‘The First Man in Rome’ is a historical novel set in the late Roman Republic. It covers the career of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and the life of the parents of Julius Caesar. The detail and research that went into it is phenomenal. It covers a lot of ground and goes into a lot of detail, while remaining fast and exciting. It focused on a few key players, but details the politics and wider world within which they act as well. In some ways it was a challenging read (mainly due to the names…), but overall, I really enjoyed it.

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The story starts off with the Julius Caesars, and how Gaius Marius comes into their family. This was perhaps the most challenging part, as I didn’t realise there were so many Julius Caesars. The names of the characters are long, and most people have similar names, particularly in the same family. There’s actually a nice section in the glossary on roman names. It took me a while to sort out who everyone was, but there were times, particularly with the minor characters, I’d confuse fathers and sons (because they have the same names…).

The story starts off with the Caesars, and Gaius Marius and his thwarted ambition. Regularly accused of being Italian and not Roman, and speaking Greek poorly, Marius’ career has come to a standstill. Ambition and power are key themes throughout the novel. Corruption, arrogance, and failure also play into it, as Rome suffers a series of devastating military defeats. The details on the politics, and the way the Roman Republic functions, were incredible. There are big military battles in the story, but most of the battles are in the political and legal arena. Despite the potential for this to be dry and boring, these parts were exciting and a real highlight of the novel.

In broad outlines, apparently the book is quite accurate. The glossary is quite clear on which parts Colleen McCullough made up and why. After finishing the book, I read the glossary. I appreciated the transparency, and was impressed with the author’s scholarship. It also made me want to learn more about Roman history.

Overall, the book is an impressive achievement. The detail on the functioning of the Republic, and the minor details of daily life were fascintating and intriguing. There were also some surprisingly funny bits, especially in the letters from Publius Rutilius Rufus to Marius. The book focussed mainly on a few key characters, but it effectively conveys the wider picture of the Roman Republic. It was tough reading in some places, particularly with some of the names, though I got past that pretty quickly. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction (or fiction in general), and enjoys political or more detailed books.

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