don't really think we have anything good to say?)

However the consensus appears to back up her own claim that it is solid, although she has added guesswork to what is known. That seems fair enough, although some reviewers question some of her suppositions, including for instance much of the early history of Sulla.

Reviewers have also commented on her good character development, which I mostly agree with. For me the chief drama of the book is the relationship between Marius and Sulla, both men with something to prove. Their adventures illuminate especially the contradictions in the Roman Republic between the old Roman nobility, the people, the army, the Italians and so on. The characters of the Africans and Germans are also brought to life brilliantly, and the vignette of Sulla in Germany is a treasure.

McCullough may not be the greatest of writers but her focus on her material is sure fire. What is going on here is a battle not just between remarkable and gifted individuals but between systems of government. The corrupt nobility protests about wise guys like Sulla and Marius who will manipulate the system, particularly using the powers of the plebs and the Tribunes to overrule Senate, but can't offer the creativity and energy to match them. Not many years later Caesar marches in Marius's footsteps and sweeps the old system away.

Personally I find this a fascinating story, living as we do in an age when democracy which failed in Greece and Rome is being touted all over the world as the future. Perhaps it is, but contemplation of errors which were made before can't do any harm can they?

Another feature of the book is the fascinating situation of women. Female characters like Livia Drusus and Aurelia are very well drawn.

In summary for me despite the average quality of the writing what makes this book an utter triumph is the holding together of the personal, political, military, the whole web of life. McCullough's attention to detail may well be the secret. She knows about military uniforms, real estate, food, the political infrastructure, transport etc etc etc.

A tremendous job.
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